The list of nominees is here. For only the second time in my now long life I’ve managed to see all the films in the top categories. I so far have blog posts on none—having slacked off on film reviews over the past year—but intend to get one up soon on the Afro-American themed films, plus another on the Second World War one (along with others on that topic). I’ll also have a special one on films set in Texas. And the foreign ones too. For the others, here’s my capsule assessment, beginning with the Best Picture nominees.
Manchester by the Sea: I was eagerly looking forward to seeing this, in view of the stellar reviews—a 96 score on Metacritic and 4.5/4.2 on Allociné—and dithyrambic reactions on social media. But then a highbrow New York-based intello-cinephile friend—whose views I take with the utmost seriousness—told me that it was “terribly overrated.” My reply to him after seeing: “It’s not a chef d’œuvre but I wouldn’t say it’s overrated—let alone hugely so—this implying that it’s not that good. It’s an engaging film—which, for me, means that I didn’t start checking the time on my phone half way through—and well acted. It won’t make AWAV’s Top 10 of the year but could make Honorable Mention [which it did].” After reading novelist Francine Prose’s essay on the film in the NYR blog, I emailed him that “[m]y estimation of Manchester is increasing…” But then I received this from a faithful Provence-based AWAV reader: “Interesting movie, great acting, sensible directing, but spoiled right in the middle [in the scene of the house burning] by a horrible mistake: the lengthy, insisting, emphatic, pompous, pathetic extract from Adagio d’Albinoni pasted wall to wall, several minutes of it, over the most dramatic silent scene in the movie… I couldn’t believe it! Not even a stupid producer would dare to ask that from a director.” Well! I didn’t fixate on the musical score myself, though can see the objection. Chacun son goût, comme on dit.
La La Land: I can’t remember the last time a movie was both so hyped and aroused such wildly diverging reactions from friends and colleagues on both sides of the ocean, ranging from gushing thumbs way up—with some loving it (e.g. a highbrow academic friend informed his thousands of social media fans that it was “enchanting”)—to vehement thumbs way down: e.g. one French journalist/Facebook friend so hated the pic that he fired off a 1,000-word diatribe ripping it to smithereens. Ouf! FYI, it’s a big hit in France, with an impressive 4.3/4.4 score on Allociné, though there does appear to have been a backlash against the film among some Anglophone critics. Now I normally do not care for musicals myself and tend to avoid them, though, in view of the hype, was certainly going to see this one. A highbrow cinesnob friend in the DC area who always likes a good musical (‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is his all-time favorite)—but otherwise rubbishes 85% of the films he sees—nonetheless dumped on ‘La La Land’, calling it “forgettable” and predicting that I would share his viewpoint.
Upon seeing it—with my 86-year-old mother, a lifelong cinephile herself and who grew up with musicals—I emailed the following to my cinesnob friend: “I started out not liking it… [b]ut then my attitude changed half way through, as the story started to come together—of [the protags’] relationship—and I came to appreciate some of the music—notably the band’s score in the nightclub—and choreography. And then talking about the movie with my mother, who liked it and, as is her wont, launched into a lengthy analysis (and which continued at home; and my mother’s film analyses are [on your highbrow level]). So my final verdict is a moderate thumbs up… Oh yes, my mother was also impressed with Ryan Gosling—whom she hadn’t seen before—of his talent as a musician and dancer. And found him physically graceful, reminding her of Marlon Brando. I was also impressed with his musical talent (on the keyboards).”
And then there was this reaction from my aforementioned New York-based intello-cinephile friend—and who has published articles on jazz, among many other subjects: “I liked it much more than I expected to. Sure, the jazz stuff is a bit silly, but it’s not a film about jazz, or about anything meant to resemble reality: it’s an ode to old Hollywood musicals, to the city of Los Angeles, and jazz is but a backdrop. To argue over the use of John Legend in the film is also to take the film too seriously. The two principals are charming, their relationship is believable and sympathetic, the use of color and setting striking. The music isn’t memorable, a weakness, except for that one song he sings and then later plays solo on piano. The film is not perfect, but for the most part I found it absorbing and delightful in an old-fashioned sort of way.” I’ll go along with that. [UPDATE: My mother has a review of ‘La Land Land’ on her blog here that is well worth reading (March 6th).]
Arrival: I had zero interest in seeing this when it came out here in December—under the title ‘Premier contact’—and despite the top reviews (4.1/4.1 in Allociné), as it looked to be a science fiction film, a genre I normally avoid. And I didn’t get any word-of-mouth on it (and still haven’t, apart from a shrug by a student). But in view of its Oscar nominations I decided I had to check it out, persuading an academic friend with whom I periodically see movies to come along. Now my friend—who is intellectually brilliant and analyses films on a rather higher level than I—knew absolutely nothing about it, so went into it blind, as was more or less the case with me. We were immediately impressed that the salle at the UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles multiplex was packed and two months after its sortie, signifying positive word-of-mouth. And we were impressed leaving the theater at the end, this time with the film itself, which surprised us both. It is, on the surface, a science fiction movie but is way more than that. It is a philosophical meditation on temporality and language, a “beautiful, astonishing, incredibly sophisticated film,” to paraphrase my friend. I am not capable of textually recounting her typically sophisticated analysis, nor my own thoughts at the moment—it was four weeks ago—so will simply link to the excellent review essay by the well-known science and technology writer-author James Gleick in The New York Review of Books, which is all one needs to read on the film.
Lion: I saw this just last night. The salle at UGC Opéra was almost full to capacity, which is not surprising in view of the manifestly positive word-of-mouth (reflected in the 4.5 audience score on Allociné). It’s a crowd-pleaser. One is totally caught up in the first half of the film, in India, and with one’s heart melting for the little Saroo all alone on the streets of Calcutta. Ça crève le cœur. One wants to take him into one’s arms and hug him to death. But the second half, in Australia, is less satisfying. I’m a sucker for sentimentality but it was laid on a little too heavily here. My tears were not jerked. And while Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman are nominees for best supporting actor and actress, respectively, I was not bowled over by their performances. The cinematography is impressive, though. And of course it has a happy ending, so one leaves the theater feeling good. The pic, while hardly a chef d’œuvre, may be seen.
And then there are these:
Captain Fantastic: I didn’t bother with this one when it came out—and despite the 4.4 Allociné audience rating—catching up with it on account of Viggo Mortensen’s best actor nomination. What to say, it’s a good, entertaining movie and with fine acting. I enjoyed it. And it is by far the most sophisticated Hollywood movie ever made in the way it treats left-wing politics, at least on the level of rhetoric. Hollywood invariably bombs when it comes to this but not this movie. Director-screenwriter Matt Ross knows the left, that’s for sure.
Florence Foster Jenkins: I thought that this would be anticlimactic after Xavier Giannoli’s 2015 Marguerite, which was inspired by the life of Florence FJ, but not at all. Having seen ‘Marguerite’ I knew the story, but was entertained nonetheless. The acting is excellent and with Meryl Streep more than deserving her best actress nomination. Too bad Simon Helberg wasn’t nominated for best supporting actor. The depiction of mid 1940s New York City is also impeccable. Voilà, c’est tout.
Jackie: I didn’t feel overly compelled to see this one, doing so mainly on account of Natalie Portman (best actress nominee)—for whom I have a well-known soft spot—playing the lead role. Director Pablo Larraín, who’s Chilean (he directed the terrific film No, among others), apparently said that he wouldn’t do the film if Portman didn’t take the role. She is, needless to say, perfectly cast as Jackie Kennedy. The pic is all Natalie P., and she’s great. Other than that, it left me indifferent. I gave it no thought after leaving the cinoche. Not even Natalie.
Sully: This received one nomination, for a category I have no opinion on (best sound editing). A perfect popcorn movie (though I never buy popcorn in movie theaters myself). Clint Eastwood’s most entertaining movie since ‘Invictus’. And Tom Hanks is impeccable in the lead role. French critics and audiences alike gave it the thumbs up, which is hardly a surprise (3.8/4.2 on Allociné). C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.
BEST PICTURE: ‘Moonlight’.
No hesitation on this, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the crowd-pleasing ‘Hidden Figures’ wins. I will be disgusted if it’s ‘La La Land’, which ranks close to last of the nine nominees.
BEST DIRECTOR: Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge).
A politically incorrect choice, I know. I was impressed with this film, however, and found the reenactment of the Battle of Okinawa to be a directorial feat. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) and Berry Jenkins (Moonlight) are tied for a close second.
BEST ACTOR: Denzel Washington (Fences).
Denzel has played his role here dozens of times on the stage but it’s a tour de force nonetheless. The other nominees are meritorious.
BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman (Jackie).
This is a close one. Isabelle Huppert is stellar in ‘Elle’ but this is not an American film and she already won the César for it yesterday. Meryl Streep is tops in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ but for her to get it would be like the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl. Deserved but happens all the time. Ruth Negga in ‘Loving’: I wouldn’t rank her first here. Emma Stone in ‘La La Land’ did not knock my socks off.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight).
He’s awesome in this. Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water) are tied for second.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures).
All the nominees here, Nicole Kidman (Lion) excepted, are credible winners.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: ‘The Salesman’ by Asghar Farhadi.
In view of the political context, I would be shocked if this didn’t win. Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’ is very good. I haven’t seen the other nominees.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: ‘Fire at Sea’.
This is the only one I’ve seen, and it’s good. I have been reliably informed that ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘O.J.: Made in America’, and ’13th’ are all amazing but I haven’t seen them yet. When they come to France, I will illico.