I used to get really excited about the Oscars back in elementary school when I and stayed up late wondering if Gladiator or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon would be crowned best picture of the new millennium. I wasn’t allowed to watch any movies and gleaned what I could from incessant trailers and commentary in the top half of the scrolling tv guide channel. And since the internet wasn’t a thing and my mother infrequently received US Weekly, which I wasn’t supposed to leaf through any way, I tried at one point to take photos with an instant cameras of all the celebs on the red carpet or later sketch their gowns, which I assembled into a binder.
I’ve won, though never aced, a few friendly Oscar pools. My cynical rationale roped me into ticking off La La Land instead of Moonlight, for example, and was blissfully proven wrong along with the rest of the world.
I mostly don’t give a shit now. The Oscars are less about what’s actually good and more about what people thought were good at the time, as I’ve mentioned before. That said, this year’s crop of films looks much much different than last year’s, which was especially white. And yet a subtitled Korean movie about class warfare won. By contrast, the glut of 2020 offerings are slightly more diverse and political in some way, so it’ll be interesting to see what’s crowned the victor, and how the tone is set for next year.
Some broad thoughts, many spoilers on a handful of nominated films. No food this week, but for Grub Street I wrote a profile of Alice Jun, currently the only producer of American makgeolli, a Korean rice brew that’s neither wine nor beer. Read it!
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Everything hits differently in 2020 and beyond. All political concerns of real life are hard to divorce from the political dramas we see on screen. I’m here to tell you that this is a clumsy tv movie with performances to match. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Boston A tenuto devolves frequently into Borat English.
Rote machinery, convoluted heady dialogue that makes you feel imbecilic or sleepy. Quite the power move, Fincher. I miss when he had a sense of humor (Gone Girl, The Game). Also a reminder of Amanda Seyfriend can act.
Employee Picks: Fake it After You Make It, Nick Pinkerton’s indifferent take.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
In a swollen sea of actors acting — Martin Sheen doing Martin Short, Jesse Plemons’ diet-as-acting, Daniel Kaluuya’s grandiose professionalism — Lakeith remains the understated and triumphant non-thespian here, which in a sense is his downfall.
DA FIVE BLOODS
A history lesson braided into a strange adventure in a foreign land. Questions of race, greed, and the possibility of change roped into a treasure hunt, bits of Huston, Apocalypse Now etc. Long-winded and off the rails, it’s a journey befitting to the jostling present where no one escapes unscathed and many are implicated.
Delroy Lindo is a regular on The Good Fight where he plays a partner in Chicago’s all Black law firm. The character is mostly the type of Black person that Bradley Whitford would give his stamp of approval to in Get Out, if not for the King’s direction. (The Good Fight airs on CBS All Access, a streaming site through which the Tiffany network can court the genteel moderate-liberals who don’t want to watch the latest iteration of the crime-schlock it so successfully pioneered.) Anyway, Lindo’s character in Da Five Bloods is mad as hell, MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter at his wit’s end — the alter-ego of Adrian Boseman in CBS show. He is wounded heart of this film and fiercely mesmerizing, especially in tense situations, such as when he publicly disowns his son in front of the woman he narrowly missed a chance to sleep with, or in his urgent monologuing of the 23rd Psalm through which he ignites the holy words with hope and despair, like some of the most sincere prayers are. Truly the year’s best performance.
How did this relatively tame small, Danish film from a Lars von Trier contemporary get nominated for best director? Some chalk it up to the Academy’s geographical diversity, but I can’t see how this choice doesn’t reflect their homogeneity as a voting body of largely white, old, sometimes very old, men. The premise after all is that four middle-aged school teachers in Denmark spice up their lives by taking up some light drinking on the job, which inevitably turns to heavy drinking on the job. Too bad they didn’t have access to White Claw, which surely would’ve helped them to coast and more easily avert mid-life languishing.
Mads Mikkelson, never not good, isn’t nominated for best actor. Did you know that he was in a Rihanna video??
Vogue: How Another Round Became the Feel Good Movie of the Year, Lisa Wong Macabasco.
THE SOUND OF METAL
A movie as prayer of anger and failed lamentation. The sound of metal only lasts for two and a half scenes so the movie is mostly the sound of acclimating to silence, deadened voices, and screechy outputs. Darius Marder employs a clever sound design that mimics what Ruben can and can’t hear, shutting off the noise or letting it traipse in intermittently as the character would hear it. But it’s really Riz Ahmed’s performance, visceral, feral, lived-in, that pulls in the viewer, the looming possibility of deafness, frustrated denial, fear, all telegraphed in his owl eyes.
Any skepticism about his depth of acting can be blamed on the film’s editing, scenes are terse yet beautiful, like the briefly illuminating flicker of a match. I wanted to see sit with one of them a while. You could argue though that the brisk momentum matches Ruben’s frame of mind as an addict, continuously being pulled towards something or another, but the film later reveals otherwise — the faster Marder rolls things along, the sooner he can get to the European vacation half of the film.
What was a carefully drawn and quite moving tale of adversity/resilience with a side of graceful surrender is squashed by ambition and fear — Ruben’s as much as the director’s. Marder preempts the possibility of maudlin sentimentality and butchering all that happened by copping out and fleeing to Europe to tack on an faux-art film finale. Form should not always follow content, better luck next time.
I couldn’t bring myself to pay $20 to watch this.
UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY
I haven’t actually seen this movie but have heard a lot of talk about Andra Day, who I think is favored to win Best Actress. So i was surprised to read that not everyone agrees. Hilton Als, in an essay about another film, says she has no center and calls her presence “a series of postures and imitative voice techniques.” Should be noted the writer and critic isn’t generally a fan of the director Lee Daniel’s work, as a skewed moralist whose world views reveals “Black people are both power-mad and powerless, and therefore fodder to be pimped out, debased, and manipulated.”
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
This movie is also about a Black singer, but it’s anything but the spectacle Als describes above. Adapted from an August Wilson play, seethes beneath its surface. The camera roves giving everything a bit of a ticking bomb anticipation — tight directing job by George C. Wolfe, one that the Academy didn’t notice.
If I were a voter, this is what I would choose for best picture out of the slate of nominees. It has all the makings of a classic Oscar best pic— great acting, script, direction, a message, etc. — and unlike the others it isn’t quite as flawed, silly, or politically dishonest.
PIECES OF A WOMAN
SPOILERS, SORT OF. Not too long ago, my dad kept eating the whole of an apple, including the seeds. The concerted no-waste effort was gleaned from some pretty bad advice: the supposedly healthy seeds — perhaps confused with pumpkin — are said to contain trace amounts of arsenic. So when I saw Vanessa Kirby fiending for apples, sniffing them and leaking their juices all over town, and tucking the seeds in between pads of cotton — alcohol, I presumed, meant to extract the poison, kind of like how can soak poppy seeds in lemon juice to get high (what you don’t know kids who did that in high school?).
So you can imagine my disappointment when the big reveal turns out to be the healing power of a photographic image, a reminder of maternal warmth and connection and life — and not a homicide. Kornel Mundruczo lucked out with Kirby who’s stellar and will automatically propel his so-so grief-portrait into the annals of film awards or at least as a footnote in Oscar history.
Shia LaBeouf buries himself under a pointy beard and heavy duty reflective gear and the yodel-y accent of mountain men who live in cold villages so as not to distract us from Kirby. That and his character is paid off to leave halfway by Ellen Burstyn.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Read my thoughts here.
EUROVISION SONG CONTEST
It seems that all the special effects in the world couldn’t do anything to sandblast Will Ferrell’s face and counter his foundering epidermis. Or perhaps no one cared enough to, which would be unfair given how pristinely intact Rachel McAdams looks by comparison. This comedy about two small-time Icelanders who want to make it big at Eurovision, an annual pop-song contest, was released on Netflix, but it was supposed to be shown in theaters. And it shows. As awful as this might be, it remains a cut above some of the original schlop Netflix churns out on the regular to fill in empty space, like say Wine Country.
The movie was filmed on location all over the globe, including at actual Eurovision, and the budget probably exceeds what Reed Hastings is willing to put out. Showcasing a world in which unexceptional Americans can’t even share a stage with the worst of the rest of the world — Eurovision arrived in spring 2020 (**which is when I watched it and wrote this mini-review**), appropriate for that moment when everyone else has flattened the curve and our fellow countrymen are fighting for their political right to bare mouths and spread disease. Hearing Will Ferrel’s perfect scream, that of a boy trapped inside a man’s body, is a pleasurable distraction that I will always welcome over watching unskilled unknowns compete against each other or peacock their weird habits.
My favorite part of this film, which has been endlessly written about in terms of asian identity, is the wife’s very specific irritation towards her husband. How she’s incredulous at his plans and the way he hopefully rhapsodizes about future farm life to their adorable kids and passively aggressively cuts him down. To me, this isn’t the fathers of Korea-past at whom wives would never have nagged or bothered to tell how they feel. Yuen is a battered neutered patriarch, this I didn't expect. Even if he does hold all the power, she can always leave — an invisible threat that looms large — and where would that leave him?
I’ve noticed Asian American writers noting how Minari shows the beginnings of the children’s path to banana-dom, or losing their Koreanness in a whitewashed world. On the other end of the spectrum, some white writers have (disgustingly) marvelled at and proclaimed the movie as a tale of triumphant assimilation more generally. I guess it’s nice that Lee Isaac Chung has given us a movie where all interpretations can exist in harmony. I spent the movie metaphorically biting my nails and wondering if it was going to turn out like all the other asian american movies/tv past, a feeling which never let up until the last quarter, the final wave of events crash not in pure cheese but in Malickian and Bergman-esque deus machina.
Hyperallergic: Minari isn’t about the American Dream; it’s about US empire, Peter Kim George.
I’ve already shilled this tweet before but I still hold fast to my initial opinion, ripe for Oscar gold.
In her third feature, Chloe Zhao once again folds fiction into the expanse of documentary realism. True immersion is difficult though because Frances McDormand is still Frances McDormand, even though she’s let herself age naturally and done her best roughing it among non-actors (actual nomad-workers they’re called) and living out of her mobile hermitage, which isn’t so much decked out and personalized as it is practically retooled.
At first Fern, her character, seems thrown into this life by circumstance — the death of her husband, the closing of the company town and ensuing lack of jobs. But later the film reveals, in a pivotal and stirring scene, that Fern’s fierce independence and stubbornness was always just a part of her nature. Smarting from psychic wounds, her isolation was self-imposed, an impulsive rebellion, a choice. And so what if they are? Whether it is a flaw or feature, the film passes no judgment, content to let everything steep in the beauty of the natural world, mesas and desert sky.
As with her other films, Zhao seems to be making a statement about those who stay and those who go, people on the margins, the allure of forging ahead and forgetting. The forces of government were also intrinsically involved in shaping the fate of her characters' lives in Songs My Brother Taught Me, but it is not so deftly woven into this film. Nomadland keenly locates a displaced America but then offers no criticism of it, heralding the dog-eat-dog contractor society lifestyle as a personal career move made to achieve some sort of greater personal fulfillment. In one sense, it really is the movie of our times, but not the way it intended: a cautionary tale and natural conseqence of a technocratic create-your-own-job society. The movie will probably win.