Uninformed Oscar Opinions: 2017

Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, the best two of the paltry five Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, are twin lamentations: the first, bleakly cold, white, and northern; the second, sensuously warm, black, and southern. Both deal with coastal inhabitants that hardly qualify as “élite.” Despite the settinga haven for old money on the North Shore of Massachusettsthe Chandler family in Manchester by the Sea has the sweat stains of the white working class we’re hearing so much about these days; they’re as straight and white as Chiron, from South Florida, is gay and black. And though the Atlantic has thematic significance to both, one imagines that these sets of characters would be two ships in the night, never passing nor considering one another, save for at Oscar time. That is to say, these Americans would have no rapport with one another except with a screen as mediator, and that says as much about the simultaneous importance and irrelevance of the Academy Awards in these parlous times as anything else does.

I’m even less qualified than usual to make sweeping judgments this cycle. Given the load of symbolic bricks weighted to the decision, I’m as curious as anyone to see what title is pulled from the envelope. Picking La La Land would, in any other year, be the neutral, inoffensive choiceit’s a shiny lollipop of a movie that will get just as many musicals green-lighted as The Artist churned out silent pictures. And yet, in Trumpistan, honoring such a white-telephone movie would seem very Vichy indeed. Manchester might be dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Casey Affleck, but if voters can forgive Mel Gibson, whose fall was far more public (and whose entry, Hacksaw Ridge, is pleasantly old-fashioned but not nearly as remarkable), who knows? Is Moonlight toowelp“intersectional”? (Few films pair an artist’s eyes with a social worker’s mentality as fluidly as it does, even if the sociology crowds out the dramaturgy from time to time.) Would a nod in that direction be taken to mean that Hollywood is standing up to social-progress whiplash or confirming that it’s “out of touch” with “regular Americans” (mediaspeak for folks like the Chandlers)?

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Embrace of the Serpent

The last of anything gets a leg up in the ranks of tragedy; the loss of a people ascends to the highest rungs. I was pleased to see that Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian contender for Best Foreign Language Film, played to a packed house when I saw it a month ago. This movie features a shaman who’s the last of his tribe played, in advanced age, by a performer who’s among the last of his own. Its stated purpose is to preserve a fading memory. It is more, however, than a specimen jar with first-world guilt reflecting back from the glass. In its (sometimes juddery) black and white, the Amazon cools to wending mercury. It’s veined with life yet still.

At the risk of making the sort of critique I don’t particularly like to make, most white-men-where-they-don’t-belong moviesincluding Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of Godare conceived from the conquistadors’ point of view. Though imperialism is shown to wreak havoc on the foreign environments where it has beachedVietnam in the first example and the Andes in the secondthe narratives seem to be generated less by thoughts of genocide than suicide: by white man reckoning with his own corruption rather than examining the effects his corruption has had on others. That one-sided approach does not take away from those movies or from their filmmakers’ perspectives. But it does redound to this film that its director, Ciro Guerra, has cultivated a fluid perspective that’s thorned by prejudices on both ends. He has the grace to find wisdom in those wounds.

The shaman, Karamakate, is the point-of-view character. The action shifts between his hot-headed younger self (Nilbio Torres) to a 30ish-years-older version (Antonio Bolívar), lonely no longer by choice, for whom senility is creeping in like the first volley of a summer storm. In both timeframes, he encounters a white man; in short, he distrusts the wrong one. The first is a German anthropologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is stricken with a disease that only Karamakate is thought able to cure. Abetting a perceived enemy is a bitter pill for the medicine man to swallow; he shoots medicaments like cannonballs up the dying man’s nose. Theo’s frail white wrists clasp the shaman’s after each ministration, completing a fraught pietà.

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45 Years

A few years ago, a spate of critically-acclaimed prestige pictures like No Country for Old Men were scrapping from simple, grisly horror films like Halloween. The difference was the objective. Whereas slashers aimed for the gut, these “psychological thrillers” aimed for the head. The problem is that their aim was way off. A man chasing you with a knife doesn’t give you much to think about; it’s why he’s chasing you that does (though it’s probably not worth dwelling on unless you can take a breather).

If you shovel it out from under its pretensions, No Country is effective in a campfire-story sort of way, and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has its anthropological merits. But these movies’ overwhelming acclaim could, in large measure, be attributed to intellectual pettifogging—Black Swan had me gagging on its existential feathers. (Risible though it was, I can’t hold the film responsible for the grotesque review it wrenched out of me.)

In short, the essential sham of the horror-chic cycle was that it tried to claim depth by wallowing in the ineffable: Chigurh was a monster born of our suspicion that human life is meaningless. He killed people because … the universe. Depending on your perspective, No Country is the statement on the human condition or a cop-out that sidesteps anything so frivolous as character motivation or a serious view of life from the ground. The thing is, thrilling is easy—it’s the psychological part that’s hard.

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Movie Monster So White, Part II

All right, guys. I’m pumped. The nominees for Best Picture crushed it this year, despite the color-blindness of the Academy—which isn’t the kind of color-blindness that the late, great “Stephen Colbert” used to compliment himself for back in the Colbert Report days. (Here’s a thought: There are so many good choices, why not widen the field to 2009 levels, as a means of increasing its diversity?) I’ll start where I left off, and dive right in.

And the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2015 are . . .
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Movie Monster So White

The greatest threat to movies has always been real life. I’m not talking about cultural trends for once, I’m speaking of my own personal calendar. My tendency is to read at internet pace, but not write at it. And, though some of the clickbait and bias-greasing gallimaufry I read can make that feel smugly like a badge of honor, the tendency can be a tragic flaw, or at least a private shame, when the nominees have not only been good material to write about, but have been—well—good movies.

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I’m going to drop a bombshell here. Of the seven Best Picture contenders I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a single one I didn’t like. I missed Brooklyn, but it was by no means a conscientious objection; at a time when Hollywood is working so hard to use old schmaltz to tug new heartstrings—e.g., L.G.B.T., handicapped, wolf-boy, etc.—it’s almost refreshing to see a “prestige” love story in which the wedge between lovers is that one’s Italian-American and the other Irish. Faith and begorra, they’re both good Catholics!

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Joy

The lukewarm reception of Joy will hopefully shake David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence out of the complacency that this bric-a-brac movie is surely the product of, but I want to take a moment to give them points for their sheer, batshit audacity. It’s a pleasure to think about and a pain to write about because it’s so chocked full of nuts that it’s hard to figure out which layers are intended as bullshit and which layers aren’t intended as bullshit but really, truly are. Wading in this septic think tank can put one in touch with the sublime; it’s like listening to an interview with William Shatner. But it can also be exhausting. Joy feels suspiciously like the last few Russell-Lawrence collaborations, but they power through this one as if under a 108-degree fever. They’ve sweat off the emotional weight.

First, the good stuff: This is a movie about a mop. That’s about the best thing I can say about it. I’ve never seen a film, or engaged with any work of art intended for adults, that has put a human face on household products. The mop is a symbol of our modern-day Cinderella’s domestic oppression as well as her ticket to freedom. More importantly, Joy in Joy makes the case that the mop mod she’s invented will shave minutes off your chores. Those minutes add up, and add value to your life. What Joy represents is utopianism on a granular scale: so granular that her ilk is often unfairly overlooked. Viewed through this prism, as-seen-on-TV junk is transfigured. Who knew that one might find an unsung hero behind ped eggs and lint removers and containers of OxiClean? Look deep into the food processor or up a set of knives and one might find the traces of a human being who was trying to make the world a better place. Joy sells her mop on QVC, back when shopping from home was a novel thing, and the film makes it clear that the network stands for something other than late-capitalist malaise. For a tweaker like Joy, it’s an honest-to-goodness platform for ideas.

Russell can make these points, and Lawrence can sell them through her dimples, all while going headlong into butterscotch-and-brown late-’80s kitsch. Their contrarian impulse has swagger, and it’s essentially humane. This is a female-empowerment movie without malice, but also, perhaps, without mental toughness. When one of QVC’s most experienced on-air personalities tries to shill for it, Joy’s mop is a flop, so the inventor decides to get in front of the camera herself. Bradley Cooper, as the slick head of programming, tries to weigh her down with bangle bracelets and gallons of hairspray, but she insists on going before the lights in plainclothes, so the viewers see the aw-shucks in her eyes. Guess what? It works!

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The Martian

The Martian, like Gravity and Interstellar before it, is a spacefaring fantasy set in a lateral present. Life on Earth, as it looks to us today, seems pretty much in tact, and yet our reach in space seems to have increased a couple million miles, give or take a light year. This isn’t a gift bestowed on us by little green di ex machina. The implication, rather scoldingly, is that this technological potential is in fact a reality that need not be postponed.

All we have to do to achieve this stellar self-actualization is get our shit together, which is what the titular Martian literally does. Marooned on the red planet, and presumed dead, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) uses feces to fertilize a potato crop to sustain him until a rescue can take place. The action commutes between planets, as Mark learns to communicate and then coordinate with NASA command on Earth and his crewmates in transit thither. Their combined brainpower is enough to light a star.

Of course, their combined starpower is enough to greenlight a $100 million spectacle. Less remarkable than the cast, though, is the luxe way that the public servants they play are tailored. I detected a hint of corruption when the head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) was introduced holding a press conference about Watney’s death decked out in a Savile Row suit; but the movie sees nothing but circumspection behind his natty bureaucratic smarm, and blithely assumes that he has the cash flow of a Silicon Valley billionaire. There is not one iota of competence missing in the rainbow of staffers who work either below him or above him—in space. Any cynicism is delegated to the press agent played by Kristen Wiig: Doubt is the comic relief.

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