RFBROWN ON THE 2021 OSCAR FOR BEST PICTURE
“They’re always giving out awards. Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.” If an award like that really did exist, though, they’d probably end up giving it to Mussolini.” – Woody Allen, Annie Hall
The fake-mixed-up-envelope incident between LA LA Land and Moonlight and the even worse Green Book mockery are just two recent Oscar Best Picture disappointments that made me Woody Allen-level cynical. I suppose Best Picture never really meant nothing before, but it has come to mean less than nothing, even when I like the winner (Parasite, Nomadland). The Oscar TV show itself has stripped away just about anything to do with the craft of filmmaking and replaced it with four hours of Hollywood-insider butt-sniffing. Grammy and Tony awards do not mean anything either, but at least those TV broadcasts retain live performances to keep them worth watching. Enough, this is Oscar-hating season. I like to party by passive aggressively no longer paying attention to the category races, that is, except for one category. Despite those recent embarrassments, I still want to care about Best Picture, to see the Best Picture, even if it isn’t. For a big portion of my life I did enjoy the Oscars even to the point of zealotry. Part of me wants to believe something about the passing film year, so I still make an effort to at least see all the BP nominees.
The nominees are…
CODA – I am not here to prevent you from seeing, liking, or being moved by this movie. CODA is an unusual opportunity to see a sort of edgy story about hearing-impaired people. But the acting is forced, as are the dramatic perils that befall deaf parents of a hearing teenage daughter who discover themselves completely out of touch with her ambitions and teen problems. Is this because deaf people are in some ways resigned to live insular lives, or because the story needs these parents to act like oblivious assholes until they come around to delivering a drippy plot to its manual and lukewarm conclusion? Respect to a movie about marginalized people, it’s not terrible. But for me it’s not in the category among best.
DON’T LOOK UP – It was the playwright George S. Kaufman who said, “Satire is what closes on a Saturday night.” What Kaufman meant was that a truly funny social or political critique is hard to communicate/sell to the dense masses. That is why satire falls victim to dumbing itself down, and as victims of oversimplifying go, Don’t Look Up is barely alive. I do not think the problem is with the actors, DeCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence provide sincerity and I say (although I might be the only one) that Jonah Hill is funny. The problem lays with the grandiose screenplay saying the world is absurdly ignoring catastrophe and that nothing is being done by them over there–politicians, media, corporations, every institution but the institution of individual responsibility. The space comet hurtling toward satire Earth is a metaphor, but the fast fuse on real Earth’s destruction is lit and burning here in our atmosphere and this movie is not doing anything to stop it either. I guess Don’t Look Up is a perfect movie for the Oscar’s, it’s meaningless and fools itself into believing it’s more substantial than it actually is.
DRIVE MY CAR – Recalling the coital conversations of Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, Bergman’s emotionally cold domains viewed though a glass darkly, and Chekov’s talkative stage ensemble characters–whom we are never sure if they are fooling themselves, each other, or the audience–Drive My Car director Hamaguchi takes us for a three-hour drifting drive through the landscapes of the human psyche. We travel with the excellent actors through the deepest valleys of the mortal highway exploring regret, guilt, unexpressed love, hurting the person you strive most to protect, and our instinct to survive personal trauma. Like life, Drive My Car’s journey is alternately bleak and beautiful. My only criticism is that the film’s fine screenplay was not presented in a context true to film, there was not any scene in it’s lengthy exhibition that could not be performed on a stage, including scenes in the car. For being less filmic than other choices, I do not pick Drive My Car for Best Picture, but in terms of its dramatic efficacy, it’s a midsize epic.
DUNE – This visually captivating recreation of masterful literary work provides a universe in layers political, supernatural, and domestic. All of the film’s artistic ambitions are impressive and successful in terms of cast, production, effects, and story. My only caveat is over handing a trophy to a movie that isn’t finished. Dune would have been better if they had found a way to provide a satisfying ending instead of “tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion.” Tune in after they put out part two and I’ll tell you if I give it an Oscar.
KING RICHARD – There are many successes to be honored regarding King Richard. The sports parent as the protagonist is a novel approach to the sports movie sub-genre, and here Richard Williams is shown as both of flawed character and devoted to his family. I admired that the movie depicted the drama of the tennis game authentically (I am a sports movie connoisseur and more frequently than not, sports movie filmmakers know nothing about their sports subjects). The actors Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis flawlessly fuse into the Williams parent characters. We are not doing Oscars for acting here, but I hope they both win. I am willing to look past the problem that two women become among the most important athletes in history and the biopic that gets made is about the man who orchestrated their successes; however, for two and a half hours the Venus and Serena Williams characters are treated as not much more than chorus girls. Did these children not think anything about what their dad was doing for them, to them? As for that two and a half hours, the storytelling is weighed down with a lot of clunky direction and editing. Like Richard Williams himself, the movie is highly imperfect but you have to admire and respect its audacity.
LICORICE PIZZA – For director P.T. Anderson films like There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread, I always feel like I am the only one standing with him and his maverick visions. But if asked to stand similarly for Licorice Pizza I would have to say, “What do you mean we middle-aged white man?” Imagine if this vanity, romcom, nostalgic fantasy, whatever-it-is had been about a twenty-five year old man being romanced by a fifteen year old girl? O, the Tweet-rage. Aside from the gross gender double-standard, and Anderson’s non sequitur othering of Japanese people (which he publicly refuses to own up-to), there are some sequences in this vignette-style movie that work. I love the ’70s Hollywood lore depicting outrageous hyper-masculine idiocy, i.e. the John Peters and William Holden episodes. All the rest of the time the movie is trying to amuse us with the implausible small-business ambitions of its male teen protagonist and that character’s oogie seduction of an older woman, and what goes on the screen is just immature, masturbatory, and boring.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY – Someone asked me to defend the end of Nightmare Alley, [spoiler coming…] the scene where Bradley Cooper’s formerly successful supper-club psychic character returns to the traveling carnival to accept the job of chicken-head-biting caged geek. He utters the last line, “Mister, I was born for it.” I suggest just reading the Wikipedia entry on Freudian Death Drive, the human instinct toward aggression, traumatic repetition, and self-destruction. I was not surprised to discover that the author of the source novel was deeply involved with psychoanalysis, as what seems to motivate each damaged character’s behavior, rich and poor, is self-destruction. The aim of the story, I think, is to explore Freud’s claim that “the aim of all life is death.” Bradley Cooper plays the slow rise and annihilation of his character brilliantly; the whole cast is similarly convincingly neurotic. I am blown away by the art direction, particularly the interiors of the second half’s escape to wealthy “success.” Negatives also arise in the second half. Scenes get weary and some plot turns seem unlikely. On the whole, I was hypnotized in the sadnesses of people teetering on their echelons.
THE POWER OF THE DOG – There is a scene in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s rancher character, Phil, is looking out at a sunlit mountain range. What only Phil sees is the shape of a dog’s head created by a shadow on the hillside. A cowpoke asks Phil if there is something to see out there. Phil says “Not if you can’t see it, there ain’t.” Watching at home I could not see it either, someone had to actively stop the movie and point out the dog image. Power of the Dog is full of challenges to understand what is going on. If you have to see a movie twice to understand what happened does that make the movie good because it did not spoon-feed you the details or bad because it is failing during the first viewing to communicate? Perhaps form is mimicking content. Phil, the central character, is enigmatic, suppressed, and antisocial. I might use the same words to describe the purposely inscrutable way this movie is cut together. The story is rife with complex questions: who is good or bad, who is a hero or victim, is masculinity entirely a social construct? Paying attention to each line of dialogue, each character decision, and the composition of each scene provides rewards to the questioning viewer. However, if I were voting for Best Picture Oscar and I were limited to seeing each movie only once, I would have to judge this movie unsatisfying.
BELFAST – There is an anti-intellectualism to deciding that all black and white movies made today are pretentious. I am fine with modern b&w auteurism where content provides a time relevant purpose or it is otherwise aesthetically evocative. Belfast is set in the 1960s, and there is neither a Swedish knight playing chess with the grim reader, nor another relevance to the movie’s black and whiteness; the choice only seems to provide a monochrome veneer to mediocre-written material. Is it too cynical to suggest that director Kenneth Branagh and the producers could be cynical enough to make a movie specifically prepared in black & white for partially quality-blind year-end movie award panels? Belfast has everything middle-age white people love: bildungsroman of an adorable blond boy pursuing first romance with an adorable girl of another Christian sect; attractive but clumsy young parents struggling to hold their family together during dire times; an aging couple who bicker-cute until death due them part; and a bitter civil war in which none of our protagonists have an uncomfortable partisan stake. And then all of these war-set tropes are disarmingly connected by a boomerific Van Morrison soundtrack (I thought Van Mo was canceled.). Yes, there is a pointless war of prejudice on, but somehow the family of characters and you the audience feel all will safe and resolved in the warm bosom of nostalgia. A movie that so deliberately appeals to the Oscar voter’s two-dimensional emotions and assures them that their vote will most closely resemble patronage of “art” cannot possibly lose.
And the winner should have been…
WEST SIDE STORY – This movie is not a remake of the highly theatrical 1961 West Side Story, i.e. the best movie musical ever made. I consider this newer West Side Story an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical, the source of the iconic score, songs, and production numbers. The numbers are spectacular, but there are at least three things that make newer West Side Story a modern classic on its own merits. One, the screenplay specifically re-dramatizes the characters, expanding their backstories and motivations, and provides heartbreaking dimension to the catastrophes of the second act. Two, the direction, art design, and cinematography constellate into a gritty dystopian vision of 1957 New York City in the plain of a wrecking ball, and yet all is perfectly crafted to provide poignant realism of a kind we might find in a timely documentary. Three, people have focused on the weak casting of this version’s Tony, I say he comes off mediocre because the ensemble around him is so damn good. The movie is a rowdy showcase for its brilliant young actors, both in their performing talents and their dramatic renditions. West Side Story is the Best Picture nominee I would vote for and it is my favorite movie of the year (And the second best movie musical ever made.)