I was planning on holding my favorite cluster of categories till Saturday, but it’s been a long-ass week and you all deserve something fun to read about and dammit, I deserve something fun to write about. As cool as it is to get into the nuts and bolts of what’s good about a given movie—the script, the camera work, the individual performances—I like to talk about movies as cohesive wholes, too, and the “lesser” feature film and short film categories give me a chance to do that with movies that aren’t already being picked apart everywhere for their merit as Best Picture contenders.
Before I continue, a word on spoilers, though no one’s complained yet: I’m not real consistent about them. I’ll avoid them if I care about the movie and think they might affect people’s enjoyment of it, but that’s all highly subjective and not a good basis for you to guess whether I’m going to include spoilers in these commentaries. My advice: If you haven’t seen a movie and don’t want to find
Kubo and the Two Strings — “If you must blink, do it now.” Kubo‘s opening line, repeated at key moments at the story, is first of all a dare to the audience. I’ve already talked about a lot of what makes Kubo a terrific spectacle in my comments on its visual effects, but beautiful animation, as Kubo himself might put it, “really is the least of it.” The movie demands to be watched closely and carefully and rewards the viewer who does so. It’s a story with a lot of interwoven story and thematic threads: It’s about mythmaking, family, love, and loss, and at its dark core, it’s about what happens when we retreat into fossilized memory and cold detachment to push the pain of existence away. I’m much more a happy crier than a sad crier when it comes to film, and let me tell you, Kubo’s response to that wounded, defensive instinct at the end of the film had me in tears. And almost does again, now, remembering it.
Moana — Less a “message movie” than any of the others, Moana is another of the year’s funniest films, owing mainly to a great script, perfectly realized visual gags, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s larger-than-life voice as the demigod Maui. It’s a gorgeous film too. The color palate is lush and eyecatching, the island landscapes are spectacular, and the water looks better than I’ve seen in any movie outside Finding Dory and one other movie that we’ll get to in a few minutes. What’s more, Moana actually juggles two or three auxilliary art styles in addition to its main look (depending on whether you want to count Maui’s living tattoos). And one more thing: This movie features two of my favorite bit performances of the year, with Jemaine Clement as an enormous bedazzled crab monster, and Alan Tudyk in a not-exactly-speaking role as the dumb-as-rocks comic relief rooster Hei Hei.
My Life as a Zucchini — This is the one. Sixty-two films (not sixty, as I’ve said before maybe in yesterday’s post and definitely elsewhere) and this is the only nominee I couldn’t find a way to watch. I’ll tell you what I know: This is the shortest feature film nominated in any category. In fact, it’s just fifteen minutes longer than the longest short film. It’s won a Satellite Award and a European film award for best animated picture, and its 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes appears to have survived its North American premiere (in three cities, none of which are anywhere near me). It’s obvious to me that My Life as a Zucchini must be very good, and I’ll be checking it out possibly as early as next week, when it comes to exactly one theater in Austin.
The Red Turtle — I’m going to let lady snow handle this one.
“I was a French major, and this is a French film, and it touches a lot on themes common in French literature: existentialism, man vs. enviroment, and things like that. I connected with it on a visceral level because I’ve spent so much time with French literature and it’s changed my perspective on life. And also, I just love the ocean, and stories based around the ocean, which is also probably why I liked Moana and Finding Dory so much. I love the hand-drawn animation; hand-drawn films in general bring me back to the first Fantasia. I’m not against CGI but I feel like hand-drawn animation is imbued with the spirit of the artist in a way that CGI. That came through for me in Fantasia and definitely in this film. I wish The Little Prince had also been animated in this style; I think it would have ended up much more true to the spirit of the story. And too, I love the folkloric aspects of the story, with people transforming into animals and the other way around. It’s a story about how life is fleeting, and how we don’t know how much time we’re going to have with the people we fall in love with. It’s a reminder that love can find you anywhere, or you can find it anywhere, even stuck on an island in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes life hands you a shit sandwich, but things still turn out okay.
“Also, don’t fuck with sea turtles.”
Zootopia — There’s probably no stopping Zootopia, a charming buddy cop comedy and surprisingly incisive commentary on racial prejudice that made, and I’m being completely literal here, a billion dollars in 2016. In terms of sheer quality of digital animation, the only real competition for Zootopia this year was (the surprisingly snubbed) Finding Dory. It’s lively, it’s funny, it’s well-acted, especially by costars Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, and oh, check it out, the score’s by Michael Giacchino, who’s having the composer’s equivalent of Domhnall Gleeson’s 2015, with appearances in four nominated films. (The others—if you’re keeping, er, score—are Star Trek Beyond, Rogue One, and Doctor Strange.) There’s a problem, though: This movie is not in control of the metaphor it’s relying on, and it ends up undercutting itself by almost seeming to endorse a biological theory of minority criminality. The supposedly prejudiced line in Zootopia is that carnivorous animals are dangerous because it’s in their DNA… which, you know, is a real thing! It’s how carnivorous animals really work! It is not, of course, how people with different skin colors work. Now, obviously there’s nothing actually nefarious about this aspect of Zootopia, of course; its world doesn’t map neatly, 1-to-1, onto ours, and the allegory isn’t as simple as “the predators are minorities.” And I hear the argument that it’s a bit silly to read this much into a cartoon for children, but cartoons for children have been telling such deep and complex stories—and Zootopia so clearly aspires to do exactly that on the subject of racial prejudice—that I think it’d be patronizing not to judge this movie on the terms it’s set for itself.
Whew. Glad I got that off my chest.
Will Be: Zootopia. As deeply flawed as it is, the Academy’s bound to love its beautiful and imaginative world, memorable characters, and timely (if imperfectly delivered) message of inclusion.
Should Be: Kubo and the Two Strings. For me, this one’s on a level with the best films of the year. Earlier awards have mostly gone to Zootopia, suggesting Kubo simply doesn’t have the broad support to beat the summer blockbuster, but in place of this award, I’m at least giving it an honorary prize for Best George Takei “Oh My” in a Feature Film.
lady snow says: “This is neck-and-neck between The Red Turtle and Moana as far as I’m concerned. With Moana, it’s just so funny and the music’s so great that you can’t help but enjoy it. The Red Turtle is more of an emotional experience. I full-on cried at the end.”
Upset Special: For real, it’s going to be My Life as a Zucchini, just to spite me.
13th — The premise of 13th is simple but incendiary: That the modern American prison system is the natural evolution of American slavery along the only path left open to it by the 13th Amendment. Director Ava Duvernay argues the point rigorously and convincingly, tracing the history of the criminal justice system from reconstruction to the present, examining how our use incarceration has adapted to preserve forced labor, disproportionately disenfranchise minority Americans, and break up families; in other words, to keep the “badges and incidents of slavery” in place to whatever extent possible.
O.J.: Made in America — If this documentary miniseries comes out on top, it’ll be the longest film to win an Oscar in the awards’ history, but not by as much as you’d think. War and Peace, 1968’s Foreign Language Film winner, was a butt-numbing 414 minutes long, not even an hour short of O.J.‘s 467-minute runtime. It’s an impressively wide-ranging project, taking in the sweep of modern American history through the lens of one famous football player’s life, examining not just O.J. Simpson himself but his entire cultural, political and racial environment, and the ways he and that influenced each other. One thing about O.J. frustrated me, though, as a football fan and a viewer: Director Ezra Edelman’s deliberate exclusion of any discussion of CTE, which he’s dismissed in interviews as a “cop-out.” CTE and our response to it is so inextricable from concerns of race and class and from the particulars of Simpson’s state of mind later in life that, in my opinion, any attempt to reckon with either O.J. or the culture he lived in is necessarily incomplete. Nevertheless, this documentary’s sheer scope and depth make it one of the most remarkable filmmaking efforts this year.
Fire at Sea — This is the year’s only feature-length look at Europe’s refugee crisis, and it deals with people fleeing Libya, not Syria. Fire at Sea is more concerned with painting a portrait than making an argument: It wants you to see what the refugee crisis is, so that you can decide for yourself what should be done about it. The film has no narration and few named subjects, letting its imagery do the heavy lifting. The result is captivating and alarming, and probably as clear a call to arms as any well-argued plea for help.
I Am Not Your Negro — Before I saw this documentary, all I knew of James Baldwin was his reputation. Now that I’ve seen it, he’s near the top of my reading list. His fearsome intellect, put on display through a combination of archival footage and Samuel Jackson-assisted narration of his writings, shines through every minute of this film with observations that are as relevant to race relations today as they were in the midst of the civil rights era.
Life, Animated — If you need a palate cleanser after watching all of the above, you could do much worse than Life, Animated. The human interest piece on a man with autism who learned to understand and communicate with the world through Disney’s animated films isn’t exactly devoid of heartbreaking moments itself, but the pure joy that Owen takes from watching these films and sharing them with friends—well, for one thing, it’s something I definitely recognize in myself, and it’s definitely enough to push this one to the “happy” side of the balance sheet.
Will Win: O.J.: Made in America, which really is an incredibly thorough oral history of both O.J. and America.
Should Win: 13th. It’s the most devastating documentary I’ve seen since 2012’s The Act of Killing.
Upset Special: Fire at Sea. The Italian documentary was widely considered a contender for the foreign language category as well, but didn’t manage a nomination there. It stands apart for unique, minimalist style, and the subject matter is undeniably front-and-center at the moment. Life, Animated is also a possibility. The only thing I can’t see winning this is I Am Not Your Negro, not because it’s the worst of the bunch (it’s not), but because it’s bound to be overshadowed by a pair of frontrunners also about race relations.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A Man Called Ove (Sweden) — It’s just about peak Scandinavian to produce a comedy where the protagonist’s repeated suicide attempts are a major plot point. Ove‘s titular character is a miserable old man, living alone after the death of his wife when a new neighbor and his Iranian immigrant wife move in next door. It’s an engaging enough comedy, but it didn’t really grab me.
Land of Mine (Denmark) — The immediate aftermath of World War II hasn’t been as exhaustively quarried for cinematic material as the war itself, and Land of Mine has unearthed one of the darker stories from the period: The conscription of German prisoners to dig for and defuse landmines, by hand, on Denmark’s west coast. Historically, the project was massive in scope and brutal for the conscripts, and Land of Mine doesn’t flinch from the horror of the work.
The Salesman (Iran) — Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, is by all accounts an all-time masterpiece. I still haven’t gotten around to seeing it, and wish I had, if only as a basis for comparison. The Salesman is a dark and tense domestic drama, hard to watch and hard to look away from, orbiting around a local theatre production of Death of a Salesman. And the movie is very stagey itself, frequently isolating pairs of actors for tense or heated dialogues. The Salesman‘s themes are far-ranging: censorship, distrust of authority, revenge, and marital stability among them. It’s not, in my estimation, a hall-of-famer, but it’s an engrossing and thought-provoking film.
Tanna (Australia) — Shot in Vanuatu with no professional actors, Tanna is part Romeo-and-Juliet story, part historical reenactment. The subject is a real marriage dispute that took place on the island, recently enough that many of the islanders play themselves in the movie, and their acting is smooth and natural as if they were polished professionals. I love when films are able to blur category lines like this; the reenactment aspect approaches documentary filmmaking. Tanna also boasts a terrific soundtrack and a beautiful tropical setting.
Toni Erdmann (Germany) — Who’s up for a three-hour German comedy? No one, when you put the question that way, but my God will everyone be missing out. I haven’t seen anything in any language this year that’s funnier than Toni Erdmann, nominated or not. The premise is simple: An oafish father decides to visit his estranged daughter, a stressed-out businesswoman, and play pranks on her, until she learns to lighten the hell up. A movie like this could easily be overly broad or cringey or tiresome, especially at three hours, but it’s none of those things, thanks to Peter Simonischek’s mischievous jollity and Sandra Hüller’s commitment to playing her role straight and utterly exasperated up to the very end. Erdmann is bizarre and awkward and unpredictable, but it’s never too much of any of those. And the nudity! Nudity is inherently funny, as everyone knows, but it’s rarely quite as funny as it is in the movie’s climactic brunch scene.
Will Win/Should Win: Toni Erdmann. The Academy has a real opportunity this year to inject some fun, for goddamned once, into a category with a reputation for taking itself too seriously. I see a lot of people saying The Salesman is the real frontrunner, and it’s undeniably an excellent film, but I’d be disappointed if it’s the winner.
Upset Special: There’s probably no room for a true underdog in this race. The other films are good but not on a level with Erdmann and Salesman, but the least long of these three long shots is most likely A Man Called Ove.
ANIMATED SHORT FILM
Borrowed Time — Borrowed Time tells a very sad story in a very short seven minutes, but it doesn’t need any more time to thoroughly earn its conclusion. To me, it’s still the weakest in a really strong field; a simple vignette that will make you gasp but won’t give you a lot to think about.
Blind Vaysha — I’ve been struck by how many movies this year have touched on the theme of living life in the present rather than taking refuge in nostalgia or sheltering yourself from future pain. Blind Vaysha takes the most direct approach of them all, with a modern folktale about a girl with one eye that sees only the past, and one that sees only the future. The intricate linocut-inspired animation gives the story a sense of timelessness, making it feel almost as though the character of Blind Vaysha has always been part of our cultural background.
Pear Cider & Cigarettes — A decidedly R-rated take on the animated short format, Pear Cider stylistically resembles nothing so much as a dramatic reading of a graphic novel, and deals with the heavy themes of addiction and terminal illness with a weary irreverance that I thought hit just the right note. I’ve read a few opinions on this one, and it’s clearly divisive, but I’m a fan.
Pearl — I really wish I could have seen this the way Google intended, with a VR headset (it’s the first Oscar nominee produced specifically for that medium), but it’s a very cool concept regardless. Pearl plays like a music video where the viewer’s in control of the camera, putting you in the position of, if not the director, at least the DP. It’s not as fully realized a story as some of the others, but its easygoing wistfulness comes off wonderfully even when you’re clicking and dragging a browser window.
Piper — I’ll come clean right from the beginning here: I’ve seen very few films of any length this year that I loved as much as Piper. This short ran in theaters along with Finding Dory, and I’m not ashamed to say that lady snow looked over and saw me in tears when it was over. It’s adorable, but it’s not just adorable. It’s about facing challenges, seeking help from friends with different perspectives, and finding ways to overcome your limitations. The payoff is utterly, heartbreakingly joyous. Pixar fits all of that into six minutes of some of the most minutely detailed and beautiful animation ever seen on any screen, anywhere.
Should Be/Will Be: Piper.
Upset Special: Blind Vaysha. Honestly, if it isn’t Piper, then Pearl‘s the next most likely based on the awards handed out earlier this season, but I preferred the substance of both Vaysha and Pear Cider, and neither should be counted out.
DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
4.1 Miles — 4.1 Miles, a harrowing view of the refugees risking their lives to float the short distance from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, has some of the same qualities as Fire at Sea: An absence of narration, a naturalistic viewpoint, and an evident concern with people over political or philosophical questions. In contrast to Fire at Sea‘s broad view, though, 4.1 Miles has us mostly looking over the shoulder of a single coast guard captain tasked with rescuing refugees in distress.
Extremis — It’s customary to observe, whenever talking about the short documentaries, that these films are rarely going to make you feel better than you did before you watched. Extremis is about as bleak as they come, a close look at terminal patients’ families weighing end-of-life options for their loved ones, and at the medical staff who have to help them through the process. It’s real rough.
Joe’s Violin — This is as close as you’re going to come to seeing an Oscar-nominated Holocaust movie this year, but it’s also the cheeriest of the short documentaries, telling the story of a Holocaust survivor, the violin he bought after his release from a Russian gulag, and the young girl selected to play it after he donates it to a school in the Bronx.
Watani: My Homeland — Three years of footage and reporting went into this documentary, which follows a Syrian family from their war-ravaged home in Aleppo—just over the wall from the Syrian army, we’re told—to a small town in Germany. Director Marcel Mettelsiefen is not afraid to show his audience the complexities of their situation. They’re better off, certainly—I keep thinking back to the scene where the children’s mother, Hala, gazes out the window at the German streets and homes and muses that none of them are shelled, not even a single one, as though she was unprepared to contemplate a complete absence of shelling, as though shelling was only a thing she could have less of, or more of. They’re safe in Germany, among welcoming people. You hear over and over again that “they love Syrians” here. But the family’s still fearful. Hala says that if she encounters racism she may have to go back to Syria, back to the killing. You come to understand that they may have saved their lives, but they’ve lost the familiarity and comfort of home, and that’s no small thing to them.
The White Helmets — Netflix has racked up feature documentary nominations the last few years with a subgenre of documentary adjacent to the traditional war doc, but focused on subjects that aren’t exactly war. Examples range from Winter on Fire, on Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests, to Virunga, which follows rangers in a Congolese national park under siege by poachers, oil interests, and the opposing sides of a Civil War. The White Helmets, from Virunga director Orlando von Einsiedel, is much briefer but in the same vein, investigating the lives of Syrian Civil Defense members (volunteer rescue workers, essentially, also known as “White Helmets”) in Aleppo. The volunteers show incredible courage in their work, most of which involves digging out victims buried by bombings or artillery strikes. The film lets us know the kind of danger they’re putting themselves in; follow-up bombings of the same target aren’t uncommon, and dozens of White Helmets have been killed during missions or deliberately targeted by combatants.
Will Win: Extremis. It reminds me a lot of 2014’s winner, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, with its fly-on-the wall look at the toll on those charged with caring for the desperately ill.
Should Win: Watani: My Homeland. The best of the refugee documentaries, Watani conveys the necessity of helping the war’s victims but doesn’t shy away from depicting the challenges they face in acclimating even to the most welcoming of new homes. Outside the film itself, there’s another reason the Academy might be eager to award Watani: Hala herself will be attending the ceremony thanks to the courts’ lifting of Donald Trump’s travel ban.
LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
Ennemis Intérieurs — A tense, stageplay-like and dialogue-heavy look at a French-Algerian applying for French citizenship who suddenly finds himself in an interrogation as to his family, friends, and religious associations. My gut actually tightened watching the applicant slowly descend into frustration, then fear, as he realized the interview was something more than a mere formality. I don’t think it would have hurt to whittle this one down a bit, as it struggles to maintain a high level of tension for its full 27 minutes, but it still packs a wallop, and admits of a few different interpretations as to who the “enemies within” the title references really are.
La Femme et le TGV — As this is a Swiss film, the Academy is obligated to remain neutral on it. Okay. Sorry. I wrote this part late at night. Anyway, I didn’t connect with TGV on the level I think it was looking for. It’s a sweet and hopeful film with a lovely score and a great lead performance, but I never really felt the main character’s sense of urgency about her relationship with the train’s conductor—or, maybe, the train itself, as the movie strongly suggests she’s come to see the train and the person as one and the same. TGV wants to be about its protagonist’s personal growth, but I didn’t feel it drew a particularly strong connection between that personal growth and the external change in the femme-TGV relationship, as it were.
Silent Nights — I have almost nothing positive to say about Silent Nights. It’s the worst film nominated for any award this year, worse than Suicide Squad or 13 Hours or Passengers, all of which at least seemed to be making an effort. Spiritually, it’s akin to 2004 Best Picture travesty Crash, but even that’s giving it too much credit. Like Crash, Silent Nights is a plea for inclusiveness that would be much more effective if it could for one moment stop undermining its own argument and generally just shitting all over itself (sometimes literally). At its worst moments, it casts its refugee protagonist as underhanded and untrustworthy, and during the rest of its runtime it does little if anything to rehabilitate him. And it gets worse: The film is crammed with moments clearly meant to evoke some kind of emotional response, but they reliably fail to do so, mostly because it’s too crammed with these moments to spend any time actually earning the payoff, but also because you end up disliking most of the characters that these life-changing events are happening to. Lead actors Ali Kazim and Malene Olsen must surely sympathize with Passengers stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt: They’re acting their absolute pants off in this thing (again, sometimes literally), but in the end there’s nothing they can do to salvage it.
Sing — A children’s choir isn’t the obvious setting for a story about solidarity against power, but then, last year featured a movie about the Chilean coup d’état where all the characters were clockwork bears, so I’ve gotten used to seeing politics in unlikely places. This is another film where I’d hate to spoil plot details, but a lot of the credit for this film’s success belongs with actor Zsófia Szamosiso, who’s perfectly infuriating in a way that really magnifies what should by all rights be relatively low stakes. And the editing in the last scene is just great, amplifying the impact of a very satisfying conclusion.
Timecode — The structure of Timecode is a tried-and-true one for short films, the setup-punchline. The soul of the short, though, is so much more than a one-shot joke. The punchline is good for a chuckle, but the best things about Timecode work independently of it: the shy, half-embarrassed demeanors of its parking-lot security guard duo, the eerie beauty of their communications, and the little hints at the growth of their relationship and its increasing centrality to their workdays.
Will Win: My instinct says this one goes to Ennemis Intérieurs, thanks to its skillful execution, sharp acting, and restrained but evocative cinematography. While the issues the film confronts are obviously older than the most recent immigration crises, and indeed older than the 1990s context of Ennemis, the events of the past month or so make it hard not to see the film as almost accidentally timely.
Should Win: Sing. When the pieces fell into place at the end, I wanted to pump my fist. An awesome conclusion that will surely resonate with anyone who remembers ever feeling mistreated as a child and unable to do anything about—in other words, just about everyone.
Upset Special: Timecode has such an oddball beauty to it that it may be entirely outside the Academy’s wheelhouse, but there’s such a perfectly realized and wonderful idea at its core that I can easily imagine it winning over voters.