Thursday, December 8, 2016

Binge watches of 2016: Ranked

This post may lead you to believe that I have far too much time on my hands. But allow me to defend myself.

While most of you normal people were watching The Voice, Dancing with Stars, Madame Secretary, This is Us, or the final episodes of The Good Wife, I was watching the series listed below.  Unlike Homer here, I never spent an entire day on the couch surrounded by pizzas and chips with my weary eyeballs glued to episode after episode of a single show.  I have, however, watched 2-4 episodes of one series per night for enough nights in a row to finish a season (or, in some cases, the entire series.)

I'm a bit of a serial obsessive by nature, given to finite periods of intense enthusiasm for one particular filmmaker, actor, author, performer or genre. I sate myself on the work of one artist at a time and then move on.  I was born to binge-watch.

And as I noted in the preceding post, 2016 was a record year of binges for me.  I completed 11 major binges in 2016 and have another in progress this week.  The list below is strictly a reflection of my own personal tastes and preferences; there are no Marvel franchise shows here, no Stranger Things, no Goliath, no Sense8.  Even so, I think I covered a lot of ground.

Here are the shows I watched in ascending order of preference:

In progress now: Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United Statues (Netflix)

I'm just three episodes in, and Stone has already thoroughly excoriated Harry Truman, laying full blame for the Cold War at his feet, while suggesting that Joseph Stalin wasn't all that bad of a guy. Yes, it's every bit as provocative and controversial as you'd imagine, but Stone also delivers a good bit of compelling evidence for his claims. This series was first broadcast in 2012 on Showtime; I'm watching it with both an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism.

11. Crisis in Six Scenes (Amazon)

More evidence that Woody Allen has just about lost his comedic touch, albeit with a couple of bright spots.  First there's the wonderful Elaine May, lobbing some obvious but inspired improvisations at Allen that he just barely manages to keep afloat. (Allen plays a former ad man; May occasionally name checks the products for which he wrote copy, including 'orthopedic ice cream' and "Earl of Sussex frozen fish balls.") Also, the final episode has every character in the entire series descending on one house, and Allen's directorial/traffic control skills are kind of dazzling as he moves the actors from room to room and scene to scene.  Allen and May play a long-married couple looking for a little excitement and finding it by sheltering a hippie revolutionary on the lam (Miley Cyrus, who seems to be enjoying herself, but isn't remotely believable).  It feels like it a mildly amusing artifact from the 1960s rather than a contemporary film that is merely set in that era.  That's something I guess, but it's not enough.

10. Downton Abbey, Seasons 1-6 (Amazon)

Oh, Crawley family and your house full of servants, I just can't quit you!  So just days after the final Downton episode was broadcast on PBS, I started revisiting the series from the beginning, show by show, all the way to the resplendently happy ending.  Watching the shows on a daily basis for few weeks really brought home to me just how ritualized and regimented the upper class British life was (that daily gong when it was time to dress for dinner, the appointed time for children to be with their parents, and so on). Also, it reminded me that, once every season, Lord Grantham did something noble and beneficent for Mrs. Patmore that reduced her to quivering tears of working-class gratitude. It's not ranked this low because I didn't enjoy the binge; it's ranked this low because it's the only one I'm embarrassed to have done.

9.  One Mississippi (Amazon)

I really wanted to like this series more, but that would require Tig Notaro to develop an acting range extending beyond "deadpan." The low-key bemusement Notaro employs in her stand-up work is less effective when she's meant to be the emotional center of an often sad and painful story. This autobiographical dramedy has her returning to her Louisiana hometown after her mother's death, and it's well conceived and well written. But Notaro, is overshadowed by the other actors, particularly the very fine John Rothman as her emotionally constipated stepfather.

8.  Transparent, Season 3 (Amazon)

After an impressive debut and a flat-out brilliant second season, Transparent foundered and flailed this year and didn't always satisfy.  The third season had less to do with issues of gender identity than with the clueless white privilege and unbridled narcissism of the entire Pfeffernan clan, but it wasn't entirely without its moments of transcendence.  I just can't anymore with Sarah's repeated journeys up her own ass or Josh's trembling lower lip and watery eyes after yet another person walks away from his stupidity and selfishness, the fine performances of Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass notwithstanding. What I did like: Shelly's triumphant one-woman show (Judith Light for the Emmy!); Rabbi Raquel's balls-out, raging takedown of the insufferable Sarah (another reason to love Kathryn Hahn!); Cherry Jones' wild irascibility all season long. Also Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman, doing everything they do in every show. The plotlines may be all over the place, but the cast remains uniformly impeccable.

7.  Catastrophe, Season 2 (Amazon)

Bawdy, tender, raucous, foul-mouthed, romantic, cynical and very funny: Catastrophe is all of that, and sometimes all of that in the very same moment.  When last we saw Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, their wedding night was about to be interrupted by the arrival of a baby they conceived in their first weekend together.  Season two opens a year or so later, with a second baby on the way and the breakneck pace of their smart-ass-bickering-leading-to-hot-sex still intact.  With dizzying comic precision, Delaney and Horgan pile layers of escalating, R-rated screwball absurdity on top of sharply honed insights into marriage, work and parenthood. The season ends on a tantalizing cliffhanger that has me eagerly awaiting Season 3.  With just six episodes, each under 30 minutes,, Catastrophe is the closest thing to instant gratification that a binge watch can deliver.

6. Bojack Horseman, all 3 seasons (Netflix)

I would never have guessed that a cartoon series about a self-loathing, alcoholic former sitcom star (who also happens to be a horse) could be this engrossing or this deep.  Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has imagined a bizarre, funhouse-mirror image of Hollywood where animals and humans work together on both sides of the camera, and inter-species romantic connections are no big deal. (Even a cat and mouse find true love together at one point.) A rapid-fire blend of puns, cheap gags, showbiz satire, and inspired absurdities are seamlessly woven into some genuinely bleak and emotionally devastating storylines. Season three includes one nearly dialogue-free episode in which Bojack struggles to return a lost baby seahorse to its family; it's no exaggeration to call that episode Chaplinesque in both its comic invention and its pathos.  I stand in awe of the mind that conceived this show and I can't wait to see where it goes in season four.

5.  The Larry Sanders Show, all 6 seasons (HBO Now)

In fairness, this wasn't quite a binge watch for me; I worked my way through the series in random, rather than chronological, order over roughly a month's time, but I got it all in.  This groundbreaking series from the '90s wasn't available anywhere for years till HBO released it to their streaming app in September.  Twenty-four years after its debut, it remains brilliantly funny. The comic triumvirate of Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn remain peerless in their command of character-driven 'cringe' comedy. Together they milk more genuine belly laughs out of neurosis, arrogance, ego and showbiz insecurity than I'd have ever thought possible.

4.  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Season 1 (Hulu)

Let us now praise Rachel Bloom, the ridiculously talented star/co-creator of this wholly original and delightfully cartoony TV romcom. Bloom plays an unhappy lawyer who ditches a partnership in New York for the California hometown of her long-ago drama camp crush, where she slyly infiltrates his social circle in an effort to win him back.  Every episode includes inspired and insanely funny musical interludes - production numbers that deftly parody everything from Beyonce's Lemonade to The Music Man and Gypsy. Blooms sings like a Broadway diva and dances like an old-time hoofer, but her sensibilities and apologetically off-color humor are solidly rooted in contemporary sensibilities. Her show is so fast-paced and funny that you might not notice how it subversively explores, then overturns, all the standard tropes of romantic comedy. Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna invest even their goofiest characters and silliest set pieces with deceptively deep emotional truths.  In short, it's lots of fun, but also more than meets the eye. I'm now watching Season Two the old-fashioned way: one weekly broadcast episode at a time.

3.  Orange is the New Black, season 4 (Netlfix)

What is it about third seasons? Like Transparent, OITNB had a rocky, unsatisfying third season, but rebounded with a harrowing fourth year where Shit. Got. Real. The back stories for Suzanne, Flaca, Maria and Lolly were revealed, each one more sad and horrible than the last. Piper got knocked down to size in the cruelest of ways. Prison management was privatized, resulting in compromises that led directly to tragedy in the final chapters. After watching 13 episodes in four days time, I felt like I'd been rolled over by a truck: devastated, heartbroken and blown away as you can only be by the greatest human drama. Just writing this makes me want to go back and watch it all again.

2. OJ: Made in America (Hulu)

A masterful, nearly 8-hour documentary that exhaustively examines race and celebrity in America through the prism of O. J. Simpson's rise and fall. Simpson's story plays like Greek tragedy. Director Ezra Edelman shapes a mountain of material and interviews into riveting drama, the television equivalent of a great book that you can't bring yourself to put down.  Interestingly enough, this five-part TV series has landed on most critics list of the year's 10 best films, and is short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.  And deservedly so. I'm going to predict, here and now, that it will win that award.

1. The Crown, season 1 (Netflix)

With an apparently limitless production budget, a cast of fantastic actors and a script by that estimable chronicler of the British monarchy, Peter Morgan, this biographical series on Elizabeth II is a monumental achievement and brilliant ten hours of television.  The Crown has something for everyone: sumptuous sets, beautiful costumes, great performances, historical detail, political intrigue, pomp, circumstance, humor and heartache.  It's a veritable banquet of both eye candy and brain candy, laced with the illicit thrill of seeing how royals behave behind closed palace doors. Let's decide right now that the 2017 Emmy roster will absolutely include Best Supporting Actor nominations for John Lithgow (Winston Churchill), Jared Harris (King George VI) and Alex Jennings (the Duke of Windsor), plus a certain nod for Eileen Atkins as the formidable dowager Queen Mary.  But save a spot, too, for Claire Foy, who totally nails Elizabeth's reserve and restraint, but with sufficient nuance to save her from being stuffy or unsympathetic. The moment when Queen Mary in her black mourning veil first kneels in obeisance before her granddaughter may be the most spine-tingling moment of drama I've seen on any screen - big or small - all year long.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

2016: An Odd Year for this Cinephile

Here we are approaching the end of another year.  And not just any year, but a strange, contentious, brutal year, filled with stunning political developments both here and abroad, deep divisions between people within our own country and deeply felt losses in the world of entertainment and sports.  At such a time, writing about movies - or even caring much about them - seems to be entirely beside the point. And, at first glance, my paltry output here would seem to reflect that notion.

I launched this blog in January with the idea that I'd write occasionally, as the mood struck me, about films I liked, and the television, music or travel I experienced in between them.

Part-Time Cinephile was the title I chose for this blog, believing it to be eminently apt.  Turns out that a title like "Once-in-a-Great-While Cinephile" might have been more accurate.  To date, I have published exactly six posts (including this one), one of which was travel advice. I've come to believe that the only reasons I've had a blog in the last few years are to publish a ten best list in January and my Oscar predictions in February.

It was not always so.  For many years, I've been a devoted and serious follower of current film fare. But this year was different.  Instead of consistently staying abreast of the 2016 film scene, I did all of the following:

1. Pursued serial obsessions with various filmmakers, after watching documentaries about them

First it was Mike Nichols.  A PBS American Masters program on his career, followed closely by the HBO documentary Becoming Mike Nichols led to considerable time spent on You Tube watching Nichols and May comedy routines, which then led to streaming a number of his films (including The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal KnowledgePrimary Colors, The Birdcage). From all the time I spent going down this particular rabbit hole, I've decided that The Graduate is still Nichols' best film and that the interplay between Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson is really just an extended Nichols/Elaine May comedy routine with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft standing in for Mike and Elaine.

Then it was Nora Ephron, a fascination jump-started by watching her son's HBO documentary Everything is Copy. There was some overlap with the period of Mike Nichols obsession, which included re-watching Heartburn and Silkwood, as well as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. I concluded by realizing that - with the notable exception of Julie and Julia - I much preferred Ephron the essayist to Ephron the filmmaker. (But I had fun anyway.)

This fall, a Netflix documentary, One Day Since Yesterday, about the troubled history of Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed, paired with a friend's coincidental recommendation to read Cybill Shepherd's autobiography segued into me finding Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love in their entirety on You Tube. The irony of these events is that while I found Shepherd's book to be surprisingly and enjoyably well-written, I was also forced to acknowledge that that most egregious defects in those two films are her nails-on-chalkboard performances in them. (I also bought the DVD of They All Laughed, but have yet to get around to watching it.  My obsessions, however intense, tend to have well-defined shelf lives.)

There are at least a couple of other fleeting obsessions that I'm forgetting, but you get the idea. With all these deep-dives going on, there was just no time to see Batman vs Superman.

2. I watched the US Presidential campaign very closely and obsessively monitored the polls as Election Day approached.

And we all know how that turned out.

3. I succumbed to the lure of binge-watching TV, like never before.

Binge-watching is nothing new at my house.  I was doing it long before the term was invented.  Back in the '80s and '90s, one Indianapolis station broadcast Labor Day Weekend marathons of Star Trek, Twilight Zone, and other series.  I have very clear recollections of hanging with a friend, brewing multiple pots of coffee and powering through God-knows-how-many Twilight Zone episodes on a particularly drizzly/rainy Labor Day.  We'd never have guessed that we were ahead of our time!

But 21st century binge-watching is a whole other thing; with an entire season of one show landing on the same day, it becomes an exercise in exquisite restraint to dole the episodes out to yourself once a week, or even once a day. I failed over and over. Season 4 of Orange is the New Black was devoured in 4 days. All ten episodes of The Crown were viewed in glorious detail during the week of Thanksgiving  -a week when I was out of town and out of Netflix range for three days.

A post on my favorite binge watches is forthcoming.

4. Eventually, I reverted to my old, usual self.

Which means that, around the end of October 2016 - just as I've done every October in recent memory - I became super-motivated to catch up on all the films that I'd managed to miss earlier in the year.  My 'to watch' list is longer now than in most previous years, but I'm confident I'll be able to put up a respectable "Ten Best" post in early January.  And we'll see where it goes from there....

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Life in Between Movies: Travel Advice No One Else Will Give You

Well, I warned you....

It's been over five months since I last posted.  Quite simply, I have not seen a single film this year that has motivated me to write. Not one.

Over the past weekend, I streamed Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups, which is beautiful to look at, but laughably pretentious and frequently just plain nuts  I made it to exactly the three-quarter point before I tuned out, bored and baffled.  And this is much the same reaction I've had to other films this year.

About three months from now, I will start frantically binge-watching all the critically acclaimed 2016 movies I've managed to miss or avoid so far in an effort to come up with a respectable 10 Best List. That's just how I roll these days.  But for now, it's wanderlust - not cinephilia - that has me in its grip.

The other passion in my life, besides movies, is travel - especially foreign travel, and most especially travel to Europe.  This year I chose to remodel my kitchen and take a short trip to Branson, Missouri rather than go overseas.  It was a prudent choice in every respect, but now I find I am dreaming - nay, OBSESSING - about returning to Rome. Wandering its cobblestone streets. Eating gelato. Stopping in at churches to see the Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures within. Then stopping for a little more gelato. People-watching in the Piazza del Popolo... while eating gelato.

As a traveler, I am also a scrupulous planner who aspires to someday comfortably spend two weeks overseas with just a day bag and a carry-on bag, as travel guru Rick Steves recommends.  Haven't done it yet, but I periodically comb Pinterest travel boards in search of the magical packing hacks that will make this possible.

I'm equally obsessed with finding the perfect gizmos, gadgets or mantras to transform 8-to-9-hour transatlantic flights into restful, pleasant experiences  - and not the hell-in-a-flying-tin-can-packed-with-annoying-strangers that they too often seem to be.

I've read more travel advice than I've had hot breakfasts, and I'm not sure how much lasting wisdom I've culled from all that reading. But I've done enough traveling myself to develop some advice of my own. much of which flies in the face of received wisdom.  For everyone who may be planning a trip out of the country soon (or someday), here's a little honesty for you:

1. There's no foolproof way to get a good night's sleep on the flight over.

I have never once slept well on an flight headed out of the U.S. And believe me, I've tried every tip, suggestion and purported "miracle" product you can think of to make it happen: Ambien, Tylenol PM (washed down both with booze and without it), melatonin, lavender oil rubbed on my temples, sleep masks, earplugs, inflatable neck pillows, noise-cancelling earbuds.  I've stayed up really late and gotten up really early every day for the week before the trip. I've swigged many a cup of hot ginger tea in flight and chewed many a Bach's Rescue Remedy pastille. No results, not from any of it.

Go ahead and try any or all of these tricks yourself; one or more of them may work for you.  (Or book business or first class if you can afford it - your seat will fold out into a bed and you won't be fighting over the armrest with your slumping, snoring seatmate. Or so I have dreamed...) But if none of this helps you to fall asleep, don't stress over it.  You will be uncomfortable and tired for a day, but you'll get through it.

Even in the worst case scenario, you'll probably manage to get in a nap for an hour or two before they bring around the breakfast trays. That nap, plus your tiny carton of Yoplait yogurt, roll and coffee will give you enough energy to get through passport control and out to the taxi queue once you land.

When you get to your hotel, don't spend a lot of time unpacking, and whatever you do, DON'T take a nap.  Freshen up with a quick shower and a change of clothes,  then get out of your room and into your new destination as soon as you can. Walk around, get familiar with your surroundings.  Your excitement at being in your dreamed-of location is likely to override your fatigue for several hours.

Head to a cafe or restaurant for a hit of caffeine and some fresh food. Airport and airplane foods tend to be overly carb-tastic; I usually look for a salad and some fresh fruit when I first arrive; it helps me feel lighter and more energetic.  Find some good sightseeing close to where you're staying and just keep moving.

I find that if stay out till about 7:30 local time and postpone going to bed till around 9, I will wake up the next morning refreshed and rarin' to go.  Just don't push yourself too hard or try to pack too much in the very first day. I have slept through an entire concert at St. Martin of the Fields in London and an entire nighttime bus tour of Paris while adjusting to new time zones; I now wish I had postponed those experiences till later in the trip when I would have been fully awake to enjoy them.

2. There are worse things than looking like a tourist

All those ominous articles with titles like "Never Order This Dish in Rome!" or "10 Things to Never Do in France"? They're worth reading and following ... to a point.

You should know how to avoid being offensive, obnoxious or rude to your local hosts. Get a good guidebook before you go (Rick Steves' books are excellent) and read up on local customs for dining, tipping, and social niceties.  Learn to say "hello," "please," "thank you," and few other key phrases in their language.

But please don't sweat the small stuff.

If you slip up and order a cappucino after 11 am, you might momentarily irritate the barista, but you aren't going to start a national incident.

And yes, wearing a fanny pack and big, white sneakers will instantly identify you as a American tourist (and if you wear them, be alert to pickpockets and scam artists who will target you). But so will your tour company name badge or asking directions from a local in your halting, 8th grade Spanish. And believe me, when you're setting up that group photo at the Eiffel Tower, no one will be fooled into thinking you're a Parisian just because you're wearing European walking shoes and carrying a smart leather tote bag.

Some travel bloggers will try to scare you into believing there are dire consequences for those who don't blend in with the locals, but those locals have seen tourists before.  You can strike a comfortable balance between being a gracious guest in their country and still being true to your own needs and comfort. When I travel, I wear black leather flat shoes and more skirts than jeans. I make it a point to be soft-spoken and very polite, and to use as much of the local language as I can manage. But I also unashamedly drink diet sodas and cafe Americanos, and occasionally ask for ice in my drinks or even (horrors!) have a burger and fries for lunch. A waiter on a train in England once laughed and chided me for requesting a packet of artificial sweetener to put in my cup of tea ("That'll give you cancer!"), but that's as much controversy as I've ever caused.

3. You are allowed to 'waste' an afternoon sleeping or reading or relaxing. Not every minute must be packed with sightseeing and activity.

This advice is offered especially to my fellow introverts.

Travel is exciting and stimulating; it can be overstimulating for some of us. In cities, you're going to encounter lots of noise, crowds and busy streets.  Add to this the low-but-constant level of stress generated by navigating your way around an unfamiliar place with a language you may not speak, and you can get pretty overwhelmed even as you're having the time of your life.

Our vacations are short and there is a lot to see. Your fear of missing something important may conflict with your desire to chill out and take a break.

I'm here to tell you: you can take that break.

You can sit at that sidewalk cafe table for two hours, nursing a glass or wine or a pastry and espresso, and doodle in your travel journal. You can take a late afternoon nap in your hotel room.  You can even lay on a chaise by the hotel pool all morning, catching some sun and reading magazines. (A friend and I did this in Athens; our hotel's rooftop pool afforded us a clear and spectacular view of the Acropolis. Sure, you can lay by a pool at home, but you can't gaze on ancient Greek ruins while you do it.)

In other words, even your 'lazy' experiences can be enriching and memorable.

You can also seek out travel experiences that aren't necessarily on everyone's agenda, but give you a different window into the local culture.

As an avid film lover, I like seeing what people in other countries watch and what their filmgoing experience is like.  So when I need a change of pace, I might take myself to a movie.  Most major cities have at least a few Hollywood films available in English. I saw the 2014 remake of Godzilla in Munich, in a tiny, crowded theater near a university where my friend and I shared a huge bucket of half plain popcorn/half kettle corn and sipped enormous Diet Cokes. Workers came into clean the theater for the next showing before the closing credits were done, and they were brusque-bordering-on-rude in hurrying us out. On a sultry Sunday night in Paris, I saw the classic comedy Bringing Up Baby, subtitled in French, with a delighted audience who laughed uproariously from start to finish, proving that the appeal of truly great films is universal.  In London, I saw The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, a black comedy in which Katherine Hepburn hired a hit man played by Nick Nolte to euthanize her elderly friends - an odd, compelling film that was barely released in the US. These weren't typical tourist experiences, but they were memorable and unique.

Remember, your vacation is YOUR vacation.  It doesn't have to look like everyone else's and it doesn't have to be hectic. It only has to make you happy.

4. The trip home is worse than the trip there. Except, you will probably sleep.

My longest overseas trip to date has been just under two weeks; I'm not sure I ever want to stay longer. At the twelve-day point, I'm ready to re-enter a world where every TV show, magazine, newspaper and billboard is in English. I 'm ready to play with my kitty cat and sleep in my own bed.

The good news is that, while I never sleep on the flight to Europe, I nearly always get several hours of solid sleep on the way home.  Even so, the trip never goes fast enough. After 6 or 7 hours in the air, I am silently (but fervently) willing the plane to fly faster.

The bad news? Because you're gaining 5-8 hours flying west towards the US, you will have a very, very  l-o-o-o-o-n-g day. I live in the Chicago area, and by the time I hit the threshold of my home, I've usually been up for about 22 hours. And I've spent huge chunks of it waiting for things to happen: to get through security, to board the plane, for the plane to take off (don't know why, but I experience way more flight delays when I'm heading home from vacations than when I'm first setting out), for the plane to land, to clear customs, to get my ride home from the airport, to get Freakin' HOME ALREADY!

You can't avoid the stress or the time suck, so do what you can to eliminate unnecessary stress on the trip home.  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Check the weather report at home and be prepared.  I returned from sunny, 60-degree days in Rome last year to a freak storm that dumped nine inches of snow on Chicago. My final flight was delayed 3 hours due to the weather, so I was extra tired when I got home - but very glad I'd packed gloves and extra layers of clothing in my carry on bag so I could bundle up before dragging my suitcase through the snowdrifts on my front walk.

2. Pack the night before you leave and be sure you put your boarding pass, passport, and receipts from all your purchases in an easily accessible pocket or section of your purse. You'll need the receipts in customs when your return; it's a good idea to pack an envelope or Ziplock bag to stow them in. Also, be sure you know where your house key is stashed. (Seriously. I once had a minor panic attack when I couldn't recall what bag I'd put mine in.)

3. Buy edible souvenirs at the airport to help use up the last of your Euros. I like to bring back candy or cookies to the office, and it's easiest to pick that up at the last minute and throw it in my carry on. And buy yourself a treat when you hit a low point. You can get back on your sensible diet when you get home, but a little extra chocolate or a warm cookie will take the edge off an otherwise very trying day.

Above all ENJOY yourself!  It's a privilege - and, sometimes, a life-changing experience - to visit another country.  Don't worry that you won't do it right, just do it!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Oscars 2016: The Good, The Bad, The Overlooked and The Undeserving

Welcome to my annual overview of the Academy Awards nominees where I tell you who will win, who won't win, who should win, and who was inexcusably shut out of the race altogether.

Please excuse me if I stifle a huge yawn of exquisite boredom halfway through this post.  I have never once been so unenthusiastic about an Oscar ceremony since I watched my first one at age 11. (In case you're wondering, it was 1971 and George C. Scott caused a stir by not showing up to collect his Best Actor trophy from a giggly Goldie Hawn who, at the time, was younger than Kate Hudson is now. Yes, I am that old.)

2015 was a great year for movies, but you'd barely know that from list of things that actually got Oscar nominations.  The total absence of people of color in any acting category is, to my mind, not just a problem of Oscars So White, but Oscars So Geriatric as well. With less than 15% of the Academy's voters under the age of 50, it's no shock that they've been reluctant to honor films distributed outside of the traditional channels, even as the Emmys, SAG and Golden Globes have fully embraced them. To wit: I'm convinced that Idris Elba failed to get a nomination for Beasts of No Nation not because he is black but because the film came out on Netflix the same day it opened in theaters.

I'm tempted to say that Spike Lee's Chi-Raq - a film that arguably deserved to be in the running for Best Picture - was also overlooked due to its similar distribution pattern on Amazon, But the Oscars have never shown Spike Lee much love; he has exactly two nominations to his name (a Best Documentary nod for Four Little Girls and a screenwriting nod for Do the Right Thing.) Apparently, Lee did receive an honorary Oscar of some kind earlier this month (which, of course, is a consolation prize that guarantees he'll never win a real one), but he has said he's not coming to this year's main ceremony.

At least we have Chris Rock to look forward to.  Rock previously hosted in 2005, and the common wisdom is that he didn't do so well.  In fact, if you Google "Chris Rock Oscar Host," you'll see him on several lists of the "Worst Oscar Hosts of All Time." My recollection, however, is that Rock wasn't so much bad as he was too hip for the room - or maybe just ahead of his time. I watched his 2005 opening monologue today on YouTube and laughed out load several times.  He was a prescient choice to host the ceremony in its infamous year of Oscars So White; few other comedians are so fearless in delving into race. But given the Academy's penchant for over-correcting a less-than-pleasing host by going in the far opposite direction the following year, we can probably expect an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing white host in 2017. They're probably already asking Billy Crystal to clear his calendar.

YAAAWWWNNN!! (I warned you.)

Grumpy and disenchanted though I may be, I'm still going to play the annual parlor game of Who's Getting that Oscar?  Here we go:

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl

Vikander is this year's omnipresent "it" girl, and that's exactly the kind of actress on which Oscar loves to bestow its Best Supporting Actress trophy.  Not that Ms. Vikander is undeserving (although I was far more impressed with her unnerving turn as the robot who outwits her creator in Ex Machina), but...

The Actress who Should Win is Rooney Mara for Carol

 She doesn't have a chance in hell, but Rooney Mara perfectly captured the awakening spirit of a girl "flung out of space," experiencing her first great love and beginning to grasp all the possibilities of her life.  I'd give her the trophy in a heartbeat.

Apart from Vikander and Mara, I'm not sure why any of the others are here. In Steve Jobs, Kate Winslet never once made me forget I was watching Kate Winslet in a series of bad hairdos and ugly glasses, her carefully cultivated Russian-Armenian accent notwithstanding. Rachel McAdams barely made an impression on me in Spotlight. And I'd have preferred Jennifer Jason Leigh be nominated for her touching voice work as the shy, scarred title character of Anomolisa than for a Quentin Tarantino film where male characters repeatedly punch her in the face. (Full disclosure: I bailed at the halfway point of The Hateful Eight, not so much in dread of the upcoming bloodbath, but because I was dying of boredom while getting there.)

A better choice would have been Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria opens with a harried Stewart balancing precariously in the aisle of a speeding train while fielding a series of increasingly complicated cell phone calls. This scene is, miraculously, both totally coherent and totally engrossing -- and it only gets better from there. Stewart gives a nimble, startlingly good performance as the valued assistant/confidante to a temperamental actress, shooting sparks off her co-star Juliette Binoche in scenes where you can't quite tell if they're running lines from Binoche's upcoming play or just working out their own complicated friendship. Few performances in the past year were this riveting.

Also overlooked: Angela Bassett in Chi-Raq: a beautiful performance of strength and emotional urgency that's been overlooked everywhere.

Best Supporting Actor

Sylvester Stallone for Creed

Confession: I still haven't seen Creed (and yes, I know I should). So I can't comment intelligently on whether Stallone deserves to win. Bu there's something undeniably heartwarming in seeing Stallone get some respect at this late point in a very uneven career.  And everyone loves a good comeback story, right?

Even so, I'm rooting for Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies

Rylance owns this movie from the very first scenes. His performance is the kind which is (correctly) called "understated," but the understatement comes from the deadly, quiet confidence of a great actor at work. Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hardy and Christian Bale all did fine work, and I wouldn't be terribly disappointed if any of them were called to the podium on Oscar night.  Rylance's work, however, is a cut above the rest.

 I wish they could have found a way to include Joel Edgerton for The Gift

Edgerton also did a bang-up job of writing and directing this expertly twisty thriller, but his most Oscar-worthy work was in portraying the lonely misfit who invades the lives of a seemingly happy couple. He found authentic nuances in the character that far surpassed easy cliche and kept us off balance till the bitter end

Also overlooked: Paul Dano for Love and Mercy; Nick Cannon for Chi-Raq.

Best Actress

Will (and probably should) Win: Brie Larson for Room

Larson has walked off with just about every other major award; her Oscar seems a foregone conclusion.  And rightly so. Her performance in Room has a kind of in-the-moment, emotionally supple quality that feels spontaneous and utterly un-calculated. It's a kind of committed naturalness that a few of my very favorite actresses (Debra Winger, Juliette Binoche and Larson's fellow nominee, Jennifer Lawrence) can pull off . Larson is a worthy addition to that sorority, and - at just 26 - she has a bright future ahead.

But My Heart is With: Soairse Ronan for Brooklyn

Ronan has given one fantastic performance after the other ever since she debuted in Atonement (and got her first Oscar nomination) at the age of 13. She rises to the challenge of giving Brooklyn its heart and soul in a performance of quiet warmth.  Many of us secretly wish that Brooklyn would win Best Picture. It won't - but a win by Ronan (who is the dark horse in this category) would go quite a ways towards healing our disappointment.

(And if couldn't be either Ronan or Larson, I'd be very happy to see Cate Blanchett win for Carol - a performance infinitely more deserving of the honor than her mannered, "Look at me acting!" turn in the horrendous Blue Jasmine. I'm a little sad, too,  that Charlotte Rampling isn't going to win, but Jennifer Lawrence already has an Oscar and she'll be back again and again...)

Overlooked:  Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back

There was never any real chance she'd be on this list (though she did get a SAG nomination), but Silverman's fearless vulnerability as a bipolar drug addict who keeps banging against rock bottom was unforgettable.

Also overlooked: Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria - because Kristen Stewart wasn't burning up that screen all by herself.

Best Actor

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant

Let's talk about what constitutes great acting vs. great endurance shall we?  I'm sure we all admire Leo for spending months in the outdoors, braving snow and cold and eating raw bison meat (while sitting about five feet away from a fire where he could have cooked it if he hadn't been so damn impatient!) and getting chomped on by a big ol' pissed off grizzly bear. But is that a great performance or is it just a thespian version of Fear Factor?  Don't get me wrong, I do love me some Leo.  I could have given him the Oscar twice before when he was nominated (The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street) and once when he wasn't (Revolutionary Road). Part of me is glad that he'll finally be getting the Oscar he's so long deserved, but another part of me wishes he didn't have to go to such wild-ass extremes to get the recognition he's already long been due.

Should Win:  Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs

I'm not particularly crazy about the work of any of this year's Best Actor nominees, to be honest. But if I had to pick just one to give the trophy to, it'd be Fassbender. (And not just because it would be so cool to see him and his real-life main squeeze, Alicia Vikander, toting their his-and-her Oscars around to the after-parties.)  If I never forgot I was watching Kate Winslet in this film, I always forgot I was watching Fassbender; even though he never made any attempt to look like Steve Jobs and always looked like Michael Fassbender, he still managed to disappear into the role.  Never mind that I pretty much hated this film, just like I pretty much hate so much stuff that Aaron Sorkin writes. Fassbender was so damn good that it didn't even matter.

Tobey Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice was just one of many deserving but overlooked actors here.

There was also Tom Hanks (i.e. The Actor Whose Greatness is Most Unfairly Taken for Granted) who the Academy voters apparently thinks makes movies like Bridge of Spies in his sleep. (Meryl Streep gets an Oscar  nomination every time she convincingly blows her nose onscreen, but Hanks can't get another nomination to save his life.) Then there was young Jacob Tremblay who's every bit as genius as Brie Larson in Room but gets no recognition. (And don't tell me he's too young for this category: Quevenshane Wallis got a Best Actress nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild, which she made when she was all of six.) But most egregiously of all, there's the complete lack of awards recognition across the board for Tobey Maguire's flat-out brilliant personification of chess prodigy/mad genius Bobby Fischer, an electrifying performance that too few people saw. Those who did see it, however, will never forget it.

Best Director

Will Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu for The Revenant

I'm still pissed at Innaritu for winning last year's Best Director Oscar - an award that should rightfully have gone to Richard Linklater and not to the maker of that dreadful, vastly overrated piece of crap known as Birdman.  I don't want him to get another one right away, but he's going to get one anyway. I will, however, grudgingly admit that he comes considerably closer to deserving this year's trophy than last year's.

Should Win: Lenny Abrahamson for Room

Because he pulls off so many wondrous things in this film: the slow, subtle reveal of the cramped quarters in which his characters are trapped for the film's first 45 minutes; the unbearable, heart-stopping suspense of the escape scene, the sense of disorientation in the the child's first experiences of the outside world.  It's a seamless and beautiful job of helming a complex film that could have gone the way of a Lifetime Channel weepie with one or two bad directorial decisions. Fortunately, every decision Abrahamson makes is perfect.

Overlooked: Todd Haynes for Carol

What does the Academy have against Todd Haynes? They snubbed him thirteen years ago for the beautiful Far From Heaven and they snubbed him again for this year's even more beautiful Carol. Seriously, what is the problem here?  Surely they can't be objecting to the gay themes in this day and age. Do they think that because he channels and emulates films of the 1950s (and those of Douglas Sirk in particular) in both of his greatest films that they amount to no more than pastiche or clever homage? (If so, that's a pretty shallow way to look at them.)  I don't know what  to make of a Best Direction slate that includes Adam McKay and not Todd Haynes, but I know it constitutes an injustice.

Also overlooked: Steven Spielberg for Bridge of Spies, Ridley Scott for The Martian and Spike Lee for Chi-Raq. This really was the year for crap Best Director nominees.

Best Picture

Will win: The Revenant 

The pundits have called this race a dead heat between Spotlight and The Big Short, but it think it's unlikely either of those films will win.  They'll split the screenwriting awards and the grueling, endurance test of The Revenant is going to take the top prize of the evening. But...

 The best of the Best Picture nominees is Bridge of Spies

With Lincoln (which should have been the Best Picture of 2012) and this film, Steven Spielberg has entered a new and masterful phase of his career in which he perfectly encapsulates major moments in American history and teaches us something about ourselves a nation in the process.  And, yes, I honestly believe that Bridge of Spies accomplishes something that lofty. It may be Spielberg's most undervalued film to date.  (Full disclosure: a little part of me also wishes that the very lovely Brooklyn could take this award, too.

But Carol was really the Best Picture this year

Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy took an odd, difficult novella and turned it into not just a classic gay love story - but a classic love story, full stop.  This film is beautiful in every sense: gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted and emotionally devastating in the silences and unexpressed longing that underlie its characters' interactions.  This is a film that I believe will richly reward repeat viewings, more so than any film actually nominated for Oscar's top prize. Its exclusion from the list of nominees is bound to be an embarrassment to the Academy in years to come.

Monday, January 25, 2016

At Last! These are (Not) the 20 Best Movies of 2015

Nope, these are not necessarily the best films of 2015, but they are my favorites.  And because I'm a part-time cinephile, I see roughly half the films that a full-time professional critic sees in any given year (94 films in 2015, to be exact - a professional would see 175-200.) But I will enthusiastically recommend them all!

Of course, being an avocational film reviewer, rather than one with a professional obligation to see everything, means I get to be far more selective about what I watch. So my list isn't radically different from other "Best of 2015" lists you've already seen - though it does allow for some highly personal, idiosyncratic choices and rankings here and there.  It also reflects the fact that I ran out of time, opportunities (and in a couple of cases, inclination) to see all of the following:  Creed, Steve Jobs, The Assassin, Beasts of No Nation, Diary of a Teenage Girl,  It Follows, Eden, The Hateful Eight, Chi-Raq, and The Force Awakens. Be assured, I have definite plans to see almost of all those in the next month or so.

My standard of eligibility for this list is that any film released for the first time in the Chicago area between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 was up for consideration, whether that initial release was to theaters, streaming services or HBO. That's why Selma, American Sniper, Two Days One Night and Still Alice were considered for this year's list rather than last year's; for the same reason, The Revenant, 45 Years, Anomalisa and Son of Saul will be considered for next year's "Not the Best of 2016" list.

 Here are my choices, counted down in ascending order of preference:

  20. The End of the Tour

I said it before, can't say it any better now: "It plays like an extended college bull session with your smartest friend who is idealistic, vulnerable, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes profoundly wise. (Jason) Segel's performance is so good that I was honestly disappointed to see the film end."

19. Woman in Gold

You won't see this one on many end-of-year 'best' lists, but don't let that deter you.  There is solid, impressive acting by all, plus the well-told, deeply engrossing story of Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece and her struggle to reclaim her aunt's portrait (famously painted by Gustav Klimt) many years after the Nazis looted it from her family's home.  My enjoyment was undoubtedly heightened by my enthusiasm for Klimt's art, my long-time interest in early 20th century Vienna, and the fact that I have actually seen this painting in both Vienna's Belvedere museum (where it was originally installed during the Nazi occupation) and in New York's Neue Gallerie, (to which the family sold it in 2006, as depicted in the film.) But I guarantee it is sufficiently fine to appeal to those who do not share these interests.

18. What Happened, Miss Simone?

Although I saw this documentary about the life of singer Nina Simone quite early in 2015, I still haven't shaken off the  memory of it. First, I was profoundly intrigued to see and hear how Simone's classical piano training informed her interpretations of jazz standards. (A performance of "For All We Know," shown in its entirety near the film's beginning, is  underscored with a classical-based accompaniment that breathes new and thrilling life into the song.) Then I was overwhelmed by the unfolding story of Simone's many demons: the racism that prevented her from achieving her dream of a career in classical music, her abusive marriage, the volatile intersection of her righteous anger with a long-untreated bipolar disorder that nearly destroyed her. An indelible portrait of a truly original artist and a complex, difficult woman.

17. The Gift

If you saw trailers for The Gift, you'd be excused for writing it off at just another standard-issue lonely-loser-stalks-happy-family story. I certainly did, which is why I didn't get around to seeing it till just a few weeks ago. To my surprise, Joel Edgerton's modest thriller delivers some fine performances (mostly notably Edgerton's own), breathtaking plot twists and a unnerving visual style worthy of Hitchcock or Polanksi.   Sometimes trailers actually don't show you all the good stuff...

16. La Sapienza

So here's one of my more eccentric choices: an odd film with some highly stylized and rather stiff acting that nonetheless grew on me and affected me deeply. An estranged couple, both highly intellectual and uneasy with one another, find romantic and spiritual renewal on a trip to Italy. She befriends and mentors a young Swiss woman, while he tours Roman churches with the Swiss woman's brother.  Director Eugene Green sends his camera  slowly, lovingly up the walls and into the sky-lighted domes of sacred spaces designed by Bernini and Borromini, capturing the subtle significance of each architectural detail along the way.  I don't know that I can sell anyone else on this film entirely; I'm pretty sure my reaction to it is as much a product of my own recent, spiritually enriching trip to Rome as to anything La Sapienza delivers on its own. But any film that defines happiness as "finding a place where you can see the light of God and love other people" has got to be worth your time.

15. Pawn Sacrifice

Was chess master Bobby Fischer an eccentric genius or severely mentally ill? Was he a hero or an unwitting pawn in a Nixonian Cold War propaganda campaign around his match with Russian chess master Boris Spassky? Edward Zwick's film chooses the latter of each of those sets of possibilities and elicits thrilling performances from both Tobey Maguire (as Fischer) and Liev Schreiber (as Spassky). This would make a particularly compelling double feature with another 2015 release about Cold War propaganda in the sports world: the documentary Red Army about what happened to the USSR's Olympic ice hockey team after losing to the US in the 'miracle' game of 1980.  (Hint: it involved long, grueling hours in Siberian 'training camps.')

14. Love and Mercy

Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson as a young man, John Cusack plays him in middle age, and both actors capture the loneliness, fears and tentative hopes of a troubled, gifted artist to perfection. Director Bill Pohlad explores the shared boundary of madness and genius with sensitivity, clarity and a refreshing lack of sensationalism.

13. Selma

The film to which I would have given the 2014 Oscar for Best Picture. Director Ava DuVernay finds a visual structure that drives and enhances the storytelling, and her cast performs to perfection - especially David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King.

12. Inside Out

Everyone's seen this, everyone loves it, and I'm not sure I have anything substantial to add to the discussion. Pixar continues to produce  highly imaginative, emotionally complex animated films that resonate with both children and adults; Wall-E remains my favorite, but Inside Out is solidly in second place.

11. The Duke of Burgundy

I wasn't sure what I was getting into with this one. This pastiche of softcore 1970s Euro-erotic films details a mistress-and-slave relationship between two women, although not nearly as explicitly as you might expect.  (I can already hear some of my readers clicking away from this site in disgust - Don't leave! Just scroll down to the next review!)  What I ended up liking about the film was the way it conjured up this bizarre, contained world populated only by female entomologists: there are classroom lectures on butterfly mating behavior scattered throughout and the titular Duke of Burgundy is a particular type of that insect  Plus all the creepy, role-playing artifice around the central relationship is gradually stripped away to reveal the heartache, vulnerabilities and genuine longings that lurk beneath the kinky stuff. Not a movie for everyone, obviously, but better than you'd initially expect.

10. Ex Machina

Another film that conjures up its own strange, isolated world - in this case, the techno-luxurious home of a billionaire genius who creates robots and invites a lowly employee to determine whether one particular robot is distinguishable from a human. Ex Machina has a tense, creepily seductive vibe and a sense of foreboding that never relents, plus a fantastic performance by this year's It Girl, Alicia Vikander, as the robot who just may outwit her creator.

9.  Amy

Its most astonishing moment comes early on when a teen-aged Amy Winehouse, captured on home video, belts out "Stronger Than Me," in a voice that clearly shows her to be (as her former manager puts it) "a very old soul in a very young body." At that moment, you're reminded of what a prodigious and original talent Winehouse possessed and stunned to think how far she might have gone if only she'd been saved in time. This compilation of home movies, TV footage and interviews with Winehouse's friends, family and collaborators is chilling, strongly suggesting that Winehouse fell victim to demons not entirely of her own making. (Both her father and her husband are shown to be opportunists who used Amy for every dollar and handout they could get.)  In the end, every one of us who so much as snickered when Jay Leno used her as a punchline is implicated.

8.  The Martian

Here's how I know  I loved The Martian. (Spoiler Alert!!) When a newscaster announces that Damon's character has been rescued and is heading home from Mars, I actually blurted out a cry of relief and joy.  There's no better reason to go to the movies than to experience that kind of visceral connection with a story and a character.  'Nuff said.

7.  Two Days One Night

Marion Cotillard is a real-life glamour puss who not only takes on unglamorous roles, but brings a genuine soulfulness and gritty truth to them. Here she's a factory worker who's forced to ask her co-workers to turn down their raise so that she can keep her own job, a kind of devil's deal that she handles with enormous grace and sensitivity. Cottilard is brilliant and the film is too honest and too humane to be merely depressing.

6.  Mommy

Xavier Dolan, the 26-year-old wunderkind of French Canadian cinema just keeps getting better and better.  This tale of a single mother struggling to keep her violent, emotionally disturbed son at home and out of institutions grabs you by the throat from the opening shot and doesn't let go.  Not as harrowing in every minute as it may sound and graced by a trio of remarkable lead performances, Mommy is an accomplished and sustained work of powerful filmmaking.

5.  Brooklyn

I like to believe that, if Turner Classic Movies is still around in 2050, this is the movie they'll show on a lazy Sunday afternoon, that people will snuggle up on their sofas to get lost in.  Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, this story of a young Irish immigrant learning about who she is, what she wants and who she loves is distinguished by a beautiful performance by Saoirse Ronan and a keen sense of storytelling that it sorely missing from the hipper films of our time.

4.  Room

Not nearly as creepy as I expected (and believe me, I avoided this until its multiple Oscar nominations made me sit up and take notice.) Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are the mother and son being held prisoner in a garden shed by the man who kidnapped Larson's character when she was 17; the pair of actors are freakishly good together and individually. The escape scene at the halfway point of this film is, honest-to-God, the most unbearable, unnerving, five-or-so-minutes of suspense I think I've ever seen on film. But this isn't a horror film or suspense film, really, so much as it is about the difficulty of emerging from a trauma and re-acclimating to the kind of life others take for granted. And it tells that story in way that will break and then mend your heart without the slightest emotional manipulation.

3.   Bridge of Spies

This may be Steven Spielberg's most under-appreciated film, its Best Picture nomination notwithstanding. Tom Hanks is again the "everyman" character, an insurance lawyer who takes on the defense of a Soviet spy (brilliantly underplayed by Mark Rylance) and winds up orchestrating a prisoner exchange with the Russians for a captured American pilot.  This film is of a piece with Lincoln in depicting a particular moment and mood in American history, and carries its allusions to our present-day political climate lightly but definitively.

2.   Clouds of Sils Maria

I've recommended this film to a few friends; their reactions have been evenly split between "WTF was that?" and "That was AWESOME!" I can't predict which of those camps you'll fall into, but maybe, like me, you'll wind up watching it four times in the space of a couple weeks. How to sum up the un-summarizable plot? Well, Juliette Binoche is an aging actress, Kristen Stewart is her assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz is the Lindsay Lohan-esque youger actress cast opposite Binoche in an upcoming play. Binoche and Stewart take a house in the Swiss Alps where they run lines, often while hiking in the Alps; they are electric together and fascinating to watch, sparks fly off their interactions. Oh screw it... my friend Bill (who loved it) is much more eloquent: "It was disarmingly complex. It seemed simple and straightforward, but on a closer look, it was far more textured in its analysis of human nature, relationships and personal growth." If any of that sounds intriguing to you, rent it and lose yourself in it. You'll be in for a treat.

1.   Carol

I knew it would be gorgeous; it is, after all, a film by Todd Haynes whose homage to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas, Far From Heaven, was breathtaking in its super-saturated Technicolor palette. But I was unprepared for how beautifully screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapted and even improved on Patricia Highsmith's odd, difficult stream-of-consciousness novella about the forbidden love between a young woman behind a shop counter and the older, affluent woman who meets her while Christmas shopping. Haynes and Nagy have created a classic love story in which both women's yearnings and heartache are distilled into the simplest, most subtle expressions and gestures, as the times they lived in would require. Ultimately it is a story about passion that is transmuted into genuine, mature love as both characters grow and sacrifice to be true to themselves while protecting the ones they love. I'd be unforgivably remiss if I didn't mention how remarkable both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are as the lovers. There simply aren't enough good things to say about Carol - or enough bad things to say about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to give it a Best Director or Best Picture nomination.