Latest posts by makeitsnowondem (see all)
- Commentist Beer Barrel: Brut Strength – August 22, 2018
- Oscar Night 2018 Open Thread – March 4, 2018
- Oscar Preview 2018: Prestige Award Lightning Round – March 1, 2018
The Oscars are almost upon us, with all their unpredictability. You don’t need an oracle to tell you what will happen. You don’t even need a film critic. You need someone who sees into the very souls of the Academy voters. You need a Straight White Man.
The Academy Awards can point you to a lot of good feature-length films outside their Best Picture nominees. I’d probably never even have heard of Trumbo or the new Cinderella if they hadn’t been nominated for Brian Cranston and a ridiculously fancy dress, respectively. And they were both totally worth watching! That’s why I like doing this, and there’s usually a wealth of good options in the less prestigious feature-film categories.
I was going to write about the foreign-language features today, too, because they fit the theme and some of the best things I’ve watched in the last few years have been in that category. But there’s one more I want to try to see before the ceremony, and so I’ll likely hold off on those until the day of the ceremony. For now, here are your feature-length documentary and animated films.
Amy – I didn’t follow Amy Winehouse very closely during her lifetime. After seeing Amy, I think she’d have appreciated that. Amy puts together a wealth of primary material—voicemails, phone videos and the like—and interviews with the people closest to her. It seems clear that Winehouse never very much liked being famous, and was harmed immensely by the music industry’s version of the fame machine. Watching this, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that if she’d just been left alone to make music and do shows whenever she wanted—probably a viable career model for someone as spectacularly talented as she was—she may have been just fine. I don’t get the impression that this film was as difficult to make as most of the other contenders, but it is expertly put together in a way that tells a clear story about just how awful fame can be.
Cartel Land – Cartel Land follows, essentially, vigilante groups on either side of the border. The split focus between the American militia called Arizona Border Recon and the Mexican Autodefensas ensures that one half of the film is much more eventful than the other, which I saw as highlighting what a bunch of goddamned whiners these American militia members are. Here you see groups on either side of the border saying pretty much the same thing: The government has abandoned us, they don’t care about enforcing the law, we’re going to have to take matters into our own hands. One of these groups is taking territory, capturing cartel leaders, and actually facing down the useless or corrupt police. The other’s driving around a lot of empty desert and apprehending the occasional band of hapless undocumented immigrants. The film’s never explicit about this contrast, but while I don’t think it’s the main point of Cartel Land, I am convinced it’s drawn intentionally.
The Look of Silence – For sheer horror in a documentary, it’s hard to beat The Act of Killing, in which filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer asks Indonesian “gangsters” who participated the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of alleged Communists to make a film of their own. The subject of the film: The murders they perpetrated, reenacted for the camera. The result was a staggering and vitally important picture of human callousness and cruelty in a daring and experimental package, and so, the Oscars being what they are, the trophy went to a slick, shiny, by-the-book retrospective about backup singers instead. As you can see, I’m still not over it. The Look of Silence is a sort of sequel to Killing, though Oppenheimer takes a very different approach this time around. The film follows an Indonesian optometrist whose brother was a victim of the 1965 slaughter as he interviews the killers under the guise of performing eye exams, and gets the same answers from others: This was a long time ago? Why are you bringing this up? It’s a chilling and incredibly important lesson about what happens when we try to erase atrocities instead of reckoning with them.
What Happened, Miss Simone? – I was familiar with some of Nina Simone’s music before watching this film, but I didn’t have any sense of just how radical she was. This is as much a civil rights film as it is a music film; if Cartel Land is the ideal companion documentary for Sicario this year, Miss Simone is probably the ideal companion for Straight Outta Compton. It doesn’t treat its subject with kid gloves or flinch from her instability or her abusiveness toward her daughter.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom – In 2013, Netflix released The Square, a documentary on Egypt’s student uprising in 2011 and the aftermath. It was well-made and interesting, but a little distant for me. I found Winter on Fire, Netflix’s newest film in the student uprising subgenre, much more engaging. Winter isn’t for the faint of heart, giving a surprisingly close look at the Euromaidan protests in Kiev that led to the removal of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Like the more active parts of Cartel Land, this is basically war journalism. We see the police and the government’s paid thugs first beating protesters into submission, and then we see them firing rubber bullets, and then we see them firing live rounds. Most of this happens perilously near the camera crews. It’s courageous filmmaking about one of the more incredible uprisings in recent history.
Will Win: Amy.
Should Win: The Look of Silence, but since the Academy still hasn’t released a public apology for choosing 20 Feet from Stardom over The Act of Killing in 2014, I can’t even bring myself to hope for this. I’d be happy with Cartel Land.
Upset Special: What Happened, Miss Simone, if the Academy wants a music documentary with a little more social importance.
Anomalisa – A characteristically funny and melancholy Charlie Kaufman film, uncharacteristically in the form of a puppet show (no, Being John Malkovich doesn’t count), and the other reason I’m declaring 2015 the Year of the Animated Dong. The film stars David Thewlis as the voice of Sad Kaufman Protagonist Michael (the owner of said Animated Dong), Jennifer Jason Leigh is the voice of the titular Lisa, a sweet, shy and irrepressibly cheerful character who couldn’t be more different from her other big role this year, The Hateful Eight‘s Daisy. The voice of everyone else in the movie is Tom Noonan, because in Michael’s world, everyone else is the same. That’s the central conceit, which could probably never have worked in live-action film, and Kaufman plays with it in interesting ways, the best of which is a simultaneously hilarious and unnerving nightmare sequence that brings Michael’s deepest fears bubbling to the surface.
Boy and the World – There were only a few movies this year that really turned me off. Boy and the World was one of them, despite a vivid illustrative style and an imaginative narrative, it’s more ham-fisted than Chris Christie at Thanksgiving dinner. Boy and the World has no dialogue beyond some vague indeterminate sounds, which is great in the abstract; I like a movie that lets its imagery do the talking. But when you tell me about pollution by inserting live-action clips of dumped chemicals and smoking factories into your animated landscape, you might as well be letting your characters shout directly into the theater seats.
Inside Out – I don’t know if Inside Out was one of the ten best movies this year or not (though it was certainly one of my favorites) but nominating it for Best Picture would have been vastly better than what the Academy did, which was to not nominate anything at all instead. The Academy’s ongoing refusal (since 2012’s show) to use all ten Best Picture nominations is an annual source of irritation for me, because there are always deserving movies left out, whether this year you think they were Inside Out and Beasts of No Nation, or Straight Outta Compton and Carol, or if you’re a really big Alicia Vikander fan, The Danish Girl and Ex Machina. I’ve already talked a bit in the screenplay post about Inside Out‘s funny and deeply intelligent script. It’s also got a killer cast, with Amy Poehler in the lead role of Joy, Lewis Black stealing numerous scenes as Anger, and Phyllis Smith turning in the best voice performance I’ve heard since Her as Sadness. The character design is perfect, the various “locations” in Riley’s psyche are beautiful and well-suited to their purposes, and the animation overall is of the quality we’ve come to expect from Pixar. I have some nagging doubts about whether the film’s saddest moment really fits within its larger context, but even acknowledging those misgivings, this is one of the highlights among Pixar’s many great, great films.
Shaun the Sheep Movie – Lighthearted physical comedy in claymation, in the style of Wallace and Grommit (of which Shaun is a spinoff). Like Boy and the World, Shaun‘s entirely without intelligible spoken dialogue. (Also just like Stallone’s scenes in Creed, am I right guys?) This one’s mostly for the kids, and it’s up against some real heavyweights here, but it’s thoroughly likable (Rotten Tomatoes registers only one negative review!), it offers plenty of laughs, and the animation is superb and highly emotive, as it must be if you’re not going to let your characters speak.
When Marnie Was There – Hayao Miyazaki’s no longer making feature-length films, but this one’s still filled with his influence. Marnie bears some superficial similarities to Inside Out—the preteen girl protagonist, the struggles with loneliness—but I think this is a very different kind of story. I understood Marnie to be about the way we reframe our childhoods as we grow up; not so much about learning that our feelings have their places as about gaining the wisdom to put past events in their proper context. The hand-drawn animation is absolutely beautiful, dense with detail but still conveying the impression of vast, empty spaces where it’s necessary to emphasize Anna’s semi–self imposed isolation from the people around her. The English-language dub has a damned solid cast, too: 2010 Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld as Anna, Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka as Marnie, and supporting players including Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Bates, and John C. Reilly.
Will Win/Should Win: Inside Out.
Second Choice/Upset Special: When Marnie Was There.