The Father – 8

A gem of a movie, narrow in scope but enlarged by the great acting of Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. By confining the set to, basically, two rooms and a hallway, we were forced into the mind of the father, struggling absent-mindedly with dementia. The film is mercifully short, as we get the picture early on and know there won’t be a happy ending, just the chance to think about aging and elder care, for our loved ones and ourselves.

Dear Comrades – 7.5

A retrograde anti-propaganda film, if such there be, taking down Soviet Communism for its top-down bureaucracy that creates inequality, inertia, oppression and distrust. Filmed in black-and-white and recalling Russian cinema of the late ’50s (The Cranes Are Flying, Ballad of A Soldier, etc.), Andrei Konchalovsky’s take on a 1962 workers’ strike that was brutally suppressed is cleverly told through the story of a committed Party member who is, conflictedly, a mother. If the plot was an eery parallel of Quo Vadis, Aida?, the depiction of the USSR echoed the mini-series Chernobyl.

The Mole Agent – 8

This was a charming journey inside a senior citizens center in Chile, reminiscent of Laura Gabbert’s Sunset Story but with less plot. In fact, what plot there was seemed to be a set-up: I don’t believe there was a client concerned that her mother was being mistreated; I think that was a ruse to get this particular film made. Would that disqualify it as a “documentary”? Apparently not, as it is Oscar-nominated in that category. Whether he was in on the ruse or not (and I think “not”),  Sergio the Mole was such an ingenuous charmer with such a positive impact on the seniors, almost all female, that you just felt good watching the film. And the well-run center itself was the diametric opposite of what we saw in I Care A Lot. This was about as conflict-free as a film could be.

Better Days – 8

While this was more effective as a romance than an anti-bullying message film, what most sticks in mind is the brutal picture of life in China for high-school seniors. Made in Hong Kong in 2019 (but up for an Academy Award this year), could it have been intended as a critique of mainland education, which seemed to consist solely of uniform-wearing, slogan-spouting, exam-cramming, when not being harassed by uneducated, brutal thugs. The slowly growing bond of the two young leads gave us plenty to care about, while the Mean Girl villains played a role consistent across all cultures. The legal result made little sense to our American experience; but, as we’re continually learning with Spiral, human nature may be universal but judicial systems aren’t.

Oscar Wrongs and Rights

People frequently ask for my Oscar predictions or preferences, so I will hazard the latter. The New York Times, among others, takes the fun and guesswork out of the former by polling voters and announcing results that tend to be more accurate than they are for the political elections.
To my mind, Trial of the Chicago 7 and Nomadland were the only two films from 2021 that I could unequivocally recommend, and I would award them the major prizes. Aaron Sorkin did his usual masterful job of screenwriting, weaving together distinct personalities, informal debate and courtroom testimony into the most traditional, but satisfying, story arc. I give him the Original Screenplay Award as well as the Big Kahuna, Best Picture. Chloe Zhao is a shoo-in for Best Director, not only for coaxing drama out of an undramatic story but for getting memorable turns out of real-life, non-actor nomads. She also deserves some of the credit when Frances McDormand is named Best Actress and Joshua James Richards wins for Best Cinematography.
Best Actor has been conceded to Chadwick Boseman, with sympathy for his untimely passing muting any possible contest with Riz Ahmed. My two caveats are that Delroy Lindo of Da 5 Bloods would be my choice if he were nominated, and Boseman’s portrayal of James Brown in Get On Up was less recognized but even more deserving. McDormand should win Best Actress in a unanimous decision.
Supporting Actor is easy for me, but harder for the voters. Sacha Baron Cohen was brilliant in Chicago 7–so unlike his Borat role that I didn’t recognize him at first. He commanded the screen but never overpowered the ensemble. Daniel Kaluuya is the favorite but not with me. For 1., I couldn’t understand what he said half the time, unlike the rest of the Judas and the Black Messiah cast, who articulated just fine. 2. I consider his a lead role, not supporting. He is the featured face in every ad for the movie; and if a movie about the murder of Fred Hampton isn’t about Fred Hampton, who is it? The producers tried to make Lakeith Stanfield the “lead,” but the Oscar nominators put him in the Supporting category as well. As one observer noted, “if Kaluuya and Stanfield are both supporting actors, who is the lead?” In fact, both were co-leads, and Jesse Plemons should not only be deemed a supporting actor but should have gotten an Oscar nod for his performance.
For Supporting Actress, I give the nod by default to Olivia Colman based on past performance, since The Father, alone in the Oscar field, has not been released on streaming yet.
For Adapted Screenplay, I’m happy to go with Nomadland, although White Tiger, from left field, could be more deserving. I have no idea what the Borat screenplay could be “adapted” from. It was a hilarious movie, but it’s hard to believe it even had a screenplay.
International Feature Films were a marvelous collection of cross-cultural experiences. Quo Vadis, Aida?  was simply a great film, with a serious subject and sensational acting. It wins my award, but Better Days is not far behind. I haven’t seen the Tunisian film yet.
The only other category I qualify for is Best Documentary. I didn’t like Collective, Time or Crip Camp, so that leaves two cute, lightweight foreign films, My Octopus Teacher and The Mole Agent. The former got a lot more play, while the latter was more original–a fun choice that I doubt the Academy members will be making. I like nature docs, but when you come down to it, despite the somewhat tortured psychological overlay, that’s what Octopus was, so I’ll go with the Mole.
These are the films and artists I hope win, but just as important to me are the ones I hope will lose, which is mainly Mank. Somehow it garnered the most nominations, although no one I know has claimed to like it. In fact, many, like me, actively disliked it. If it were to be shut out of awards entirely, I would consider the night a success. The other most overrated nominee is the Romanian Collective, which remarkably was nominated in two categories: Documentary and International Feature. Perhaps it is the pleasure of seeing a Communist country exposed as corrupt that has drawn such attention, but I found the story disjointed and the technique amateurish. I also disagreed with the critics about One Night in Miami. I was relieved to see that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture or Director. I was still amazed that it was nominated for Adapted Screenplay, as it played so much like the stage play it originally was. In most years, Promising Young Woman would be considered an average film, although Carey Mulligan is a deserving Best Actress nominee, as are all the women so nominated. That, to me, is the strongest category of the night.
PS: Today (3/21) the L.A. Times ran a piece about the Oscar nominees from 20 years ago. Their point was to assess what the voters had gotten right or wrong, in hindsight, and what deserving films and actors were overlooked. For me, however, the point was how weak this year’s nominees are in comparison. Gladiator (Russell Crowe) took home the Oscar; the other nominees were Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), Chocolat (Juliette Binoche), Traffic (Benicio del Toro), and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Zhang Ziyi). It’s hard for me to see any of the 2020 nominated films breaking into that lineup.

Another Round – 7

A baffling subject, at least for this non-Scandinavian: drinking alcohol, on the job and eventually to excess. Rather than condemn the practice, the movie seemed to show that it helped some, while killing others. So maybe the subject was really about mid-life (turning 40) crisis, or male bonding, with the booze as catalyst, or backdrop. Mads Mikkelsen starred, and I would’ve been less surprised had he received an Oscar nomination rather than director Thomas Vinterberg. It was certainly well done, but I still don’t know how I was supposed to feel (like Sound of Metal in that way).

Crip Camp – 5

Not my cup of tea. There was a transition from home-video clips of a summer camp for handicapped teens to the fight for civil rights of the disabled leading to the ADA, but I was asleep and missed it.

Quo Vadis, Aida? – 8.5

A true story about the Serbs’ 1995 massacre of Bosnians in Srebenica is told in sidelong fashion by focusing, instead, on the motherly desperation of Aida, a Bosnian translator working for the UN in its “safe haven,” to protect her husband and two sons. Jasna Duricic is sensational as the competent and fiercely determined translator, giving the film its documentary look of real people, by the thousands, including other leads who look just like their characters’ pictures on Wikipedia. What I didn’t learn about the Balkan War in this 1:45 I picked up in Internet research I felt I needed immediately following, which is the true compliment to the power of this film. My only quibble: director Jasmila Zbanic put in one or two too many vain entreaties by Aida to the feckless Dutch forces. We had gotten the point, and it was devastating.

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet – 7.5

It’s hard to “rate” a beautifully made film on the end of the world as we know it, just as it is hard to watch it. I don’t need to be reminded what humans have done to climate, habitat and the cause of biodiversity in the last 70 years, but Attenborough’s personal testimony, measured and even understated, bears witnessing. By drawing on the films he has made in Africa, in the Arctic, in the oceans, he reminds us of the treasures we took for granted and are rapidly losing. To end on a message of hope he lists in simple terms the steps we can take to reverse disaster, but their apparent, to me, impossibility is further cause for depression. All we need do is 1. stop population growth; 2. stop all deforestation; 3. change our diet to plant-based proteins; 4. create fishing-free zones in the oceans; 5. reduce agricultural lands while increasing output (a la the Dutch); 6. change energy production from fossil fuels to renewable sources; 7. and other items I’ve forgotten. And who will do this, I ask one night. Then the next I watch Quo Vadis, Aida?

Made You Look – 7

A workmanlike talkumentary about the Knoedler Gallery’s sale of 60 forged AbEx paintings, in which all sides are presented but only one is credible. There was nothing here I hadn’t read in ArtNews, but it was interesting to see the characters in person, especially gallerist Ann Freedman, whose icy but unconvincing resolve that she wasn’t to blame left much for the viewer to ponder. Michael Hammer’s role was barely touched on–a hole in the film–but what was there was pretty bad. I could have used more about the art itself, the lack of technical scrutiny of the works, and the role of the consulting experts. In short, this was more a once-over introduction to the subject than a probing investigation.