Oscars 2019: Thoughts and Wild Predictions

CJ Johnson and Danielle McGrane look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year of self-fouls, own goals and other idiotic mis-steps in anticipation of a train-wreck 2019 Oscars. In addition, they step outside of the boring conventional wisdom predictions for this year’s Oscars, and instead, take a few big swings. Don’t bet on these long shots!

 

 

Stan and Ollie

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 6.21.52 pm.png

* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Shame about the musical score, which is overbearing and makes the otherwise tastefully wrought and lovingly crafted Stan and Ollie seem schmaltzy. It’s not fair to the fine work of Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their wives. They’re all splendid.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy are touring England in the hopes of stirring up producer interest in one more movie, a Robin Hood satire. Implied, too, is that they need the money. They’re ageing and no longer on the top of the Hollywood totem pole, but they’re also still in good humour and enjoying their work. The film is willing to avoid throwing artificial conflict at them; for the most part, this amiable, low-key dramedy is content to be a character piece, and a portrait of a long-standing working relationship. It also features Coogan and Reilly expertly pulling off some gorgeous and very funny Laurel and Hardy routines.

I suppose the overwhelming sentimentality may be appreciated in some quarters, but it does niggle me that, since the audience is (rightly) perceived to be “the grey dollar”, they must be in want of an overbearing orchestra-full of swelling strings. No-one needs to be spoon-fed their emotions in this day and age, even those old enough to have seen the real Stan and Ollie at their local. I’d love to see a cut of this film without the score; it would simply be better, perhaps even rather sublime.

Black Monday (S1) and Corporate (S2)

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 7.58.01 am.png

Boy, has the American half-hour comedy come a long way since I was a kid. With the exception of MASH, most shows used to be safe, safe, safe. Now, you can watch a speculative explanation of the 1987 Wall Street crash as a broad comedy.

That’s the pitch behind Black Monday (STAN), which unfortunately doesn’t live up to its promise – and what promise! Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer and a directing team that includes Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – what could’ve gone wrong?

My guess is they had too much fun on set. This is a loud show about loud people (Wall Street traders in the 1980s, usually on cocaine) and everyone is acting just too damn loud. Don Cheadle is a great, and very funny, actor, but the writers seem to think that just giving him long speeches and letting him off the leash will result in comic gold, and it doesn’t. He’s too much, the writing isn’t funny enough, and I found myself in the awful position of wishing he would shut up. He didn’t, and doesn’t. This is his show, and it’s indulgent of an actor’s worst impulses.

Much funnier is Corporate (FOXTEL), entering its second season. This is a truly subversive and edgy comedy that doesn’t need to yell; indeed, it’s as deadpan as it gets, and all the better for it. Creators Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman play sad office drones at a fictional massive corporation, Hampton Deville, that has its hands in everything; the underlying source company seems to be Halliburton. The sheer scope of the conglomerate allows the show to pierce many targets – Hampton Deville can make and sell anything – while gunning at all manner of workplace situations, especially the simple daily art of not getting shafted, shivved or shoved out. It’s not as brilliant as the original The Office, but it’s a workplace comedy with plenty of bite.

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 7.59.03 am.png

If Beale Street Could Talk

* * * * (out of five)

I haven’t read James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, but I have no doubt that writer / director Barry Jenkins’ (Moonlight) copy has twenty annotations per page. This is an adaptation that feels as authentic, respectful and committed to the source material as they come; Jenkins has not used the book as a starting point, he has done everything in his power to bring the book to the screen.

That included bringing the book’s emotional impact: how it makes Jenkins feel. His film version is awash with feeling; at times, it is as much about mood as anything, about how it stimulates the senses. It is about music and colour and framing and is so effective in those areas I swear that I could practically smell Riverside Park, in Harlem, in the early 1970s.

There, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) are deeply in love. They’re been in love since they were children. Now, they’re sexually active dynamic people in their early twenties, and the world, for them (and thus, for us) is aglow with colour and passion and love. At times, there is nothing in the world for them but them, and Jenkins is not afraid, in this bustling city, to render them alone on a street, cocooned in the world of their love.

But this is backstory, flashback: in the present, Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish is pregnant with their child. How their families help them with this bittersweet predicament forms the slight plot of this moving story. It is surprising, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and deeply, deeply compassionate.

It’s a world outside of my own experience and I felt a little like an outsider; Jenkins has said he makes films for black American audiences and anyone else can come if they like. How Australian audiences will relate, we’ll see. This is not a “universal story” but rather one that is highly specific to the African American experience. Except, of course, for that big, big presence of Love, which is in every frame of the film. That’s where everyone can relate; that’s (the outsiders’) “in”.

Nicholas Britell’s score is monumentally beautiful, moving and apt; it may be the first original motion picture soundtrack I’ve bought since last century. The craft in every department is similarly of the highest possible caliber. Layne and James, perversely, make the least impact (James, I find and found in Homecoming, is rather wooden) but the film’s supporting actors light up every scene around them. All are brilliant but Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s loving parents are exceptional, as is Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry in an astonishing one-scene role.

This is a deeply felt, lovingly made movie that will stand the test of time. Push your boundaries.

Vox Lux

* * * * 1/2 (out of five)

I won’t soon forget the first time I saw Brady Corbet’s 2015 debut The Childhood of a Leader. Baroque, operatic, mesmerizing, intense, disorienting, moody and quietly terrifying, the film, which never ultimately got released in Australia and remains barely seen, deeply affected me. It gave me that intense thrill that a critic or film lover gets when they hear a powerful new directorial voice. It also gave me the chills. Here was a filmmaker who knew what got under my skin, through his idiosyncratic use of music, image, mood. The film really spoke to me.

So too does Vox Lux, Corbet’s far more commercial follow-up, which is not to say it’s commercial at all. Corbet has carried over his unnerving style to a straight up portrait of a modern pop singer, and the seeming clash of style to subject is part of what gives the film its unearthly pleasure. We’re watching an origin story of a Lady Gaga / Sia / Britney Spears, but it feels like a horror movie.

It’s all quite brilliant and unbelievably entertaining, while being thoroughly uncompromising. The first half of the film covers the younger years of pop singer Celeste, in this section played by Raffey Cassidy, as a traumatic childhood event gives birth to her talent as a performer. Corbet’s intense use of music and imagery here echo his work on Childhood of a Leader, keeping us unmoored and on edge, even as Celeste’s manager is introduced, and played by Jude Law, as essentially a comic character. The second half, featuring Natalie Portman as Celeste, all takes place in a single day, and shifts tonal gears, at times presenting as flat-out comedy, albeit in a gothic vein.

All the performances are sensational. Cassidy and Portman are superb versions of each other/Celeste, working in tandem to create the singer’s unique voice and particularly her physicality, which is deeply informed by events of the film. Portman’s use of her own body is exquisite, precise and alarming; her growing body of exceptional performances, including this, Black Swan and Jackie, really do place her in the very front ranks of working screen actors. She’s outrageously good. As for Cassidy, she and Corbet pull off a coup de theatre that made my jaw drop and which I will leave for you to discover; all I will say is that she deserves awards for her work here. They both do. They all do.

The songs, written by Sia herself, are superb, and Cassidy and Portman do their own singing. Celeste is a major talent and how these actresses live up to that expectation boggles the mind. Portman famously prepared for Black Swan by learning ballet, and she’s learned an entirely new universe of performance here. It all pays off, riotously, wonderfully, exuberantly, brilliantly, with integrity, grace and skill. If she toured as Celeste, I’d want to see it.

This is the first great film of 2019. Exceptional.

New Half-Hour Comedy: Russian Doll, Derry Girls, The Other Two and Sally4Ever.

There’s a fine line between “passion project” and “vanity vehicle”. You’ve really got to love Natasha Lyonne’s shtick to fall for Russian Doll, her undoubtedly original and committed half-hour eight-part comedy / drama on Netflix that may also be outrageously indulgent. I was out after two episodes; your mileage may vary, and I would warrant, on your love for Lyonne’s vibe.

She plays Nadia, a hard-partying Manhattan-based video game coder having a strange episode that may be drug-related, a mental illness, or supernatural. Essentially, she’s suffering from Groundhog’s Day Disease; she keeps dying and coming back to life at exactly the same moment. Naturally, this is freaking her out, and rather than use her endless loop to woo a pretty girl as Bill Murray did, she seeks professional help.

Lyonne plays Nadia as an old Jewish comedian from the Catskills would. Seriously. It’s an outrageous, very big, very bold performance that is so loud and intense it wore me out. As did the repetitive party scenes which Nadia keeps returning to. The series has a definite voice, utilising its vibrant Manhattan streetscapes well and plenty of intriguing music choices, but by the end of ep two it felt more exciting for the creators than for me.

Netflix’s Derry Girls will tire you out, but after a breather I warrant you’ll be back for more. Set in Northern Ireland – specifically, County Derry – in the early 1990s, it follows the daily trials and tribulations of a group of four sixteen year old girls and one of their male cousins as they navigate (very Catholic) school, family, and The Troubles. The girls’ performances are all big big big – especially Nicola Coughlan, whose face never stops twitching – and the humour is as broad as the  River Foyle, but it works in small doses. The dialogue is the fastest on television, and for every gag that doesn’t land there’s one that does. The whole thing is also very sweet; by the end of ep two, I felt not only for these girls, but for their friendship, and that’s the key to the show. The milieu is also fascinating, and fascinatingly used; soldiers, guns, bombs and fear are ever-present, but as such, also somehow everyday, mundane, and often the source of humour. Great fun.

For easy-going good times in a mellow tone, Foxtel’s The Other Two goes down like a butterscotch candy. It’s a show-business satire with warmth and colour but very little bite. Heléne York and Drew Tarver play adult siblings whose younger brother, 13 year old Chase (Case Walker), has become an overnight YouTube sensation a la Justin Bieber. Since their own artistic aspirations  are mitigated by total failure, they’re ripe for a spot of jealous intrigue and possible career sabotage, but so far the show is sweeter than that. Rather than make Chase a monster, so far he’s a very nice boy, and his older siblings, now stuck in his shadow, still adore him. It’ll be interesting if things are allowed to go a little off the rails; if not, the show’s sweetness may be its undoing. It’s not funny enough to get by on laughs alone. Interestingly, the siblings’ dynamic (and the Manhattan setting) recall the recently and tragically cancelled Difficult People, which really did have an edge.

Julia Davis’ work certainly has edge; her 2016 show Camping was uncomfortably brilliant (NB: not the recent US remake). But her new one, Sally4Ever (also on Foxtel) is outrageously and unforgivably indulgent. Davis plays a truly awful compulsive liar, Emma, who worms her way into the life of mousy Sally (Catherine Shepherd, doing surprisingly subtle work) and upends it. Sally is discovering same-sex sex for the first time and seems absolutely obsessed with it; there’s no other real way to justify her continuing acceptance of Emma, who is the most obnoxious screen character since David Brent (and who exists in his shadow). Essentially the show provides one set-up for Davis to improvise after another, and once we “get it” – that Emma’s the worst – it becomes terribly wearing. If you really still love to cringe, that’s all this show is about; after five eps I really couldn’t take it anymore.

Eighth Grade

* * * *

Bo Burnham’s debut feature announces him as a fresh and talented auteur (he’s only 28 and comes from a comedy, YouTube background). It’s a mercilessly spot-on depiction of the trials and tribulations of being a female thirteen year-old in modern America, avoiding many high-school movie tropes and clichés along the way. It’s also sensationally acted by young Elsie Fisher as shy eighth-grader Kayla and super-indie stalwart Josh Hamilton as her kind single dad.

The film is absolutely a comedy, even as it touches raw nerves head-on: one startling sequence depicts the students training for a school shooting, while another, late in the film, reverberates mightily with the cultural conversations currently swirling around gender relations. In this sense, its artistic grandparent seems to be Amy Heckling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which likewise confronted big teen issues with a respectful and tasteful comedic appreciation.

The biggest issue here, by far, is social media and smartphones, and the film could be appreciated simply as a furious, comic attack on both. While it’s got more up its sleeve, its depiction of the crippling effects of social media on young people is satisfyingly complete. This is a film I instantly wanted to share with many specific people, as a warning: look how bad these things actually are! Look what they do to our kids!

In targeting social media itself as the villain, Burnham avoids many high-school stereotypes, and while there are some mean girls, they’re portrayed as victims (of social media) too. Likewise, there’s a nerd, but he’s the most surprising and intriguing nerd you’ve seen in a long time, and his big scene is rather incredible.

There’s no schmaltz, no faux tragedy, no bullshit in Burnham’s movie. It’s got integrity, compassion and respect for its subjects and audience. Releasing on January 3rd in Australia, it will have to wait out 2019 to appear on Oz “Best of Year” lists, but I’ll be sure to remember it. It’s a new classic in the teen genre, joining The Edge of Seventeen and Diary of a Teenage Girl from recent years. Excellent, and if you’re a parent, unmissable.

Cold War

* * * *

A grand romantic drama, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War won the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. There are many movies to get through at Cannes, and Pawlikowski’s superbly crafted film clocks in at only eighty-eight minutes, covering fifteen years and four nations. It’s a lot of movie, and represents tremendous value if your time is tight.

Should you be lucky enough to have oodles of time up your sleeve, Cold War’s brevity might count against it. It’s so good, and so engaging, that you feel a little cheated when it ends. It’s the kind of sweeping European love story that in the past has sustained epic cinema, and Pawlikowski’s decisions to keep it so tight – he also constrains the image, shooting in the boxy “Academy Ratio” and in black and white – seem like a defiant, almost petulant, flight of fancy. Obviously not a cheap production, Pawlikowski seems determined to not put all the money on the screen.

But that’s his aesthetic, and we should be grateful for it. Anyone can shoot a movie in black and white, or in Academy Ratio, but not everyone will do so with such purpose and rigor. He restrained himself similarly with his last film, Ida (2014), and the two films complement each other in other ways. They’re both concerned with post-war Europe, with devotion, with sacrifice, and, here especially, with love. Ida was austere, whereas Cold War is lush and highly populated, but the sharp contrast of the black and white cinematography – Lukasz Zal shot both films – keep the vibe forever wintry, the mood ever melancholy, like a meal for one in a quiet Paris bistro at twilight on Christmas Eve.

Cold War’s love story, of two musicians destined to continually be drawn together and pulled apart by the Iron Curtain and their own internal conflicts, is such a good one – such a blatantly effective story – that it verges on the preposterous. It’s not. It’s based on Pawlikowski’s own parents, and that tips it over into the miraculous. One of the films of the year.

Vice

* * * *

Adam McKay is an American treasure, a keenly intelligent, outrageously talented writer / producer / director whose last film, The Big Short (2015) and last television work, the pilot for Succession this year, were both phenomenal. His new film, Vice, a sweeping examination of Dick Cheney, will inevitably be seen in comparison to The Big Short; stylistically, they share similarities, together defining McKay’s new, mature “style” (as distinct from the major comedic chops he swung as writer / producer / director of such films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers). Vice suffers in that comparison – such is the problem when one follows a masterwork -but it is still vital and urgent and demands to be seen.

Christian Bale plays Cheney, Amy Adams his wife and co-conspirator Lynne, Steve Carell his mentor Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell his boss, George W. Bush. They’re all excellent; Bale once again proves himself a master of playing old white men under makeup and fat (I believe his own). Interestingly, in the scenes of Cheney as a younger man (the film, more of a traditional biopic than I was expecting, covers Cheney from college-age to the present), Bale seems hardly disguised at all, save for makeup to make him appear more youthful. Was Cheney ever that good looking?

As with The Big Short, McKay uses many techniques to tell his complicated story, including a non-linear structure, fragmented editing incorporating quick inserts of representative imagery (especially drawn from the world of fishing, Cheney’s hobby, which at least isn’t golf), and use of news, archival and other real-world footage. He also incorporates a narrator, mainly off-screen but sometimes on, played by Jesse Plemons, and sometimes relies too heavily upon him. There’s a lot of narration, and I felt a little spoon-fed, as though McKay had lost a little nerve, or a little trust in our own abilities to connect the dots. It felt like a surprising mis-step given the spectacular clarity with which McKay was able to tell the Big Short story, which was really complicated.

I have another quibble, and I’ll call spoiler alert, although of course this is a true story. McKay uses Cheney’s long support, and ultimate betrayal, of his daughter Mary’s homosexuality and her same-sex marriage as the emotional spine of the film and ultimate depiction of Cheney’s wickedness. But, as a title card at the end tells us, Cheney could be seen as responsible for well over 600,000 human deaths. Surely that is more powerful than his betrayal of his own daughter, as ghastly as that sounds? Again, it’s as though McKay worried that Cheney’s story was simply too cold to engage without a family hearth to shatter.

Ultimately I suspect McKay possibly could have developed a better version of this story given more development. As it is, it’s still totally worth your time. I hope it doesn’t just play to the converted.

THE BEST FILMS OF 2018

1

LOVELESS 

Loveless, from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a masterpiece, a brutal, uncompromising, stunningly well crafted and extraordinarily observant depiction of modern life, relationships, parenting, and society. At every turn it is revealing and stunningly precise about the human condition. It offers the viewer a chance not only to reflect on their own life but to truly search their soul. Like the very, very best films, I believe that if I listen to it, I can be a slightly better person for it.

2

ROMA

The film is epic and intimate; in the seemingly simple story of Cleo (the stand- in for Libo) and her unusual year, we are driven to contemplate huge issues and major themes: class and ethnicity, the nature and dignity of work, what actually constitutes a family and parenting; what it means to love. It is a film of constant compassion and absolute humanity. It is totally, essentially personal to Cuarón, but it is also fundamentally universal. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

3

BPM

Deservedly taking out a swath of awards at this year’s Césars, including Best Film, Editing, Music, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and “Most Promising” Actor, Robin Campillo’s portrait of Act Up-Paris in the early 1990s is sweeping, compassionate, funny, angry, ambitious and full of the kind of detail and incident that can only be drawn from life. Campillo was a part of the movement at the time, and wrote his screenplay based on his own experiences, while allowing himself dramatic freedom.

4

HEREDITARY

Aster’s judgement is confident, mature, unerring. The film’s casting is precise and evocative, and includes a striking find in young Milly Shapiro, playing Collette’s daughter. The cinematography is beautiful, unnerving and deliberate, emphasising shadows, moonlight and dusk (the film was shot in Utah) that evokes the feel of the great American horror cinema of the 1970s. The music is unobtrusive yet consistently effective, the production design immaculate and vital. Most satisfying of all is the pace, which is stately. Aster doesn’t rush a thing. He’s written a brilliant script and he’s brought it to the screen with the respect it deserves.

5

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.

6

THE DEATH OF STALIN

Armando Iannucci created three of the funniest television sitcoms of all time: I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep (which has one season to go, but whose reins he has let go). He is a master political satirist and my favourite screenwriter. The Death of Stalin, his first feature film as a director, is, as befits his leap from the smaller to bigger screen, an ambitious effort: Iannucci boldly gives us a whale of a time with enormously witty dialogue, but also the very violent history of the political infighting that occurred in the days and weeks after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.

7

THE FAVOURITE

The dialogue is supremely witty, the design glorious, and the acting sublime. Colman, despite having such a distinctive look and vocal quality, is utterly convincing as every character she plays, and her Anne is one of her finest creations. This Queen is complicated, contradictory, confounding: childish at times, wracked with gout and sadness, she seems utterly malleable, yet the question of just how much she is aware of the intrigue around her is one of the film’s most compelling tensions. Colman owns the role; it’s a triumph for her.

8

AMERICAN ANIMALS

In 2012 British TV documentarian Bart Layton made the leap to the big screen with feature documentary The Imposter, and blew my, and a lot of other, minds. It stands as one of the great documentaries; if you’ve not seen it, don’t google it first. Like Tickled, the less you know, the more you’ll get. Now he’s back on the big screen with a docudrama about four well-off young Kentucky men who got together, in 2004, to commit a crime. He interviews the actual men, their parents, and some other connected parties, but the bulk of the running time is dramatization, which is to say, a proper scripted filmic take on the events. The result is wildly, gleefully entertaining and I can’t recommend it enough.

9

CUSTODY

Loveless was, in its quiet way, an epic, a scathing indictment of modern humanity. Custody examines the day to day affect of joint custody and is far more contained and seemingly modest. Yet by the end, it has achieved momentous power. It is meticulously constructed, building with painfully specific intent. Ultimately, it is shattering. This is a film where strangers (at a general public screening at the French Film Festival) and I all checked in with each other afterwards, because we were all so moved, and shaken. A spectacular debut.

10

A STAR IS BORN

This is a movie to gush over, to see again, to buy the soundtrack to, to urge others to see, to dream about. It’s classic material, but not all the versions have been classic. This one is. There are absolutely ways you could find fault with aspects of the film; you could pick apart elements of the plot, or have problems with the specificity of its music and how it relates to the modern market. Or, you could do as I did, which was to fall deeply for its charms, and let yourself get swept away. As another critic noted, “The way to like this film is to love it.” I love it.

11

BLACKKKLANSMAN

12

WAJIB

13

WILDLIFE

14

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND

15

CLIMAX