The Traitor – 8

Here was a world I knew well, from The Irishman, Narcos, Sopranos, The Godfather and many more. As in The Irishman, the central figure, Tommaso Buscetta, was a “soldier,” but as played by Pierfrancesco Favino he is the dominant figure you want to watch, everything De Niro wasn’t. This, too, was a true story, which had plusses and minuses. Negative was the need to throw in historic episodes, such as the trial of ex-Premier Giulio Andreotti, that detracted from the movie’s dramatic arc. Positive was the help in suspending disbelief as one after another mobster was executed, often in grisly fashion. For a foreigner, the best new angle here was the film’s insight into Italy’s legal system and the light touch – even humor – that director Marco Bellocchio brought to the subject. The opening 20 minutes was a Cosa Nostra version of Saving Private Ryan, but once things settled down there were enough recognizable characters to populate a whole miniseries. Powerful, engaging and historically informative.

Oscar Riffs 2020

The Show: Steve Martin and Chris Rock’s opening monologue deserved an A and was matched later on by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. If they could host, it would make it a more cohesive show. Ditto for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. As it was, the segment intros were hit-or-mostly miss. Someone named Ramos I’d never heard of introduced Lin-Manuel Miranda and someone named Utkarsh Ambudkar rapped a half-time recap. This is a night for celebrities, not wannabes. Without a host or subtitles, I had no idea what or why Eminem was performing, nor did I know who it was, although much of the audience sang along. For a show that always exceeds its time slot, there is an awful lot that could be excised without complaint.
The Acceptances: Brad Pitt and Laura Dern were perfect, a pleasure to watch. Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger not so much, although they took diametrically opposed approaches to their overlong moments: Renee thanked a litany of names that meant nothing to us; Joaquin mounted a soapbox and made you cringe for his causes. A few of the lesser winners handled themselves well, especially Roger Deakins, who must have been ready after having been nominated 15 times. Why we have to listen to a make-up artist announce how much she loves her husband and children is beyond me. So is why we have to listen to her at all. I would start the trimming, however, with the short features. Couldn’t they be honored with the technical awards and just announced on the big night, with a substantial clip from the winning film?
The Awards: Parasite is the elephant in this room. Whatever one thought of the movie – most people I know weren’t wild about it (I gave it a 5.5) – it’s fair to say that four Oscars was a bit much. Of course, two of them – Best Picture and Best Foreign-Language Film – are for the same thing: if one is eligible for both and wins the former, the latter is automatic. There were such other worthy nominees, that it felt a shame not to spread the love a bit – e.g., give Tarantino the award for screenplay and Scorsese for Director. It also got monotonous watching Bong Joon Ho ascend the stage time and again, although he was charming and his speech for Best Director was one of the night’s highlights. Other than Parasite, the awards were pretty much a foregone conclusion, which seems to be happening fairly regularly now. I’m glad Ford v. Ferrari and Little Women were at least recognized, and glad that 1917 was somewhat limited in its haul.
The Music: There were nine musical numbers, so I’m giving music its own rubric. I’ve already cited the two raps – one was a waste of time, the other rather out of place and mysterious. The opening number, sung by Janelle Monae, was what passes for modern music – tuneless with lots of noise and rhythm – the kind of music that, blessedly, had nothing to do with the movies being honored. Billie Eilish’s rendition of Yesterday was affecting – credit there. That leaves the five nominated Best Songs. All of the songwriters involved have had much better days. Undoubtedly the most insipid of the bunch was Elton John’s winner; it was hard to even make out the song as he sang it. I suspect his victory was a kind of reputation, or lifetime achievement acknowledgement. I was getting drinks when Cynthia Erivo sang her song, which was the best reviewed of the weak bunch; but it brought up one of my Oscar peeves. It was not performed during the movie – it was tacked on during the credits. Why is it, then, part of the movie? The Academy bolstered my complaint with a montage of musical numbers that helped define and were inseparable from their movies – all of which, unless I’m mistaken, were part of the movie soundtrack. I don’t know if this practice of movie add-on started with Bruce Springsteen’s Philadelphia, but it has blossomed ever since. If most moviegoers don’t even stick around to hear it, why give it an Oscar?
Best Picture: The critics are proud of Hollywood for choosing a “worthy” film, like 12 Years A Slave and Moonlight. The contrast they inevitably make is with Green Book and Crash, which are deemed punch lines not even worth explaining or discussing. Both, however, were favorites of mine, and Green Book (labeled a “middlebrow nothing” this week by Manohla Dargis) was one of the most universally loved films among theatergoers of my acquaintance. What’s wrong with us?
#OscarsNotTooWhite: Four Oscars to a South Korean film should take care of complaints about lack of Asian representation at the ceremony for a short while, but we all know that the OscarsTooWhite campaign is really about Blacks. Penelope Cruz and Selma Hayek are doing quite well on their own, and Mexico has recently had a lock on the Directing category. The Academy compensated for the lack of Black nominees by overloading the roster of presenters and backup dancers with people of color. But really, who has grounds to complain about the nominations on diversity grounds? Dolemite Is My Name was unwatchable and Eddie Murphy played an unfunny vulgar comedian. Jennifer Lopez, I thought, was inept in an equally bad movie. If there’s a complaint, it’s that there aren’t enough good movies being made about Blacks or Latinos or Asians, not that such individuals were denied nominations. And as for women directors, there were three or four worthy ones this year, led by Greta Gerwig, but whose place were they supposed to take? Scorsese? Tarantino? Mendes? I hope that the Academy gets over its fixation, its self-flagellation on this topic and just lets the best man win.

Les Miserables – 8.2

Almost a masterpiece by French director Ladj Ly. The people and the setting are real and harrowing. Every moment is fraught with tension, but it all makes sense, as we live through the worst possible first day on the job for Special Crimes Unit newcomer Ruiz. The entire day is spent meeting the denizens of Montfermeil, a Parisian suburb home to African immigrants and similar residents of the lower depths, defusing crises, including one brought on by the cops. The interplay among the three policemen is brilliant: each is different but understandable, and how they get along is one of the film’s tensions, but only one. At the end of the day, there has been a resolution – at least enough to get along for another day – and the film slows to a meditative ending, with successive close-ups of each of the principals, home from the stress of the day. But the film doesn’t end! We are shown a sped-up second day in which all hell breaks loose. Instead of the realism of Day One, the movie devolves into an all-out bang-bang chase and shoot-out, like so many lesser films. The peace and understanding and amazement I felt at the close of day one was blown away by the pessimistic coda: there is no hope – a message I didn’t want or need and one I wasn’t sure was set up by what had come before. So, as I said, “almost a masterpiece.”

Top Ten 2019

As I get on in my movie-going career, I find that more and more I want to enjoy myself when I go out to see a film (or, less often, stream one at home).  Yes, it’s good to be intellectually challenged or recognize great craftsmanship, and those qualities are both included in selections below; but if something can make me smile for 90-120 minutes, I’m willing to overlook, say, triviality of subject or, perhaps, lack of originality. So, I offer apologies at the outset to Marriage Story, 1917, Little Women, The Irishman and Parasite, for reasons spelled out in my reviews. They were each, undoubtedly, expertly acted and executed, and perfectly fulfilled a director’s admittedly interesting vision. They didn’t grab me, however, and, for different reasons, left me with questions and complaints, not satisfaction. Some of this may be attributable to the advance notice that each of these Oscar nominees had received before I saw them. In any case, I will not contend that the following list comprises the “ten best” movies of 2019. They are just the ten I would most gladly recommend; the ten I enjoyed the most.

1. The Two Popes.  If the meek are to inherit the earth, the Papacy is a good place to start. This movie had a startlingly current subject, two of the best performances of the year, gorgeous visuals and provocative thoughts on faith, theology, politics, history, culture, humanity and probably more. The scenes of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce alone together were, to me, the cinematic highlight of the year.

1A. Never Look Away. (A 2018 release, so not on any lists this year, but not seen in Santa Barbara in time for my 2018 Top Ten.) The best film about an artist I’ve ever seen, plus it’s a searing look at Nazi-era Germany and a charming love story. With six strong performances, the movie kept growing and getting richer over its fly-by three hours.

2. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood.  An amusement-park ride of a movie, a paean to Hollywood filmdom and a loving recasting of a time and place. There was nothing serious here, but each new scene was its own bonbon, and the mastery of Quentin Tarantino was evident in every shot, every song, every performance. Brad Pitt was never better, and LDC fit in with the fun.

3. First Love.   A Japanese gangster-romance that melded classic samurai-movie types with a love affair of two innocents out of their depth. Nothing here might be original in Japan, but it was refreshing and new in New York and I smiled with delight all the way through.

4. Pain and Glory.  Nothing funny here, but painfully soul-bearing and honest. You had to admire and respect the way that Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas  made art out of a dark view of the director’s life.

5. Transit.  A mystery thriller set in a modern-day Nazi occupation that kept you guessing, thinking and feeling, from the German director Christian Petzold, who has made this list with three films in a row.

6. Long Shot/Late NightI’m combining two underrated pleasures, based on the commanding performances of Charlize Theron and Emma Thompson and their goofy humor. The Late Night setup was a tad more realistic, but you didn’t have to buy into the stories to enjoy the side characters and the funny one-liners.

7. The Sound of My VoiceA sweet documentary about Linda Ronstadt that so happens to have all my favorite ’70s California rockers playing and reminiscing alongside. What’s wrong with bathing nostalgia in golden haze?

8. YesterdayLightweight, yes, and as improbable as any sci-fi story, but so goodhearted and filled with such fun music (and I’m not a Beatles fan!), that I could just sit back and enjoy Lily James and Kate McKinnon.

 9. Knives Out.  A devilishly tongue-in-cheek whodunit with scores of clues that ultimately hung together, all the while giving the first-rate cast scenery to chew en route to a happy ending.

10. Ford v. Ferrari.  An old-fashioned, conventional Hollywood drama with good guys, bad guys, personal relationships, car races and a bittersweet ending, all actually based on fact. Plus, Christian Bale is fantastic.

Elsewhere, I have handed out my Oscar selections; unusually, I don’t have to go far outside the official nominees to find my favorites. At this point I also like to make special mention of somewhat-acclaimed movies that I couldn’t stand: The Farewell, Booksmart, Judy and Hustlers.

Uncut Gems – 7.5

“Intense movie,” said the usher as I, and the two other men in the audience, left the theater. High-stress, high-volume is another way to describe the life of jeweller Howard Ratner, played brilliantly by Adam Sandler – neither hero nor antihero, a gambling addict, basketball fan, unfaithful husband, lousy father whom you don’t exactly root for or against but can’t take your eyes off of. You accept the dramatic license, which packs about six months of traumatic incident into six days, partly because the Safdie brothers weave real-life touches – an Ethiopian mine accident, the Celtics’ NBA finals against the 76ers, a club performance by the Weeknd – so smoothly into the frantic narrative of Howard’s existence. Kevin Garnett and newcomer Keith Williams Richards are memorable in secondary roles. It’s a serious movie with a great performance and fitting ending, but it’s not for everyone.

Top Ten 2019

As I get on in my movie-going career, I find that more and more I want to enjoy myself when I go out to see a film (or, less often, stream one at home).  Yes, it’s good to be intellectually challenged or recognize great craftsmanship, and those qualities are both included in selections below; but if something can make me smile for 90-120 minutes, I’m willing to overlook, say, triviality of subject or, perhaps, lack of originality. So, I offer apologies at the outset to Marriage Story, 1917, Little Women, The Irishman and Parasite, for reasons spelled out in my reviews. They were each, undoubtedly, expertly acted and executed, and perfectly fulfilled a director’s admittedly interesting vision. They didn’t grab me, however, and, for different reasons, left me with questions and complaints, not satisfaction. Some of this may be attributable to the advance notice that each of these Oscar nominees had received before I saw them. In any case, I will not contend that the following list comprises the “ten best” movies of 2019. They are just the ten I would most gladly recommend; the ten I enjoyed the most.

1. The Two Popes.  If the meek are to inherit the earth, the Papacy is a good place to start. This movie had a startlingly current subject, two of the best performances of the year, gorgeous visuals and provocative thoughts on faith, theology, politics, history, culture, humanity and probably more. The scenes of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce alone together were, to me, the cinematic highlight of the year.

1A. Never Look Away. (A 2018 release, so not on any lists this year, but not seen in Santa Barbara in time for my 2018 Top Ten.) The best film about an artist I’ve ever seen, plus it’s a searing look at Nazi-era Germany and a charming love story. With six strong performances, the movie kept growing and getting richer over its fly-by three hours.

2. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood.  An amusement-park ride of a movie, a paean to Hollywood filmdom and a loving recasting of a time and place. There was nothing serious here, but each new scene was its own bonbon, and the mastery of Quentin Tarantino was evident in every shot, every song, every performance. Brad Pitt was never better, and LDC fit in with the fun.

3. First Love.   A Japanese gangster-romance that melded classic samurai-movie types with a love affair of two innocents out of their depth. Nothing here might be original in Japan, but it was refreshing and new in New York and I smiled with delight all the way through.

4. Pain and Glory.  Nothing funny here, but painfully soul-bearing and honest. You had to admire and respect the way that Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas  made art out of a dark view of the director’s life.

5. Transit.  A mystery thriller set in a modern-day Nazi occupation that kept you guessing, thinking and feeling, from the German director Christian Petzold, who has made this list with three films in a row.

6. Long Shot/Late NightI’m combining two underrated pleasures, based on the commanding performances of Charlize Theron and Emma Thompson and their goofy humor. The Late Night setup was a tad more realistic, but you didn’t have to buy into the stories to enjoy the side characters and the funny one-liners.

7. The Sound of My VoiceA sweet documentary about Linda Ronstadt that so happens to have all my favorite ’70s California rockers playing and reminiscing alongside. What’s wrong with bathing nostalgia in golden haze?

8. YesterdayLightweight, yes, and as improbable as any sci-fi story, but so goodhearted and filled with such fun music (and I’m not a Beatles fan!), that I could just sit back and enjoy Lily James and Kate McKinnon.

 9. Knives Out.  A devilishly tongue-in-cheek whodunit with scores of clues that ultimately hung together, all the while giving the first-rate cast scenery to chew en route to a happy ending.

10. Ford v. Ferrari.  An old-fashioned, conventional Hollywood drama with good guys, bad guys, personal relationships, car races and a bittersweet ending, all actually based on fact. Plus, Christian Bale is fantastic.

Elsewhere, I have handed out my Oscar selections; unusually, I don’t have to go far outside the official nominees to find my favorites. At this point I also like to make special mention of somewhat-acclaimed movies that I couldn’t stand: The Farewell, Booksmart, Judy and Hustlers.

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: I still refuse to see Joker, and The Two Popes, my favorite, didn’t make the cut; so for me this is a decision between Ford v. Ferrari and Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, the two on the list I can say I thoroughly enjoyed. The scope and ambition of the latter was far greater, and if I had to watch one a second time, that would be it.

Director: It follows: Quentin Tarantino. Also, I love what he does with music in his films.

Lead Actor: Far and away the toughest competition, even without seeing Joaquin Phoenix, the expected winner. It would be even tougher if Christian Bale had replaced Leonardo DiCaprio. Antonio Banderas and Adam Driver were superb, but Jonathan Pryce was a revelation in a subtly more difficult role.

Supporting Actor: Anthony Hopkins in a role that should qualify as co-lead, but the same could be said for Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks, with Al Pacino not far behind.

Lead Actress: I haven’t seen Bombshell yet, but I’d almost vote for Charlize Theron based on the un-nominated Long Shot. Harriet (Tubman) must have had charisma that Cynthia Erivo lacked to earn her place in history. Renee Zellweger was an uninspiring performer and rather unlikeable as Judy. I liked Scarlett Johansson better in Marriage Story than in JoJo Rabbit, but the nod goes to Saoirse Ronan, who absolutely carried Little Women on her back.

Supporting Actress: I’ll pass, in the hope that Kathy Bates or Margot Robbie might be better than the three I saw. Laura Dern was fine, but nothing out of her comfort zone. Every time Amy Pugh was on screen I couldn’t wait for her to leave.

For Screenplay I will vote for Knives Out (Original) and The Two Popes (Adapted), a consolation prize since they are the only two not nominated for Best Picture, but also because I found them the most clever. Pain and Glory is certainly a worthy choice for International Film, but Les Miserables blew me away.

I am not qualified to vote on any of the other categories, but I will make my usual observation that there’s no reason that Sound Editing,  Costume Design and the other technical awards should be limited to Best Picture nominees. Maybe those are the only films a sufficient number of Academy members actually see?

The Two Popes – 9

What an intelligent film! What acting! And how daring – to base a film on the life of a living person, and the Pope, no less! I’m not a Catholic, but the spectacle of cardinals in robes, the scale of the Vatican and Castel Gondolfo, and the power and beauty of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel were awe-inspiring. The story itself, capturing the doctrinal debate within the Catholic Church, was smoothly laid out and instructive. But all was background for two Oscar-worthy performances: Anthony Hopkins can be a ham, but being God’s right-hand man provides a license for excess. The revelation was Jonathan Pryce, who somehow matched Hopkins with his modesty. The scenes of the two of them in conversation together were absolutely riveting. I could have used less of the Argentine flashback story, but that may be because I was eager to return to the splendor of Rome.

Ford v. Ferrari – 8

For a welcome change, a red-blooded bromance, mavericks-against-the-establishment, Americans-vs.-Italians action drama, made memorable by the protean Christian Bale’s portrayal of race driver Ken Miles. Matt Damon is solidly good, as he always is, and the rest of the supporting cast is almost as fun to watch. My only quibble – and in such a long movie having only one is remarkable – is that the Ford VP bad guy (Leo Beebe) is wildly overdrawn; but hey, what’s wrong with setting up a villain to root against. That’s what this film provides, in spades: a chance to root.