Latest posts by makeitsnowondem (see all)
- Commentist Beer Barrel: Spoilers for Beer and Television – April 28, 2019
- Oscars 2019 Preview and Open Thread: We Got to Move These Acclaimed Motion Pictures. We Got to Move These Short Nominees. – February 24, 2019
- Oscars 2019 Preview: I Have Eaten The Polar Bears That Were In Your Ice Cap – February 23, 2019
Good afternoon, Commentists. We’re ten days from the Oscars, and I believe that this will finally be the year that I can claim to have watched everything. Some of you may remember how close I’ve gotten the past couple of years; I missed the animated film My Life as a Courgette last year, and the Colombian foreign language entry Embrace of the Serpent plus one or two short documentaries the year before. By my quick and probably inexact count, there were 42 feature films and 15 shorts nominated. I’ve seen 36 and the features and eight of the shorts, so I still have some viewing ahead of me, but crucially, I have a way to see everything that’s still on the list, so I’m confident that I can finally fulfill this dumb quest of mine and bring you a marginally informed perspective on every single Oscar nominee
I don’t care how enthusiastic a moviegoer you are, unless you’re also a dogged, stubborn asshole fixated on a specific and ultimately arbitrary goal (like me) there are some nominees you’re just not going to see before the Oscars, and probably ever, either because they’re near-impossible to find, or because they just don’t look like your idea of a good time. This year’s foreign-language nominees are mostly of the sort you won’t be able to figure out where to watch; the documentary features, and especially the documentary shorts, primarily the sort you won’t want to, not because they’re bad, but because as a group they’re pretty dark. It’s worth bearing in mind that collectively these are the three categories most responsible for the well-worn and cynical but not-unfounded Oscar-betting rule of thumb “Always bet on the Holocaust film.” For better or worse, that dictate won’t be of any help for your predictions this year, as the closest any Holocaust picture came to nomination was semifinalist short documentary 116 Cameras.
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)
Let’s start with On Body and Soul, a low-key magical-realist love story mostly set in a slaughterhouse, because it’s on Netflix right now and therefore easiest of the bunch to see. And yes, I did say “slaughterhouse”; if you get queasy at the sight of blood (human or bovine), this film is not for you. I found a lot of things to love about On Body and Soul: Beautiful cinematography, terrific acting across the board, and a surprisingly entertaining B-plot involving the theft of cattle aphrodisiacs. The biggest reason to watch it, though, is a Best Actress nomination-worthy turn from Hungarian actress Alexandra Borbély.
Nearly as good as Borbély is A Fantastic Woman‘s Daniela Vega, playing the titular role of Marina, a transgender woman whose life is thrown into disarray when her older boyfriend dies. A Fantastic Woman is structurally a family drama with more than one superficial similarity to 2016’s Captain Fantastic, but because of who Marina is, there’s real peril involved, in the form of intimidation and abuse from the police, and threats of eviction escalating into outright violence from her boyfriend’s family. The film is a tense but constantly sensitive portrayal of courage and resilience, and well worth the effort it’ll take to seek out.
Cards on the table for The Insult: It was my least favorite of the nominees. Its best moments are thoroughly personal, centered around a single insult between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refuge, played terrifically by Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha. The situation escalates as the two proud men refuse to reconcile, at first in a captivatingly slow burn. Soon enough, though, the dispute ends up in court, and in short order it blossoms into a high-profile case that divides the nation. This is a solid enough metaphor for large-scale social conflict, sure, but once the two principals start to fight things out through their lawyers, the film steadily loses its momentum, getting bogged down in a procedural courtroom drama marked by overlong speeches and a series of twists that don’t evoke much surprise or, honestly, much of any other sort of emotion.
I didn’t quite connect with Loveless, either, despite its superb acting and haunting imagery, and despite my love of director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s last movie, Leviathan, and even despite giving it another watch to see if I’d missed something. It’s just such a cold movie (meteorologically, yes, but mainly emotionally) that the stakes didn’t feel real to me, and that’s a hard thing to get past when you’re watching a story about two divorcing parents trying to find their lost son. More than anything else nominated this year, I’m left wondering if Loveless, rather than being a film I didn’t like, was just a film I didn’t get.
Now, bear with me, because I’m going to get to The Square in a moment. But first: Michael Stuhlbarg is the first actor in fifteen years to appear in three Best Picture nominees: Call Me by Your Name, The Shape of Water, and The Post. (The last was John C. Reilly.) We nearly had a second this year, Caleb Landry Jones, who appeared in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Get Out, and the unconscionable Best Picture snub The Florida Project. As far as I know, there’s just one other actor who appeared in three Oscar nominees this year, though none of them are up for Best Picture: The Square‘s Terry Notary, who near-singlehandedly produces the movie’s most provocative, unsettling, and remarkable moment. I won’t spoil the details for you, but here’s a small hint as to what you can expect: His other two roles were in War for the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. Now, The Square as a whole is a bit of a mess, a possibly over-ambitious lampoon of the world of modern art in which the punchlines don’t always quite justify the setups, but it has its moments of bizarre brilliance.
Will Win/Should Win: A Fantastic Woman.
Second Choice: On Body and Soul is lovely, if frequently brutal, and its much wider viewership could help it (or hostility to Netflix could hurt it). If A Fantastic Woman
Upset Special: Whether the wide-ranging satire works or not, The Square‘s relatively recognizable cast (featuring prestige TV stars Elizabeth Moss and Dominic Hall) and occasional bursts of audacity are bound to make an impression on voters.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Last Men in Aleppo
As of this year, the word “searing” is on my watchlist for most overused word in film reviewing, but if the word fairly describes any nominee for these Academy Awards, that nominee is Strong Island. An investigative documentary in which the thing being investigated is the killing of director Yance Ford’s own brother, and the prosecutor’s subsequent failure to charge his killer, Strong Island, is filled with a palpable and barely-contained rage. The film is also a look at a rarely-discussed side of minority communities’ distrust of law enforcement, it’s a consequence not only of abuse of non-white suspects, but of failure to take non-white victims and their families seriously.
Similar to but narrower in scope than Strong Island, the aim of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is to tell us that a specific injustice has been done: That the only bank to face criminal charges after the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis was an innocent scapegoat, targeted only because it was a small institution run by Chinese Americans and serving a largely minority community. This is all possible, even probable, but I don’t think Abacus succeeds in showing the bank wasn’t guilty as charged, or even makes a very good effort at doing so.
Icarus is a fascinating blend of sports documentary and espionage thriller, directed by a competitive cyclist who, in the process of trying to prove that it was possible to compete in a major race while doping and not get caught, stumbled across a wide-ranging Russian doping conspiracy. If I have a gripe, it’s that Icarus doesn’t always seem to trust the strength of its own material; there’s a melodramatic tone to it at times that feels unnecessary and over the top.
Easily the cheeriest film in any of these categories, Faces Places (the French title of which, Villages Visages, also rhymes!) follows the odd couple of elderly filmmaker Agnès Varda and millennial photographer JR throughout the French countryside, where they drive a van converted into a photo booth, complete with a giant black-and-white photo printer, from town to town. It’s goofy, but also frequently poignant, and while I’m tempted to say it could have been a bit shorter, I also hate to begrudge this duo the change to show us everything they wanted to.
I haven’t got a lot to say about Last Men in Aleppo, mostly because I don’t feel Last Men in Aleppo showed me much that I hadn’t already seen in last year’s short documentary winner The White Helmets. Scenes of daily life, more akin to those in Watani: My Homeland (another short doc nominee from last year) are the most important difference, helping round out and personalize the story.
Will Win: Faces Places, though this is a very tough one to call. Last Men in Aleppo is a fully competent and emotionally effective war documentary and has a shot here, but Faces Places refreshing and inventive and I think that gives it the edge.
Should Win: Paired with A Fantastic Woman‘s much more likely win, an Oscar for the Ford-directed Strong Island would make for a banner year for transgender films and filmmakers, and I haven’t seen a nominee with more sheer emotional impact since The Look of Silence in 2014.
Upset Special: While it’s not as tightly-directed a film as some of the others, a story of Russian subterfuge like Icarus is likely to resonate in light of recent events.
DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
As usual, these films are like your mom: They’re short, but they’re heavy. (That’s a little levity to get you through this section; buckle up.) Edith+Eddie is the roughest watch of the bunch. It features an interracial couple in their 90s, separated when a feud between Edith’s daughters leads to the appointment of a guardian, who promptly separates the pair. It’s a sensitive and immediate film, and it’ll be a highly informative one for the great majority of viewers who aren’t already familiar with guardianship abuse, but don’t go in expecting a happily-ever-after.
HBO has been a fairly consistent presence in the Oscar documentary categories the last few years, and Traffic Stop is its entry this time around. The trouble with Traffic Stop, a film based around the police cam footage from the violent 2015 arrest of teacher Breaion King, is that it tells its audience very little that they couldn’t have known or concluded from the raw footage on its own. There are some glimpses of King’s personal life that tell us more or less what we’d already expect: She’s a warm, friendly, and smart person who’s dedicated to the kids she teaches. I suspect your mileage from that sort of thing will depend on whether you believe a less warm, friendly and smart person could have deserved the treatment the Austin Police Department gave her.
The other three nominees at least feature some hopeful moments. Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 follows a talented artist suffering from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety. Her story’s told partly through images and animations of her own artwork, a smart directorial decision that allows the documentary to evoke the emotions and struggles she experiences rather than merely describing them. It’s a story that I think will mean a lot to people suffering from similar disabilities, and to their loved ones.
Knife Skills looks at a new French restaurant in Cleveland established by an ex-convict to teach high-end food service work to people who’ve recently left prison. Going in, I had some suspicions about the restaurant’s economic motivations for opting for an ex-inmate staff, but it quickly becomes clear that Brandon, the restaurant’s owner, believes deeply in his business’s rehabilitative mission and wants his trainees to get the same second chance that he once got. At the same time, Knife Skills is open and honest about the high washout rate of the program, clear-eyed about the challenge facing its subjects.
Heroin(e) is considerably less bleak than you’d guess from its subject matter: the heroin addiction epidemic in the “overdose capital of America,” Huntington, West Virginia. Its surprisingly optimistic tone owes to its focus on three women–a judge, a fire department officer, and a missionary running a street ministry for sex workers–as they pour themselves into the task of saving people from addiction and overdose. It’s an admirable examination of admirable individuals, and I hope the lesson that the audience takes away is not that we need more individuals like them, but that we need a system that emulates their kindness and compassion.
Will Win: Edith+Eddie, although any of the five nominees could win without surprising me much.
Should Win: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405. By far the most stylistically interesting of the short docs, and a delicately eye-opening look at severe mental illness besides.
make it snow is an alot of beer who’s watched alot of movies. Missing Beer Barrel? Low Commander of the Super Soldiers will have what you’re looking for later this week.