NY Times Critics

It would be good to know that a certain critic’s taste coincided with your own, especially if that critic were on The New York Times, which is my primary source of movie information. One easy test of this came this weekend, when the Times printed an Oscars section in which their two chief critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis gave their lists of who the 2019 nominees should be. Alas, their choices were so far from mine that I worry about relying upon their recommendations in the future.

To wit:
The most unwatchable performances for me this year were Natalie Portman in Vox Lux and Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. Dargis had both of them on her lists of Best Actor and Best Actress. For Best Picture, Dargis listed The Death of Stalin, which we went to based on her review and thought was terrible. She also included Zama, which we saw at the NY Film Festival two years ago and led us to decide not to go to the Film Festival again. She touted both of those for Best Screenplay, as well.

I saw seven of the ten films listed by Scott for Best Picture and was less than impressed with four of them: If Beale Street Could Talk, Let the Sunshine In, Private Life and Support the Girls. The last, especially, left me cold, in contrast to both critics, who also gave it nods for Best Actress (Dargis), Supporting Actress (Dargis, twice) and Screenplay (Scott). Both critics surprised me by nominating Brian Tyree Henry from Beale Street as Best Supporting Actor. He wasn’t bad, but it was such a small role – one scene – compared to Adam Driver, say, in BlackKklansman.

A couple more films that I haven’t seen get a lot of love – namely, Happy as Lazzaro, Sorry to Bother You, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Burning. Normally I would make an extra effort to catch up with them, but based on the apparent dissonance in our taste, I can no longer be so sure.

If Beale Street Could Talk – 6

Beale Street is a long, slow street we’re asked to walk, without a happy end in sight. There is one scene that crackles, when the future in-laws come over to hear the news, but if that record plays at 78, the rest is 33-1/3. The two lead actors are bland in their goodness, and the camera keeps lingering. I know we’re supposed to just accept the premise that a random black man can be jailed for rape for no good reason, but the lack of an accuser, witnesses, forensic evidence, motive or opportunity makes this crucial aspect of the plot a troubling hole, rather than a cause for sympathy. And contrary to the title, New Orleans and jazz don’t play much of a role.

Vice – 7.8

Watching this, I was two-thirds ashamed to be an American, with our recent history running from Richard Nixon through the phony justifications of the Iraq invasion, but one-third proud to live in a culture that could produce such a clever, popular takedown of a living public figure. Some caricatures misfired – especially Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld – but I appreciated the effort to match actor with historical figure, like Eddie Marsan for Paul Wolfowitz. Most of the plot was familiar, but the light it concentrated on certain facts, such as Cheney’s sweetheart deals with Halliburton and the lack of a background check when he selected himself for the vice-presidency, still made me cringe. Christian Bale was amazing, but I doubt his Oscar chances: some voters must be Republicans; some will say it was impersonation, not acting; and others will just be so repulsed that they won’t want to see Cheney/Bale get any awards. I can see why this movie is not for everyone: it is tendentious, flip – one reviewer called in “meanspirited” – and treats very serious matters like a Doonesbury cartoon; but director Adam McKay’s storytelling style was original and consistent, and I laughed when I wasn’t cringing.

Shoplifters – 8

A meditation on family, Shoplifters also hits home as a reflection on what counts as progress in Japanese society since Yasujiro Ozu’s very similar films in the 1950s. Most obvious is the style of filmmaker Kore-eda, shooting from tatami-level. Then there is the plot of everyday family matters, one vignette of daily life after another – no guns, no violence, no sex, no action. Driving home the comparison is the one bird’s-eye shot of the traditional wooden house, surrounded by concrete apartment buildings. It takes awhile to figure out who is who, and longer to figure out how they are related, or not. And then the meditation continues after the film ends, as you contemplate why this family seems to get along better than any other family you’ve seen in a movie for ages. Maybe it’s the food?