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As the year reaches its half way point, I take stock of what I have seen thus far. I was able to see more films for the first month, managing seven in January (although some were leftovers from December). Then work got in the way and I had to be picky about my encounters.
Most galling in this regard was not seeing the eventual Best Picture winner until after the Academy Awards took place, which has not happened for years. But at least I ticked off all eight of them, as usual some being released this year, and one creeping into my top six thus far.
2019 has had its share of prestige fodder and box office battalions, with Hollywood, Britain and other countries jostling at the cinema. The year thus far has rewarded, confounded and exceeded expectations with sequels and franchise instalments, although the best offerings came from unexpected sources. Thus, my personal six best films of the first six months of 2019 are:
An extraordinary, acerbic, acidic and at times absurdist comedy-drama of manners, manipulation and monarchy.
An enveloping, emotional, exhilarating, witty, tragic, astonishing and utterly triumphant superhero epic of extraordinary ambition and magnificent realisation.
A gloriously funny, beautifully sweet, sometimes surreal, touching, delightful coming of age comedy of being more than you or anyone else expects.
A flamboyant, fabulous and frenetic bio-musical of a flamboyant, fabulous and frenetic talent and personality.
A malevolent, magnificent, Marxist, satirical nightmare of demographics, doppelgängers and dance.
A joyous, heartwarming, bittersweet delight of family, wrestling, dreams and the pride of being a freak from Norwich.
A glorious superpowered special forces adventure of memory, identity and morality, boosted with beautiful politics of diversity and inclusion.
Stinker So Far
A disparate and somewhat hollow but still brooding and atmospheric superhero adventure, spiced with the most dramatic of dramatic scores.
What will the rest of the year bring? Certainly there is much to be excited about, as Avengers, Jedi, musicians, demon clowns, entrepreneurs and more continue to compete for attention in the overcrowded cinemas. Plus there are remakes, re-releases and homages still to come. Will these six make it into the Top Twelve of 2019? Check back in six months to find out!
Amid great fanfare as only the Academy can deliver, the nominees for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were announced on 24th January 2017. As always, the AMPAS members have come in for sneering over their ‘snubs’ and everyone, their pet bandicoot and the bandicoot’s veterinarian (and probably the veterinarian’s tennis partner) believes that they know better. Well, I do not know better, I’m just a guy on the Internet with some views. Rather than declaring the most deserving winners, I find it far more interesting to analyse the nominees, consider what these nominations represent and make some educated guesses about what might win and, more importantly, why.
For this first post, let’s take a look at Best Picture. Drumroll, please! The nominees for Best Motion Picture are:
Generically, these nine films are an interesting bunch. A science fiction film (a rare nominee in itself); a domestic drama adapted from a successful stage production; a war film; a modern Western; a historical drama; a musical; a true life story; a bereavement drama; an LGBTQ drama. Perhaps these nominees show a certain self-reproach on the Academy’s part over the lack of diversity among previous years’ nominees. Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight could all be classed as ‘black films’, while Lion is also concerned with issues of race and racial identity. Moonlight is a film with LGBTQ concerns, a rare thing indeed for the Academy to take notice of. More cynically, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are typical Oscar fare featuring white men dealing with the problems of being white men. While these two films are fine examples of such dramas, they are hardly challenging in their subject matter. Whereas last year’s nominees included films critical of US institutions, only Hell or High Water and Arrival offer such a critique of current events.
Several of the nominees feature award-friendly subject matter, including American history (Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge), World War II (Hacksaw Ridge), nostalgia (La La Land, Hell or High Water), true stories (Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Lion), Hollywood self-love (La La Land). As I have commented previously, films with historical settings are frequently rewarded, which would work in favour of Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge and Lion (more recent history, but Lion is based on a true story, which the Academy also often rewards). However, according to various publications, the smart money is on La La Land to be the big winner, despite or perhaps because of its nostalgia for the ‘grand tradition of MGM musicals’, as well as having a record number of 14 nominations, equalling those of All About Eve and Titanic. Perhaps the light-heartedness of La La Land will work against it, while the weightier subject matter of Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea will carry them through.
Subject matter is not the only factor, however. Analysis of previous winners demonstrates that winners of the Best Picture award also win one or more of these other three awards: Directing, Film Editing, Writing (both Original and Adapted Screenplay). Five of the five Best Picture nominees are also nominated for Directing – La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival. Of these, Arrival, Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are also up for Writing (the first two for Adapted, the second two for Original). Furthermore, only Arrival, La La Land and Moonlight are also up for Directing and Writing. Combine these factors with the non-award friendly genre of Arrival, and the potentially controversial subject matter of Moonlight, and La La Land emerges as the frontrunner. Were I a member of AMPAS, I would vote for Arrival, my top film of last year, but I suspect come the night La La Land will be dancing all the way to Best Picture.
There are two schools of thought regarding La La Land. One is that demonstrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: La La Land is a masterpiece worthy of every possible award. The other is that it is massively ‘overrated‘ and indicative of a lack of originality and imagination in Hollywood, and even that it is politically suspect. I lean more towards the former, as I found La La Land to be gorgeously colourful and cinematically vibrant, while the protagonists Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are an engaging and often adorable pairing. That said, it is far from being profound or offering much that is innovative. But, perhaps refreshingly, it makes no attempt to be more than it is, as Damian Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to Hollywood as Dream Machine, shot through with nostalgia for the musicals of a bygone age. Whether it will age as well as Singin’ in the Rain or West Side Story remains to be seen, but within the oeuvre of its director this is a clearer and more satisfying work. Whereas Whiplash struggled to confirm its perspective, La La Land never forgets that it is first and foremost a film about dreams, as both Sebastian and Mia are driven by their respective goals, his to own a classic jazz bar and hers to succeed as a Hollywood actress. In their third onscreen pairing after Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, Gosling and Stone are beautifully engaging, Seb and Mia coming across as both archetypal and personable. The backdrop of their clichéd but affectionately detailed story serves as an idyllic landscape, where Chazelle and DOP Linus Sandgren use long takes to capture the expansive locations and the skilled choreography within it. At the expansive end of the scale is the opening musical number, ‘Another Day of Sun’, in which dozens of motorists on a Los Angeles freeway burst into song and out of their cars to set the tone for the toe-tapping fun that is to come. Yet perhaps the film’s strongest moment is more intimate, as Mia delivers the passionate number, ‘Audition’, which expresses the heart of the film: the beauty of dreams no matter how absurd and unrealistic they may seem. La La Land also surprises with its thread of melancholia, ensuring that while it is an ebullient and frothy confection, even the most ‘Hollywood’ of stories can be bittersweet.
Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg are significant parts of many childhoods. Both artists use an exquisite method of storytelling that captures that most elusive of elements – true wonder. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that Spielberg has not directed an adaptation of a Dahl novel until now, but it was the worth the wait as The BFG delivers exactly what could be expected of this dream combination. From the lovingly crafted streets of London to the intricate maze of the Big Friendly Giant’s (Mark Rylance) home and workshop, Spielberg and production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg place the viewer in the position of the enchanting Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) as she learns about giants, Giant Country and dreams. DOP Janusz Kaminsky lenses the film in soft hues, while capturing two bravura sequences in single shots. These set pieces convey wonder and thrills both as spectacle and experience, while screenwriter Melissa Mathison imbues the Buckingham Palace sequences with Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) with laugh out loud comedy moments. Performance capture and digital effects bring the BFG to startling life, Rylance’s performance one of charming innocence which rivals that of Sophie. This guileless innocence and childlike charm are the greatest strengths of the film, even if at times it is thematically insubstantial. Reminiscent in its finest moments of Spielberg and Mathison’s previous collaboration, E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The BFG confirms Spielberg’s place as Hollywood’s enduring crafter of cinematic dreams, and the timelessness of Dahl’s beautiful storytelling.
It is a cliché to say that Hollywood action blockbusters have no plot or story. This is nonsense as even perfunctory analysis highlights that Hollywood filmmaking is, as it has been for many decades, rooted in narrative progression and plot development. Indeed, if a film has narrative problems this is more likely to be down to an excess rather than sparseness of plot. Such is the case with Independence Day: Resurgence that, despite its title, lacks any significant surging and no discernible independence from the other films it references/pays homage to/rips off (depending on how generous you feel). Set twenty years after the events of the inter-galactically superior original, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s follow-up sees the nations of Earth celebrating the unparalleled peace and unity they have had since defeating the alien invasion when, wouldn’t you know it, those pesky ETs show up again (someone must have phoned home, yes, I went there, judge me all you like). David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) along with Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who starts English but subsequently and inexplicably becomes French) have a handle on what’s going on, but the leaders of the world including US President Lanford (Sela Ward) don’t listen (if you figure out how that works out, you can have a cookie); former US President Tom Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is beardy and traumatised; his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) is brave if tremulous; Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is rebellious; Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher) is angry and still grieving over the death of father Steven (Will Smith, who made the smart choice not to return); I am watching this piffle waiting for it to go somewhere. Meanwhile, other narrative threads crop up to add to the confusion, a certain amount of techno-porn sashays across the screen and, somewhere in the mix, aliens arrive and attempt the old ‘destroy all life on Earth’ thing. With so many disparate elements flying around, it is small wonder that the film feels utterly incoherent and lacks the two crucial elements that make its predecessor so re-watchably enjoyable: wit and suspense. Will Smith punching an alien and quipping ‘Welcome to Earth!’ is a glorious and far from isolated moment in the first film. Equally glorious is the wonderfully ominous first act in which the gigantic ships loom over Earth and there is deliberate and effective build-up to the metropolis-sized destructo-porn. The absence of these elements, and the lacklustre set pieces that Resurgence offers without enough build-up or sustainment to be exciting, mean that tension and therefore drama are sorely lacking, while scenes that could offer emotional weight are instead throwaway moments that leave you wondering why the writers bothered to include them. And there is the problem: ID4: R has too many cooks and they really spoil the broth. Whereas Devlin and Emmerich wrote the original film at the height of their mid-90s power, here they are joined by Nicolas Wright (who also plays an irritating but at least vaguely interesting bureaucrat), James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt, all seemingly competing for our derision. It might be fun to work out exactly who wrote what part, at least more fun than wondering why those kids in the car are there and why we don’t get more of the guys on the boat and what dramatic purpose Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) is serving, or why these discordant elements are not tied together by Emmerich who has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he is more than capable of putting together a decent disaster film. The end result is an incoherent mess, a baffling, blundering barrel of feeble, underpowered non-spectacle that lacks wit, suspense, coherence and emotional heft. Oh, and it has the prospect of another one. Hooray, today we celebrate our Indepen… No, let’s not.
If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.
To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?
As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.
Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.
E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.
Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.
The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.
I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.