Talking Movies before the Oscars

Talking Movies before the Oscars

La La Land illustration by Thomas Danthony.

Of all the films of last year, I think the one I was most reluctant to see was La La Land. It turned out to become one of my favourites (although it didn’t beat American Honey, Nocturnal Animals and a surprise new comer – I am talking about that a little later – in my preferences). I have already sung my love letter to Damien Chazelle’s musical, especially regarding its direction, costumes, music and set design here. So now I am going to resume to what I consider to be one of the best descriptions of it that I have come across: “Chazelle, through La La Land, holds your hand. He asks you to breath. Listen. But not relax. No, La La Land doesn’t let you relax. Like a good jazz composition it slices you down, leaving you desolate and giddy at the same time.”

La La Land happens to be heavily nominated to The Oscars, too. And it deserves to be. It IS that good. But this will not change my opinion that the Academy Awards are not about rewarding good films. La La Land is more like the exception. The matter of fact is that comedy almost NEVER wins or is much less nominated. We need comedies these days. There are films that are released just in time to be eligible for the Oscars. The serious, “important” films. Please. Winning momentum, getting other awards nods. What is that? What does that have to do with how good a film is? It doesn’t. This is about rewarding the industry of publicity and hype.

Not that good films are not rewarded – La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea will probably attest to that – but so many other films I enjoyed in 2016 have been overlooked, like the aforementioned American Honey and Nocturnal Animals, to name only English language movies. And I am certain there are so many good ones I haven’t yet seen or even heard of. Yes, you bet I am thinking of foreign films too. How some foreign films get sometimes several nominations instead of just for foreign language film and how some actors in non-English language films are also nominated (and totally deserve to be) is still an enigma to me. I will stick to my opinion: the members of the Academy don’t know what the heck they are doing there.
La La Land

La La Land

So why am I still watching the Oscars? So many true film lovers (including these two) don’t, never did or don’t anymore. I don’t even do it for entertainment. Nothing exciting ever happens even if it is a live event (update, 27.02: something unpredicted happened alright, and nobody saw it coming); everything is staged to the last second and that takes all the fun out of it. Firstly, I do it because I write about film and costume design, so I pay attention to nominations and wins. I like to be informed, to do my homework. Secondly, because sometimes some of my favourite actors make an appearance and they may even go home with an Oscar. And thirdly, and most importantly, because this strange thing happens every once in a while: my film pick wins (true, more often than not, it’s my favourite of the ones nominated, not my favourite of the entire year), and it can get even better if it is a film that would have never been made by a big studio.

So here are my thoughts on a few important categories.
Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

Best film. The new comer in my preferences is Hell or High Water. It just might be my very favourite of 2016. It is definitely my pick from the nominees. An indie film, a modern western, a very actual one with a great sense of place. Its daring spirit, its accurate reflection of the bleak American times and the rough-around-the-edges antiheroes remind me of the New Hollywood of the ’70s, which gave the world some of the greatest and most original American movies since the late 1940s. A solid cast, made of actors, not stars, who do what they do best: they tell a story. A tale of two brothers robbing banks to pay off a lender before their oil-rich property gets forfeited and the Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges plays one of them, deservedly nominated for supporting role) on their trail. Director David Mackenzie took an excellent script and turned it into an excellent movie – the screenwriter is Taylor Sheridan, the one who also wrote Sicario, the highly underrated movie of 2015 and my very own favourite of that year.

Manchester by the Sea is a very good film, a heavy drama about loss and grief. The problem is that I don’t handle that well. I am just being honest here. I simply look for something else when watching a movie, and if you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I don’t take films lightly. Moonlight is a good film. It shows both artistry and emotional power in telling a coming-of-age story of a gay black boy. Director Barry Jenkings handles it so beautifully and elegantly. The best I can come up with about Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is that it is a very American war film and it simply did not tell me much. I mean, really, hasn’t this story been told like a million times? Mel, you can do so much better. After all, you gave us Apocalypto.
Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

Best actor: I admit I don’t have a definite pick for best actor. Casey Affleck’s character in Manchester by the Sea is a deeply damaged man. He has so many demons from his past that will never go away and yet his performance is so subtle, without failing to convey his unimaginable pain. There are other ways of going through grief than visibly coming apart. He really has to live it and I think that’s the most brave and toughest way to deal with tragedy.

But I also can not forget Ryan Gosling and the silent volumes he speaks in the finale of La La Land. He didn’t sweep me away with the dancing, singing and piano playing throughout the entire film, nor with his natural humour and charm, no. It’s that look he gives Mia when he sees her in the audience at his jazz club at the very end of the movie, the look he has after he finishes his song and looks up in her direction, although he kind of knows that she is already on her way out. That look encompasses everything he lost, everything they lost when they went to search for their separate dreams. But somehow his loss seems, and feels, bigger than hers. I can not take that look out of my mind.

There is this one more thing I have to get off my chest: how in the world is Denzel Washington suddenly making an appearance in the media as a possible winner? No, it is not for the right reason (frankly, there is a theatricality in Washington’s acting that I do not like – he didn’t have it in his earlier films), but because Casey Affleck seems to have been in the press for the wrong reasons lately – I don’t know much and I don’t want to know, because you know what? The only thing that matters here is his WORK!
Elle 2016

Isabelle Huppert in Elle

Best actress: Have I not already been vocal enough? Isabelle Huppert is the only choice. A tour de force of a performance by one of the greatest actresses of all time, which would deserve the prize in any year. Because Isabelle goes about her business, as usual, with that unforced naturalness of hers that is a world away from the Great Performance syndrome that is often accountable for the big awards wins. And if I had to have a second choice, it would be Isabelle Huppert for that other great performance of 2016, in Mia Hanse-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come).

Okay, a succinct round-up is due: Natalie Portman, it just can’t be a good thing that I always see her “act” on screen, can it? Emma Stone is good – she carries the singing audition sequence all by herself so beautifully – but not quite up there in my opinion. Another Meryl Streep nomination? Really? Academy Awards voters, will you just watch other movies, too? Have you watched Annette Bening in 20th Century Women? Sasha Lane in American Honey? Amy Adams in Arrival? Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train? I am sure even Meryl Streep is starting to feel a little embarrassed by all this not entirely deserved attention. I mean, she does seem like a very cerebral person, with a lot of common sense.

Mahershala Ali in Moonlight

Supporting actor: Mahershala Ali. Not only is his contribution to Moonlight one of the best parts of the film, but the extraordinary thing about his role is that its impact is deeply felt long after his part is over (he only appears in the first of the three chapters of Moonlight) and in the evolution of the main character – now, that is what a supporting role is about. However, three other entirely deserving performances are Jeff Bridges’ in Hell or High Water, Lucas Hedges’ in Manchester by the Sea and Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals

Naomie Harris in Moonlight

Supporting actress: Naomi Harris should win for Moonlight, where she delivers an electric performance, going through an incredible range of moods so fast and with such ease. Viola Davis might win though, I hear, and the thing that bothers me the most is that the arguments in her favour invariably mention her already being a third time nominee with no Oscar win (so what? Pacino won his at his eighth nomination) before even getting to her part in Fences.

Michelle Williams is good, but she is good in everything she plays. In Manchester by the Sea she has very little presence on screen. But that’s not really the problem – after all, Beatrice Straight deservedly won the Oscar for her supporting role in Network, a performance of only a little over five minutes, the shortest performance to have ever won an Academy Award for acting. And, to be honest, Laura Lynne in Nocturnal Animals, for example, has a very short appearance, too, even shorter than Michelle’s, but the impact of that scene is much more powerful to the outcome of the film and of the other characters than Williams’ is.
La La Land

La La Land

Costumes: First of all, a few facts. Contemporary costume design is hardly ever nominated. It deserves to be recognised more often. It is much more difficult to get contemporary film costume right. It is also difficult to get contemporary film costume for an original screenplay right (yes, as opposed to Jackie, for example, which got the BAFTA – I mean, they had a pretty good template to work with, right? One of the most photographed, iconic, stylish women in the world, Jackie Kennedy.). All these points are not to say however that they should be reason enough for a win on the part of La La Land. But the fact that the costumes really are great (and, notably, most of them were made for the film, not bought from the shelves as it often is the case with contemporary film clothes, as good as they may be), truly convey who the characters are, harmoniously blend in and advance the narration is good enough reason and some, if you’re asking me.

Original screenplay: Hell or High Water.

Directing, cinematography, original song, original score, production design: La La Land.

On an ending note, you can forget everything I’ve written above. Who will win doesn’t really matter. What should matter is that films be seen. At the cinema. Maybe you can come back then and tell me about your favourite.

photos: 1- La La Land illustration by Thomas Danthony / 2,7-Lionsgate / 3-Film 44, OddLot Entertainment, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment / 4-Allstar/StudioCanal / 5-SBS Productions, Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion GmbH, France 2 Cinéma / 6,7-A24, Plan B Entertainment

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