oscars

Is Judas and the Black Messiah the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Less than a year before his death, William O’Neal was interviewed for what would become an iconic PBS documentary about civil rights called Eyes on the Prize. Lakeith Stanfield plays O’Neal, the informant who ultimately led to the death of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, in Judas and the Black Messiah. The full text of O’Neal’s interview is worth reading, but the most critical piece is this, which he gave as an answer to what he’d tell his son about what he did:

I think I’ll let your documentary put a cap on that story. I don’t know what I’d tell him other than I was part of the struggle. That’s the bottom line. I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries. One of those people that want to sit back now and judge the actions or inactions of people when they sit back on the sideline and did nothing. At least I had a point of view. I was dedicated. And then I had the courage to get out there and put it on the line. And I did. I think I’ll let hi–let history speak for me.

William O’Neal was arrested for stealing a car and the FBI cut a deal with him by asking him to infiltrate the Black Panthers. The film portrays O’Neal as an opportunist who is conflicted, but not that conflicted, and follows the standard blueprint to some degree for informants. History has spoken for O’Neal, who died in an accident that was ruled a suicide but might not have been, but this may not be a story you know. Fred Hampton has a minor role in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and both that movie and this one have added relevance as America slowly, somewhat, starts to have conversations about race and police.

Both films present the reality that the government and the police feared the civil rights movement and sought to infiltrate it to discredit and destroy it. O’Neal drew a distinction between the FBI and “the police,” saying the former is dignified and positive and the latter is more complicated, but I don’t think most people feel this way or have this complication in their mind. O’Neal’s mind is important, however, especially where it doesn’t match what the viewer would feel. We’re seeing a betrayal, but we must understand William O’Neal to know what he’s betraying.

Daniel Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, which is true madness. It’s an amazing performance, arguably the best of the year, and it’s a movie about Fred Hampton, who he plays. The Academy is really bad at this distinction between the acting categories. Recent winners Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mahershala Ali for Green Book are leads, certainly, but probably were slotted into the supporting category to assure their victory for strong performances. My favorite bit of trivia about the category is that Sylvia Miles was nominated for a single scene in Midnight Cowboy where she is on screen for less than ten minutes. Her “support” in that film is a few lines and a joke, albeit a good one. According to the Oscars, that’s about what Kaluuya did here. We should get back to the topic at hand, but it’s important to note how strong his performance is and how strong Stanfield’s is, as well. Them winning both categories wouldn’t be unthinkable, but slotting them both into supporting would be strange if it weren’t the kind of nonsense the Academy does every year.

Judas and the Black Messiah presents William O’Neal as apolitical, which seems to match how he saw himself. He infiltrates the Black Panthers because the FBI asks him to do so and pays him to keep doing it. Where he is conflicted it’s generally because he realizes the FBI isn’t really protecting him. During a shootout with police, he has to appear to the Panthers to be on their side but can’t risk anything that would actually get him hurt. The police don’t care that he’s a “good” Panther. O’Neal wants to quit, but he doesn’t want to quit because he’s actually being swayed by Hampton’s politics. There is some suggestion that he feels remorse, which the real O’Neal certainly did, but it’s mostly around the brutality of the FBI’s intentions. I think the suggestion of the film and O’Neal’s legacy, at least as he tells it, is that he wasn’t a true believer but that doesn’t mean they should kill Fred Hampton.

Fred Hampton, on the other hand, believes. Our introduction to Hampton shows him speaking to a group and demanding that true power requires force and sacrifice. He turns off an audience member by insulting religion and passive resistance as a viable option. As the story progresses and more people take to the streets with guns, we see this put into action. Hampton says in a speech that he knows how his life will end. There’s a powerful inevitability to this story from the very start, both from the title’s insistence that one will betray the other and deliver death and from just the way these things work. The powerful stay powerful and despite the song, the times are not necessarily changing.

Kaluuya really is incredible as Fred Hampton. His speeches are rousing and his slumped, exhausted portrayal “behind the scenes” of his very public life tell us that this is all taking a serious toll. During a meeting with a Chicago gang, Hampton responds immediately to what he knows will be the takedowns of his approach. This kind of writing feels stilted in The Trial of the Chicago 7, but here we see Hampton playing revolutionary speeches over and over again and honing his rhetoric. We have reason to expect he would act this way, which is a small thing but the kind of thing that makes the character feel lived rather than written.

O’Neal is written as an opportunist, as we’ve established, but Stanfield plays him scared. This is a great choice, as it shies away from the bluster that is the defining element of a similar relationship in The Departed. Jesse Plemons continues his career of playing terrifying characters as nice guys as the FBI agent. The real O’Neal looked up to this agent and insisted until his death that he thought the FBI were the good guys, but the film complicates this and offers a slightly more sympathetic view. There’s a case to be made that O’Neal said that because he saw that the FBI could and would kill him for saying otherwise, so it gets a little complicated to say if this choice is a true one or not. It serves the film to show us the FBI agent as a little unsure and O’Neal as a lot more unsure, but we have to accept this as something we can’t know in the real version.

This story is a tragedy, which the film never hides from. Obviously it’s a man’s death, but it’s a million other small tragedies. O’Neal is a complicated figure who saw himself as part of the revolution despite doing more to hurt it than help it, but even that is a statement that needs some unpacking. Judas and the Black Messiah has a point of view, but it does a great job presenting a complicated subject with only a small finger on the scale. It is possible to walk away from this with a true picture of what happened but to also have feelings about how the central figures may have felt. That should be table stakes in a true story, but so many films feel the need to demand one “maybe” was the definite fact that it makes this a revelation.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, it’s better than The Trial of the Chicago 7, another historical film that was up for awards this year. Both films show the government’s attempt to crush a reasonable, necessary revolution for civil rights, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 is far too cute. Judas and the Black Messiah has more space to develop the leads, who are so obviously leads, again, and a more complicated view of what happened. There’s a moment in The Trial of the Chicago 7 where a similar opportunity arises and Aaron Sorkin bulldozes it. This is the better script and the better film because of the time it takes to breathe and sit with something complicated.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, we will stick with the iconic Persona, but I do think it probably should have done better at the Oscars. Nomadland is, I think, an easier to execute story and maybe a better movie, but the more I sit with Judas and the Black Messiah the more I am persuaded. Both look at parts of modern America that we don’t want to admit are part of modern America. I think years from now this will still feel like something great from this year and the performances, especially, will ring out for a long time. The Academy has bigger problems to address than how it organizes the award categories, but man, if you watch this and feel like Daniel Kaluuya is “supporting” one really must ask what a “lead” in this movie would look like.

You can watch Judas and the Black Messiah on YouTube ($19.99 at the time of this writing) or Amazon Prime ($19.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Trial of the Chicago 7 the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the least strange thing that was up for an Oscar this year. It was nominated for six awards and lost all six, which is not unheard of, but the one surprising detail is that it didn’t win for writing. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed it, has been nominated three times before but only won for The Social Network. Maybe it’s not strange that he didn’t win given that history, but this felt like the Most Writing, at least, and that has to be worth something. Emerald Fennell won for Promising Young Woman, and should have, but it’s surprising to see the Academy agree with that.

Aaron Sorkin complaints are a little predictable in 2021, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate. I loved Sports Night and The West Wing like everyone else and I think The Social Network is great. You can pick a ton of other pieces of work from his career to highlight, but I still think his best work is the very strange, but necessarily strange, Steve Jobs. The script is designed to sell a tightly wound, intense person as the centerpiece that holds things together and to then unravel to show us how that isn’t always true. The performances are strong, but it’s the script that makes it go. There are none of the problems that dog The Theory of Everything or a million other “real” stories from the era. It’s way too tight, but so was Jobs himself. It works because the style fits the subject.

This gets to the complaints. Sorkin can apparently only do this one thing, though he does it to such a degree that he’s made a career out of it. Sorkin wrote The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than a decade before he directed it and it feels like it, at times. Every creative person has their “tells” and the Sorkin dialogue is his. There are unbearable moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the entire movie feels relentless. It does what he wants it to do, which is what makes it an unquestionable success. It’s simply a matter of taste of if that is what you, the viewer, want it to be, that will determine if this is good or not.

I think people are too hard on Sorkin, usually, but this movie really make me question that defense. I liked it, broadly speaking, but I don’t remember the last movie watching experience where I was that aware I was watching a movie. Characters never take a moment to listen to each other. Everyone barrels into every scene already talking and leaves still talking. It feels unnecessary to belabor this point because if you know anything about Sorkin you already expect this. He wrote his version of this story and then directed it. It ended up as you’d expect and everyone liked it enough to nominate it but no one liked it enough to let it win anything.

The Chicago 7, which were 8 before they were 7, were men on trial for inciting a riot after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Sorkin met Steven Spielberg and agreed to write the screenplay after hearing the story, but ultimately he had to direct it after several directors moved on from the project. It all came to fruition when a cast of lots and lots of strange, but great, people joined Sorkin and told the story. Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly great as the straight-laced Tom Hayden who just wants everyone to take this whole trial seriously. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong play the buddy duo of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who want to get high and make jokes. Mark Rylance brings a lot of humor to a simple part as the defense attorney for the group. The list goes on and on and on.

I won’t mention everyone, but Frank Langella as the crooked judge who famously likely lost this case for the state, ultimately, by going over the top in courtroom antics that the audience will find ridiculous but mostly happened, really steals the show. Cohen was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Daniel Kaluuya, who somehow was not the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah, but you could pick a lot of these people and call them the best performance here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the state’s lead dog trying to nail the group. The term “ensemble cast” is obvious, but it’s rare that it’s this big. I just don’t have the room to go into everyone, but even the smaller parts here are carried with serious weight, down to essentially a cameo from Michael Keaton.

All of these truly excellent performances are why you should watch it, but Aaron Sorkin is why you maybe shouldn’t. If you aren’t buying what he’s selling already, you’re going to hate this. It’s even more of what he always does and it really does come over and over like body blows. The one-liners are constant and the writing is so tight it chokes any moment you might reflect on the seriousness of the situation. The story is already grand, but not necessarily one everyone will already know, but Sorkin really does pound it into a tight cube with insistent, witty dialogue. Every individual line is perfect, you could not dispute any of this, but the result of them all chaining together makes everyone feel like someone pretending to be a person.

Which they are, right? It’s only a real complaint when you compare it to everything else you’ll see this year and, really, every other year. Sorkin cannot let go and let the movie be more than a movie. He can’t let people make mistakes and catch those genius accidents. Everything is so perfect that you’d think someone painted the frames. It’s not that it’s beautiful, though it looks fine, it’s that it’s paced like someone cut every syllable together and sweat over the perfect final version. It doesn’t feel as totally starry-eyed as The West Wing, though the ending is a little too twinkly, but it just isn’t as messy as it should be.

It’s still pretty solid and it’s extremely watchable, but it’s just the best possible version of what Sorkin seems to be interested in making. It all feels disposable, though, but that may be the nature of a courtroom drama. There are familiar beats to these stories that lose their weight once the verdict comes down. There is a version of this that complicates the characters further and paints history as complicated and as grainy as it actually was, with more complex arguments than Hayden and Hoffman debating political power as voting through a clear, direct, heavily pointed at modern lens, but that isn’t what Sorkin wants. He got what he wanted by writing and directing, and the result is a very watchable, very tiresome, very perfect version of what he wanted to make. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Persona has a strong case to be the best movie ever made. This is not the best work that anyone involved in it has ever made, except Eddie Redmayne, who I don’t really like in anything else.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, because it failed the last check. I do think it’s fine, if the review didn’t make that clear, I just think Sorkin is capable of more than this. I think we’re capable as an audience of making connections he refuses to let be subtle. I think if you pull out any two minute clip of this movie you will be impressed, but the entirety of the whole thing feels insubstantial. I diagnose the problem as the too-tight writing, but I’d love to hear what other people think. It’s not a bad movie, just a missed opportunity, and only one I call out because what is there is good, but could have been great.

You can watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Worst Best Picture: Is Nomadland Better or Worse Than Crash?

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2021 winner Nomadland. Is it better than Crash?

Now that the majority of this site is something other than this feature, I feel like I need to reset this. A few years ago I watched every single Best Picture winner and compared them to Crash. I’m now updating it once a year to add a new movie after the Oscars each year. Now that Nomadland has won, I have to ask the question I’ve now asked almost one hundred times: Is it worse than Crash? In recent years it seemed like an increasingly silly question, with Moonlight and Parasite winning and ranking among the best films to ever get this honor. Green Book showed that the Academy still has some Crash in them and that the old habits would die hard. Nomadland is a great movie, not as good as those two but better than many of the movies on this list, but still, we do this once a year so let’s get on with it.

This year everyone will talk about the Oscars because they messed up. I’m sure much will come out by way of explanation, but it seems likely that the producers felt like Chadwick Boseman would win and thus having Best Actor close out the night would be a dramatic ending. It’s unheard of in recent memory to not close with Best Picture, so that is the only possible explanation. Anthony Hopkins winning for The Father will overshadow everything else. Would it still have if they hadn’t changed the order this year? Probably, but not to this degree. I love the Oscars for what they could be a celebration of Hollywood and an increasingly global recognition of excellent film that you should see but they continue to fall short of that. For all the progress and all the greatness of the last few years, and even that has been inconsistent, this year’s was a mess of unforced errors. I think they largely got the major categories right, in my opinion, but in a way that no one will find satisfying.

The story won’t be Nomadland, but it should be. The film won three Oscars, the most of the year, which is in turn the least for a top competitor in many years, and won Best Director and Best Actress on top of the main prize. This is the first year since 2016 that I think nothing truly awful was nominated for Best Picture, but the top of the category was less crowded than usual. This felt foretold, which may contribute to the deflated feeling after the ceremony. It will all be about that Best Actor mess, but I try to keep this series focused on legacy and on the future. And on Crash, but we’ll get to that.

Nomadland is the story of what you do in America when you have no more options. The film shows real “nomads,” or people who live out of vans and RVs and work seasonal or otherwise temporary jobs to survive. Much has been written about Fern, Frances McDormand’s character, working at Amazon but only saying the pay is great and that she wants to come back to the work. There’s an enormous social conversation going on about Amazon workers being forced to work in impossible conditions and the consequences of globalization and capitalism. The argument is that by mentioning Fern’s role in this but not using the platform to condemn it, you’re doing a disservice. I get this argument, but I feel like it misses the point of Nomadland.

Fern’s husband dies and the mine in their company town closes. These are catastrophic losses that threaten to unravel the things at the center of Fern’s world. She has to learn to cope, both logistically to cope with the actual challenges of loss of income and loss of her physical home and metaphorically to cope in a world that’s unexpectedly empty. Fern tells one of the nomads late in the film that she felt like she couldn’t leave because she had to stay. Fern doesn’t condemn Amazon because the lesson of her life was that dedicating one’s self to work, whether it’s in a positive, affirming sense or a frustrated, raging sense, is to ignore what’s right in front of you. Fern chooses an epiphany about the “now” of life and the missed opportunities by not moving and being open. It’s a coping mechanism, sure, but it’s also an entire philosophy. You could view this cynically, but I don’t walk away from it that way.

The best movie I saw in the last year was Another Round, which was nominated for Best Director but lost to Nomadland, though it did win Best International Feature Film. Another Round and Nomadland have similar messages. Both films want you to find something life affirming, but they want you to do it yourself. I would really encourage you to watch both of them, as they have incredible lead performances that are largely in the eyes and the way the actors take in situations. Nomadland is an incredible film that came out in a very weird year and beat a lot of really great pieces of art. MinariJudas and the Black Messiah, and Promising Young Woman were all excellent and any of them could have won this year.

The Oscars have a long way to go, which I feel like I’ve included in this series every year since we caught up to real-time. They have managed to make a product that effectively no one really likes, as they lean into what conservatives condemn as the same old Hollywood “issues” stories but don’t lean far enough to make consistently clear real statements or to hold a true perspective that any other viewer would appreciate. They continue to do things that any viewer could tell them will be met poorly, like speed up the “In Memoriam” section during a year of a global pandemic. They do a better job of picking nominees, but put on a performance that drags during boring sections and then spends less than five minutes on three categories 99% of the audience is locked in to see. They still take three hours to do all this, even after removing most of the “film” that they are supposedly there to honor.

Five years ago, the Academy honored Spotlight and ten years ago it was The King’s Speech. The wheel of time moves very quickly and I’m worried Nomadland will get missed under the weight of the weird ceremony and, uh, the end of the world that seems to keep looming. Frances McDormand spoke passionately at the ceremony and asked people to go see movies again and to really make an effort. Really, that’s what the Oscars should be doing, albeit less directly than she had to do it. This should be about getting you excited to see these movies and honestly, you should be excited with this year’s crop. Almost everything nominated this year is great, if not a little better than great. I’m sure the ratings will be bad and the response will be worse, but even as the Oscars lose their shine more and more, the films they mean to bring attention to deserve it. Just not Hillbilly Elegy.

The Best Part: Towards the end of the story, Fern revisits the closed town she left before the narrative started. We hear about Empire a lot, but only see it in these closing moments. There is so much storytelling done with the visuals and the absence of humanity that it feels like a scene from a movie about the apocalypse. Really stunning stuff.

The Worst Part: It takes a little bit to get going and does feel pretty slow. This is a contemplative story, a “movie for grownups” I guess, and calling a story about the modern world that finds a way to make you think without reading as preachy “slow” feels reductive, but it really does become something outstanding once Fern speaks with the real nomads.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is better and everything nominated for the big award this year is better. I thought Mank was the worst of the eight Best Picture nominees, but even that has some charms. There were a few movies nominated this year for the other awards that weren’t perfect, but the only movie nominated for anything this year that would give Crash a run for the money is Hillbilly Elegy. It’s written from the same miserable worldview but with even fewer things to say. I think it’s a worse movie, on message and on craft, and while it obviously couldn’t win and wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, I’m saying for posterity’s sake that it would have killed this whole exercise because it would have dethroned the legend. Nomadland is a thoughtful work of art, but the Academy still wanted to make sure to throw one nomination, at least, to something miserable and frustrating.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book | Parasite | Nomadland

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Is Sound of Metal the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I don’t know what it is about me that is always more interested in negative reviews than positive ones. The Oscars bring this out of me more than most things, but I’m always fascinated by the contrary opinion. We’ve spent a lot of this space over the last few weeks talking about the nominees and we have a handful to go, but today we’ll talk about another nearly universally loved film — except by a few people, who we’ll get to — Sound of Metal.

The only movie that critics hated that’s nominated this year is Hillbilly Elegy. People hated it because it feels false, which is always the risk of a politically charged biopic. This is no longer a “risk” when the subject is still alive and tweeting preemptive support of Tucker Carlson, at that point it’s just an unforced error. I don’t think it’ll win anything, the more movies up against it I see, but I call it out as an extreme example. Naturally, obviously, you would expect that any movie up for an award would be something that folks, y’know, like.

Sound of Metal is just that. It’s a movie about a subject everyone can somewhat relate to, if only as an abstract fear, and it’s a vehicle for a powerful central performance that never takes the camera away. It shares a lot of DNA with another Best Actor and Best Picture nominee, The Father, in that both films never spend significant time away from the star. It’s potentially possible to have a Best Actor film where the cast gets a chance to bloom away from the lead, like Minari, but more and more you see this category as a chance to see “most” acting as well as “best” acting, as we’ve discussed before. Typically that term is a cudgel swung at a hammy performance, but I’m just interested in how this trend has evolved. We don’t even necessarily have scenes where other characters talk about the lead, we just follow them around, nearly inside their head, for two hours.

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer in an experimental metal two-piece with his girlfriend on guitar and vocals. From the first shot we see Ruben wide-eyed and shirtless, intensely slamming away. His most visible tattoo reads “please kill me.” It’s not subtle visual storytelling, but it doesn’t really need to be subtle. Ruben gets ready in the RV they live in and we see a breakfast montage of lunges, pushups, and healthy green juice. We’re supposed to understand that these two are in recovery, or at the very least are healthy punks that tilt towards a straightedge lifestyle. This is the opposite of a “please kill me” tattoo. Fifteen minutes in and you understand who you’re dealing with without anyone turning to camera and explaining it.

Even the best films fall into this trap. There’s a ton of it in Mank, though that’s wrapped up in jokes and early Hollywood slang, and it always comes across as insulting when a movie feels the need to explain what you can pick up visually. Sound of Metal tells us who Ruben is at a basic level right away. The problem, I think, is it stops the development there.

Ruben loses his hearing dramatically and goes to a pharmacy for a solution. He’s convinced there’s something he can do today, he just needs to figure out what it is. The pharmacist sends him to a specialist, today, and the specialist tells him he’s lost almost all of his hearing, permanently, and he’s in danger of losing the rest. This is shocking, both to Ruben and to the audience, and it’s incredibly paced. A trend in the negative reviews I read is that people wanted this to be stretched out, but I think that’s a mistake. It’s extremely powerful to see the experts tell Ruben the news, sure, but the key here is that they do tell him there’s no real solution. They see who Ruben is, as everyone in his life does, and they realize this isn’t something that needs to be sugarcoated. They have to get this man to understand the limits of solutions available to him, but they can’t break through his armor. Ruben is told, just about right away in the story, how it’s going to end. He just doesn’t listen.

I guess that could be unsatisfying for some people, but that’s only if you want this to be a story of someone overcoming a problem and finding a solution. That’s not the story of Sound of Metal, and it’s really on you if you need it to be something else. Sound of Metal tracks Ruben’s resistance to partial solutions. He’s in recovery from heroin, which means accepting that you’re an addict and admitting it. His loss of hearing mixes with this and the people in his life want him to apply the same solution. You don’t get “cured” of addiction, you manage it. That works, somewhat, for Ruben in that he isn’t using, but you get the sense that he’d like this problem to have a more concrete solution.

Ruben spends the bulk of the film at a shelter run by a man named Joe, played by Paul Raci. Raci is up for Best Supporting Actor for the performance and it’s very well deserved. Raci grew up with deaf parents and brings the experience to the character. The world of the shelter feels like it’s been there for decades when Ruben enters it, and this is no small feat. It’s all montages and speeches about learning to accept that deafness is not a disability. This is the primary beef that reviewers, even ones who liked the film, take with Sound of Metal. Ruben wants to hear, but Joe insists that until he accepts a life of silence that he can sit in, he’ll always act like an addict.

I can see both sides of this argument. Ruben doesn’t really get any time to adjust before his new support structure demands he be okay with this life change. The film asks the viewer to side with Joe, and Raci’s performance makes the argument a noble one and a realistic perspective, but it’s a tough ask of Ruben in reality. Ruben sticks with his sobriety, but he’s angry that he’s lost the one thing that he enjoyed (music) and something he hadn’t ever expected it to be possible to lose (one of his senses). Sure, Joe is selling a perspective that would help Ruben adjust, but the position that Ruben is unjustly angry just doesn’t come through.

Sound of Metal makes a strong connection between addiction and accepting your lot in life. This part definitely works and it allows Ahmed a lot of space to explode and contract and seethe. He’s relatable at times and extreme at times. It’s exactly what a Best Actor performance generally is, for better or worse, and I think he’s in the top half of the category this year if not outright the best. The script does his character few favors, with his addiction story revealed in a literal interview and his backstory through a breakfast table conversation during the falling action. Most of it is just him emoting and trying to find the next desperate step forward, which makes Sound of Metal feel like an addiction story even though it’s really a recovery one. It’s a neat trick, even if there are unexplored directions that could add some more depth.

The sound design is the real centerpiece. We often hear literally what Ruben hears, which offers distorted, quiet moments as his hearing fades out and true silence as it leaves him completely. It’s a powerful technique to put us in Ruben’s perspective and it rightfully will be what most people talk about when they talk about Sound of Metal, but I think it’s used too infrequently. It’s possible that it would be frustrating if it came up more often, but as-is there are long stretches in the way-too-long center of the film where it doesn’t come up at all. We spend nearly every second of Sound of Metal with Ruben, but we’re only in his head a few times. The ending makes up for a lot of the lost time, but it also makes you wonder what might have been. The result is powerful and interesting, but I can’t help but feel like there is more you could do here.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last 20 minutes of The Father is heartbreaking and intense. The first 20 minutes of Sound of Metal are shocking and intense. This may be unfair, but I do think Sound of Metal starts strong and gets a little less so with each act. The Father goes in the other direction, building on what you know and creeping towards where you suspect you might be going. Sound of Metal is the more interesting story, but the gimmick of The Father serves the story being told there better and is applied more consistently.

Is it the best movie of all time? I would have liked to see them go for broke with the sound design. Maybe that movie is unwatchable, but at least more of Ruben’s difficulties would have been nice to see. We don’t ever really get to know anyone, so even though Raci and Ahmed deliver excellent, award-worthy performances, it’s very hard to care the way you need to for the movie to get into your bones. There’s also a weird effect of it both feeling a little long but also rushing the ending and Ruben’s decisions. He seems to have accepted what Joe wants to sell him in one moment and then rejected it in another. This is all part of the addiction cycle, but there’s just something missing that could connect everything just a little bit better and make this feel more realized. It’s worth your time because of what it tries to do, but to dethrone In the Mood for Love, it would need to stick the landing.

You can watch Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Father the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Writing for Uproxx, Vince Mancini wrote one of the four total negative reviews of The Father written by a major critic. I say negative because Rotten Tomatoes lists it as “rotten,” though that criteria is, generously, imperfect. On Twitter, Mancini called The Father “a thoroughly brilliant movie that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” It’s unfair to pick on his review as one of the only negative reviews of one of the most universally praised movies of the year, but the other three are by people and publications I haven’t heard of and Mancini has a point.

Mancini’s review argues that a movie about dementia is “like watching someone pull the wings off of a fly.” He offers Dick Johnson Is Dead, which we’ve talked about recently in this space, as a better approach to the topic. I don’t agree with his take but I see where he’s coming from. He appreciates the positive spin and magical moments of Dick Johnson Is Dead, but I found those elements to be distracting from what I loved about the film. Mancini praises everything about The Father but ends his review with a question: “Who needs this?”

The Father is an extremely difficult watch. It’s based on a 2012 play and directed by the play’s author, Florian Zeller. In the film, Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, an elderly man with dementia. His daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, visits him often and hopes to improve his quality of life with a caregiver. Both performers are up for Oscars this year, as is the film itself for Best Picture. I wouldn’t be surprised if it swept all three. For the performances specifically, even amongst the bodies of work these two have put up these are strong outings.

It’s fairly indisputable that it’s well-made and that the leads put on a master class. Where it may break down for you, as it did for Mancini, is if you’re willing to watch an extremely depressing movie about an extremely difficult subject either during or just after a full year of lockdown and pandemic, depending on where in the world you live. This may not be part of your recommended diet right now.

Anthony’s memory has deteriorated, both short-term and long-term. He struggles to remember where he put his watch every day despite doing the same thing every single day. He remembers he has two daughters, but not where either of them is or who they may be married to at the moment. He engages with everyone he meets, but oscillates between charming tapdancing and angry, insistent yelling.

These stories are either told through the character themselves or through what happens to people around them. Both approaches have merit, but The Father shows us the “real” story by showing both. Anthony experiences a conversation that seems normal, but then people around him change. Either they fully change, down to the actress or actor portraying them, or they just act surprised that Anthony mentions something odd. We aren’t having guests, dad, it’s just the two of us. But then there are guests and Anthony is at dinner with several people. Was he right when he said guests will be there, was he mistaken, or is this, the third option, actually wrong, and there aren’t people here now?

It’s deliberately disorienting, as the condition would be. Anthony keeps mixing things up, as he asks Anne how she’s going to move to Paris if he’s still married to a man in London. In one funny, but deeply sad scene, he informs who he thinks is her old husband that she actually is moving to Paris and he’s sorry he’s ruined the surprise to this guy who is clearly on his way out. Several times he makes the same joke about Paris (“they don’t even speak English there”) to diminished returns and in incongruous situations.

The cast physically changing is an excellent touch. In one moment it’s Anne, Olivia Colman, and then it’s Olivia Williams playing a woman who might be Anne or might be someone else. Anne’s husband or a friend or her new husband or someone else rotates between several men. Scenes repeat with different characters, which provides some stability but continuously plays with the idea of what’s real. When this happens in fantastical movies it can go overboard and become confusing by design (see Late Period of Nolan, Christopher) but here, the confusion is a feature, not a bug. Anthony doesn’t experience brief moments of clarity, his whole life is falling down in a steady, rapid way. By the end you will be exhausted and the transformation will shock you. Colman maybe, arguably, doesn’t fully disappear into Anne, but that’s fine, it isn’t necessary. Anthony Hopkins, even playing a man named Anthony, becomes this patient. It would be easy for a performance like this to be a checkbox, but this is as much as you can possibly execute.

I understand where Mancini is coming from and I think there’s a certain bravery to saying it. Still Alice is, for my money, still the best film on this topic, though that plays more like a predictable horror film than the inventive approach here. It’s more terrifying, I think, but they both are earth-shatteringly difficult. There seems to have been a shift lately in more films about realistic terror than aliens and monsters, and while I can’t prove that with figures it feels more like audiences “want” to be scared of something that might happen. Whether that’s true or not, The Father is deeply real, which is both to its credit and what makes it so difficult.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, and not just for the reasons above. I really loved Another Round and I really loved the performance at the center of it. Both movies have solid surrounding casts but really rely on the guy in the middle to sell a tough collapse. The Father is great, no doubt, but I think Another Round is something I’ll come back to a lot over the years.

Is it the best movie of all time? Still Alice is a very similar story and I think a more effective one. The final scenes of The Father are terrifying for the right reasons, but Still Alice still haunts me to think about even years and years later. I still will have to leave this as In the Mood for Love, a movie that has evolved in my mind over the months and still seems to have things to fascinate me even when not watching it. Strong recommendation for everything mentioned today, but as we talked about up top, make sure you’re in the right place for the difficult ones.

You can watch The Father on Amazon Prime ($19.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Worst Best Picture: Is Parasite Better or Worse Than Crash?

Image result for parasite movieimage source: NBC

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2019 winner Parasite. Is it better than Crash?

I am going to start here with the hottest take that I have: I think this is the best Oscar winner for Best Picture in 25 years. Moonlight and No Country for Old Men have strong cases, but I think this is still it. On a night with plenty of bad choices, the Academy got it right, out loud, and named Parasite Best International Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Picture.

The Academy has been under fire, correctly, for a lot of bad decisions lately. You can feel in their press approach and the Oscars itself that they want you to love them and they want to figure out what you want them to do to earn that love. The Academy tried to float an idea for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” this year and got laughed at so hard they gave up.

All of that is what makes Parasite so weird. The Academy is famous for getting it close to, but not exactly, right. They understand the problem, often, but then offer as a solution something that doesn’t fix the problem. This year, they offered up a million jokes about the systemic problems of their membership instead of addressing them head on. How, in that space, did they award the first non-English movie (other than The Artist, a technicality and a bad movie) Best Picture?

I’ve been doing this a long time at this point. I’m going to take some space to talk about everything else up for this award in 2019 before we get back to the main course. Tarantino served up one of the better versions of what he does, but like Scorsese, it was more of what he does. They are both all-timers, but when Parasite won Best Director, Bong Joon-ho quoted Scorsese at Scorsese. He told him that he was an inspiration and that Tarantino had championed him when no one else in America did so. It’s a torch-passing like no other.

The other six are stranger fare. Little Women is a truly emotional, extremely beautiful rethinking of a classic film. It’s honestly really sad that it didn’t get more fanfare, but I may be biased by the fact that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird would have been my pick for Best Picture last year. 1917 was this year’s Dunkirk and it was fine. The Irishman and Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were all excellent movies that didn’t go very far below the surface and that seems to be the problem, come award time. Jojo Rabbit struck me wrong, though I get it, and Ford v Ferrari seemed to be a movie for someone I’ve never met. Both made well, clearly, but not for me. Joker deserves another graph.

I want to talk briefly about Joker. I didn’t like anything I saw this year less than Joker, but even that is better than Crash. That took the drama out of these Oscars for me, as I always hope there will be another American Sniper or Hacksaw Ridge where they nominate an actual bad movie that might win. But still, Joker, while not an actual bad movie, does preach a horrible message. I honestly can’t tell from his award speeches if he’s gone all the way off the deep end, but the movie that Joker steals everything from is a better movie. The King of Comedy is a legitimately great movie and it’s the same thing, but the message is don’t do this. I wonder, seeing him at these award shows, if our anti-hero understands that’s what it’s supposed to be.

But despite it all, the best movie that came out this year won the award. It really does not happen that often, which you only need look back over the last ten years to realize. How many of these ten did you like?

  1. Green Book
  2. The Shape of Water
  3. Moonlight
  4. Spotlight
  5. Birdman
  6. 12 Years a Slave
  7. Argo
  8. The Artist
  9. The King’s Speech
  10. The Hurt Locker

Most of what was nominated this year is better than everything there, with the exception of Moonlight. I harp on this because that’s what makes it so amazing that this year happened.

Parasite is the story of a down-on-their-luck family that acts as other people to inject themselves into a rich family. It is the kind of movie that demands you come in knowing just that, which makes it hard to write about. In previous years I’ve wanted to spend time breaking down the successes and failures, but I don’t think Parasite allows for that.

I told a friend recently that I’ve never seen anything that went somewhere I expected less or was impressed by more and I stand by that. I think Parasite is the kind of movie you will never forget and I cannot believe that this group — the group that picked Crash — got this right.

There will be much said in the coming weeks. In trying to guess the backlash, I am guessing people will say that it has no heroes. I don’t know and don’t honestly care what will come out as a response to this movie, because this is a rare time that the premise of this blog is silenced. We spend a lot of time shouting and judging when they get it wrong, but after so much noise and a very strange, senseless Eminem concert, tonight, they got it right.

The Best Part: Parasite’s ending is the best ending of any movie on this illustrious list. My jaw very literally dropped when it happened and I would do you a disservice to say more.

The Worst Part: I thought about this a long time. If I had to pick something, 132 minutes does feel long. There’s really only one major theme in Parasite, so the fact that they made their point and then made it again and again does feel somewhat unnecessary, but this feels a little like nitpicking.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The premise of this article is crushed under the weight of this movie. We have come to the point that a Korean drama about class has won Best Picture. I do not want to talk about Crash in that space.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book | Parasite

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Green Book Better or Worse Than Crash?

Image result for green bookimage source: universal pictures

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2018 winner Green Book. Is it better than Crash?

It’s been another year, which means another challenger has come for the throne of worst movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture. This year’s offering is Green Book, which draws comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy and Crash and a hundred other movies that people don’t think fondly of anymore. The critics largely loved it and the audience score on most review websites is through the roof. It’s a safe look at a complicated topic that doesn’t challenge the audience enough to upset them, which seems like what most people want from a movie. It did what it was supposed to do and the people who vote on Oscars said it was the best thing that came out last year as a result.

It’s very rare that people remember the also-rans when they think about a lukewarm winner. Most people would agree that the 1996 Oscars, where The English Patient beat Fargo, got it wrong, but that’s an exception to the rule. Most retroactive duds (GladiatorBraveheartThe Artist) are movies that people generally agree shouldn’t have won, but not situations where something was clearly “robbed.”

This year has a similar feeling. Most people seem to agree that Green Book is a weird choice, but it’s hard to find consensus for what should have won. Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born are the movies regular, non-Oscar-voting people liked. I liked Black Panther but felt like I was missing something since I haven’t seen the other fifty-five movies in the expanded universe. I thought A Star is Born was exactly what it wanted to be, and most of my criticisms for it (“overwrought” keeps springing to mind) would be read as positive feedback by the people that made it. I hated Bohemian Rhapsody and I think it’s a genuine insult to everything else nominated that it was included in any category for any reason, but that seems to be part of the joy of the Oscars. You’re going to hate something that they nominate and that ire is part of the experience.

Vice is a messy disaster with one strong performance, which also seems to be something the Academy wants to include every year. BlacKkKlansman is great and fairly universally loved, which would make one wonder why it didn’t get more fanfare at the Oscars if the reason weren’t so obvious. Roma is a beautiful, excellent film that seems to have been undone by distribution battles behind the scenes about if Netflix “is a movie company,” which the average viewer couldn’t and shouldn’t give a damn about, but says so much more about how the Oscars work than what makes a good film.

My personal favorite movie of the year was The Favourite, which is too weird to win. I knew that when I saw it, but the recent win for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gave me hope. I also loved Shoplifters and Sorry to Bother You, neither of which had any real chance to be in this category. Those three, Roma, and BlacKkKlansman round out my top five of the year.

So why Green Book? Everyone is talking about Crash and Driving Miss Daisy because the comparisons are so obvious, but I’m surprised I haven’t seen a comparison to Spotlight. There’s a disparity in quality (Spotlight is great, even with some distance now) but they’re both films that look at something we think we’ve confronted as a society, but haven’t really reckoned with. Green Book tells us that everything gets better if bad people spend time with good people and Spotlight tells us that putting the truth out in the world changes bad to good. We want to believe these things and we hope they happen, but does that match reality?

What makes Crash so frustrating an experience isn’t that it tackles racism, it’s that it does it so poorly. The characters are poorly drawn and the challenges people face are so extreme that the small realities of the world that make up bigger problems don’t show up. In Crash, a man is pushed so far that he walks up to shoot a child in broad daylight, attempts to do so, and then walks away without consequence. We aren’t given time to consider the events that led to this choice or the things that happen as a result. We’re told that someone has “changed” but the most pivotal pieces are left out in exchange for the visual conflict.

Green Book does the same damn thing. We get tiny moments where the fear, the hopelessness, and the dual nature of Don Shirley, the jazz pianist at the center of Green Book, are on display. These never rise to the top of the action, however, and we spend more time on big, visual, obvious moments. Green Book is over two hours long but spends mere moments on sexuality. The choice to do it at all, but to limit it to one scene that then does not inform anything after it, comes at the cost of those obvious choices that are always less interesting.

Mahershala Ali is fantastic as Shirley and won the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance. It’s telling that the point of the whole experience, the complicated life of a celebrity facing the harsh reality of the American South in the 1960s, is “supporting” the big, loud, folded-over-pizza-like-a-taco-eating Viggo Mortensen. Both performances make the thing go, and it wouldn’t have won without both of them, but it’s really most of what you need to know about Green Book that we spend more time at a hot dog eating contest than we do talking about the actual problems behind the problems.

There’s a scene towards the end where our main characters get in serious trouble with the police. The resolution comes through trickery, as they reach out to one of the most powerful men in the American government. We want to believe in a word where that’s an option, where even the racists are basically good, just products of their time, and where the government will fix it, they just might not know it’s broken just yet. Again, this doesn’t match reality and it certainly didn’t in 1962, and even if that is a true story, it’s not an experience that feels genuine the way it is presented. It’s also a strange resolution to put on screen in a movie like this, where the larger suggestion is that the “hearts and minds” of the world need to change, not the system.

Finally, I always like to consider how this will feel years from now. Recent winners (with the exception of Birdman, which I know I’m in the minority on) seem to have picked up momentum even after their wins, which makes this all the more surprising. Roma really feels like the right choice here to me just a few weeks after the award, though really a few things should have beat this. It feels like that will remain true for years to come, though maybe we won’t remember any one movie as better so much as Green Book as bland.

Green Book runs from the reality of our world, which means most people liked (or at least didn’t hate) it. That’s usually not Best Picture material. Mediocrity and a misunderstanding of the zeitgeist should be enough to damn an effort like this, but it isn’t because we’re so hungry for good news. Most movies nominated for Best Picture don’t offer us good news. This won because we want this, but we should want so much more. Here’s hoping that more complex stories return to the fold next year.

The Best Part: Mahershala Ali’s performance is exceptional. At every point, even when the surrounding cast feels ridiculous, he feels real. Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the story and the setting, you feel like this performance is of a real person who may have really been like this. The accuracy is of course a source of great controversy, so this is less about how true-to-life it is and more about how specific the choices are and how the result feels like a lived-in, experienced person.

The Worst Part: Anyone who saw the final ten minutes of Green Book and voted it as the best movie of the year should be required to write an essay about their decision. The Favourite ends on one of the most striking, memorable shots of recent memory, and the warm, feel good, everything-is-fine-now Green Book ending feels like such a wasted opportunity to say something more.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash offers a bleak world that is redeemed along the way mostly by happenstance, but not even really redeemed in the end. Green Book shies away from bleakness with platitudes and a spit shine on reality that turns out isn’t how it really happened, which we don’t want to believe. Green Book is a better experience, but both movies show the deep cracks in this process and highlight how afraid the Academy is to make a choice that actually means something.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Shape of Water Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: the telegraph

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2017 winner The Shape of Water. Is it better than Crash?

Last year nine movies were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, but it felt like it had to be either La La Land or Moonlight. The debate raged between a risky, but better, choice about characters we don’t usually see and a musical about the people who vote vote for the winner. Looking back, it’s shocking that the better choice prevailed.

This year’s race felt more wide open. With the notable exceptions of the dreadfully boring Darkest Hour and the Spielberg-at-his-most-Spielberg The Post, anything had a real shot. You could even make a case for the way, way out-there Phantom Thread, which feels more like the quiet winners of the 1980s.

The Shape of Water will probably be remembered as a weird choice, but was it? As people wrote thinkpiece after thinkpiece about the potential shock of a Get Out victory or the similarities of frontrunner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to all-time bad Best Picture choice Crash (which we’ll get back to later), it should have become obvious. Nobody didn’t like The Shape of Water.

Forgive me that sentence construction, because I think it’s the best way to put it. Lady Bird was my favorite movie of the year, but it certainly isn’t a movie for everyone. Somehow, the movie where the woman falls in love with the fish is the movie for everyone. It’s a love story unburdened by the societal complexities of Call Me By Your Name (mostly because no one can talk) and a science fiction movie that doesn’t challenge the audience to face their internal racism like Get Out. Director Guillermo del Toro says he set the film in the Cold War to let audiences think about the story without thinking about how they’d feel about it being real, today. It’s an interesting technique, and it allows for the movie to be political without feeling divisive.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaning woman who is charming in a universally positive way. She’s not exactly “quirky,” so the audience loves her from her charming dance on the way to work through her entire (very, very intimate) daily routine. We like her. We might also like Tom Hanks in The Post, but that’s because we like Tom Hanks. In this case, we like Elisa.

Elisa’s friends are underappreciated, overworked, and similarly easy to like. Her world is fine, but not what she wants, until she meets a kindred spirit in a mysterious, magical fish creature who is secured to a tank in a scientific complex.

It’s important to step back here. I wouldn’t call The Shape of Water accessible, considering it includes a detailed, specific description of how the main character has sex with the fish creature, but it’s absolutely likable. I think that, combined with the risk del Toro took to ask the audience to see this in the first place, is the secret to this Oscar victory. It’s going to be too weird for most people, but if you see it, you’ll like it. That’s what the Academy should be rewarding in the first place, even if there were ways to accomplish the same task I’d rather have seen them go for this year.

It’s a love story and a heist movie disguised as something much stranger. Almost everything I’ve read about it emphasizes the weird factor, but I maintain that this is a traditional story and that’s why we like it. So many movies are interested in going deeper on character motivations or challenging us to love bad people, but del Toro wants us to want the lead character to be happy and fall in love. The way he draws us along that normally straight line is what makes The Shape of Water “weird,” but the destination still feels familiar.

The Best Part: Michael Shannon is the difference for me between this being good and great. His character is one-note, but he’s so dedicated to the crazed, right-wing, high-and-tight mentality of the era that he gives a generic villain some depth. Best Supporting Actor was a tough race this year and Richard Jenkins earned his nomination here, but it will be some time before I forget Michael Shannon’s performance.

The Worst Part: I hate the ending. No one else hates the ending, but I’m fine with that. I have to expect that distance will endear me to the ambiguity, but not yet.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better. It’s not the best choice this year, but it’s a beautiful story and it’s risky enough to deserve to be on a list of 90 cinematic accomplishments. While we’re talking about this, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has taken a lot of flack lately and has drawn a ton of comparisons to Crash. I enjoyed Three Billboards and you can read 89 other versions of this to see if I liked Crash, so I’m biased, but I think these comparisons are bizarre. I wish it had won to give me more space to discuss it, but Three Billboards is every bit as rough around the edges, but it spends so much more time punishing its racists. The main hot take seems to be that the racist cop in Three Billboards gets redeemed (like in Crash), but Three Billboards walks him through a journey to learn anything, even a slight, not-nearly-enough thing, and Crash ends with a single, unrelated event that cures a character completely. Nothing up for the award this year was worse than Crash, but we’ll certainly keep looking.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Moonlight Better or Worse Than Crash?

moonlight.jpg

image source: pitchfork

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2016 winner Moonlight. Is it better than Crash?

In the days and weeks after this year’s Oscars, it seems like there’s only one thing to talk about: that final award. People will write tons of posts about the botched delivery of the Best Picture award as La La Land was mistakenly announced before Moonlight correctly won the award.

That will last for a little while. These two won’t be tied together forever, though it’s easy to forget that since we’re in the moment. When you look at the other 88 movies on the list, you realize that these movies will be remembered despite what they beat. We’ve decided that the Academy Award is our benchmark for greatness, or memory, or both.

If for no other reason, that’s why Moonlight had to win. We aren’t in agreement over if the Oscars point out our best or our most memorable or what, but we all seem to agree that they’re important. La La Land has been divisive for a number of reasons, but it’s a pretty good musical that a lot of us can’t see ourselves in. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play “down and out” characters that really aren’t and lament failures that many of us would see as successes. They’re beautiful, talented, and surrounded by support. In a future where we’re increasingly dealing as a people with groups being marginalized and the cruelty of humanity, it doesn’t ring true that a message of “maybe 100% of your dreams won’t come true but that’s the worst that could happen” should be the moral of our Best Picture.

I liked a lot of what this year had to offer. Arrival is a new, if flawed, take on something that’s been done too many times. Jackie is a shocking portrayal of a story we all know. Manchester by the Sea is crushing, Lion is inspiring, and 20th Century Women is heartwarming in ways I didn’t expect.

But it all comes down to the contrast between the two big ones: La La Land and Moonlight. I really liked La La Land, but I’m still thinking about Moonlight. It’s the three-part story of Chiron, a character locked inside himself. His mother is abusive and addicted, his friends are mostly absent, and his closest confidant is a drug dealer who may or may not really have a heart of gold. It’s the kind of story we don’t see very often because in a lot of ways it’s one we don’t want to think about. It’s a story about survival in the face of absolutely nothing going right.

I won’t break the entire film down because it’s really about watching the growth. Chiron is a boy, then a teenager, then a man, but he’s always quiet and worried. No matter who he talks to, you can see his character playing mental defense during every conversation. His mother offers no relief, his friends have their own challenges, and Juan (Mahershala Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) is supportive and personable, but represents risks in his own way. Chiron can never let his guard down and the movie feels tense even in small victories as a result.

I’d be remiss to not mention that Chiron struggles with his sexuality. It’s a film about race as much as it is about sex, and while it isn’t shy or concerned about either topic, it’s told through Chiron’s eyes. His character obscures much of our view of his world, which allows the whole thing to unfold for us just how it would for someone going through it. We see hate and anger just as we do solitude and a mixed sense of finding yourself. It’s a lot to unwrap.

You should see both of them and you probably will. La La Land is going to be talked about for years and it deserves it. It’s a catchy, flashy musical with good performances and a slightly more complex message than I’m letting on, but it’s tough to compare it to Moonlight. In 1964 My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and in 1951 An American in Paris beat A Streetcar Named Desire. All four of those movies are classics, but it highlights how strange it is to classify musicals in the same category as everything else. We just don’t often think of them like that, though the Oscars force us to do so.

The Best Part: The adult version of Chiron styles himself “Black” and drives a long distance to meet an old friend at a diner. The scene is longer than you’d expect and it plays with the idea of expectations. After so much time with both characters we think we know what’s going to happen, so the surprise of what does happen is all the sweeter. I remember pivoting over and over again in my head as I watched it and it surpassed everything I came up with.

The Worst Part: Naomie Harris said that she was worried about the portrayal of Paula, Chiron’s mom, as she’s introduced as just an abusive crack addict. Her performance definitely elevates the role and the arc is more interesting than previous iterations of this character type, but if I had to pick something it’s the initial version of Paula. It’s necessary for Chiron’s development as a character, but in a world full of people we’ve never seen before it can be odd to see a character type that’s been done so much.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Now that I’ve been caught up for a few years and am writing these yearly, it feels even more ridiculous to approach this question. The only nominee this year that had a real shot at dethroning the king Crash was Hacksaw Ridge, which made me mad in so many ways I can’t even begin to describe them all. Moonlight is a difficult, dark, sad movie that offers few moments of respite, but I still think it’s more realistic than Crash. They both tread the same waters and deal with the same fears, but Moonlight does so with respect.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Spotlight Better or Worse Than Crash?

Spotlight

image source: npr

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2015 winner Spotlight. Is it better than Crash?

Doing this feature yearly now has changed the way I think about Best Picture winners. I watched the first 86 over the course of a year and tried to consider the necessary context of each film’s release before judging it. Wings, the first winner, is a silent film that feels intolerably long at times and fascinatingly specific at others. Judged against modern film with no perspective, it doesn’t fare very well. It’s only with the context of the day that you begin to understand why the pathos of some scenes worked for those audiences.

This is the second year that I’ve not only watched the movie as it came out, but I also saw the Oscars themselves and all of the other nominees when they were new. That removes the struggle of context because the context is “right now.” We all know this world and we don’t have to use any caveats when describing a movie’s merits or failures now. They just are what they are.

Last year I wrote about how history would judge Birdman (still not using that whole title) and it’s honestly tough to say. Alejandro Iñárritu won his second consecutive Best Director award for The Revenant and seems to have solidified “divisive” as a term that needs to be used when talking about him. Personally, I still think Birdman is outstanding but I think The Revenant was the worst movie up for Best Picture or Best Director this year. I think I know how people felt last year now. Sorry y’all had to go through that, now that I’m in your camp.

Mumbling, screaming, bear-fighting movie aside, this was a strong year for Best Picture nominees. You have your necessary “slight” movies about good people doing (mostly) good things in Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn, you have your surprise nominations for movies for people who don’t necessarily watch the Oscars in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, and you have your capital-I Important movies in RoomThe Big Short, and Spotlight. There really aren’t a lot of bad choices there. History will correctly remember these Oscars as the ones mired in exclusionary selections, but at the very least the exclusionary movies they picked were all good ones.

Spotlight seemed inevitable in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. When a movie is nearly universally acclaimed, I always like to go to the reviews that demand that “nearly” adverb. There are 11 negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and the common thread seems to be that the acting isn’t up to par. Spotlight wasn’t nominated for either lead acting category and Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo lost in both supporting categories, but the film demands the nebulous “ensemble cast” descriptor. No one performance dominates the film (though if I had to pick one, I’d go with Ruffalo) because it’s about the story they’re all telling. They don’t matter; the truth does. That could be a sentence used to describe a very sanctimonious movie, but in this case I mean it in a positive way.

Spotlight doesn’t need a lot of description. A group of reporters gather accounts of sexual abuse by priests of children in Boston. It’s a true story, so it’s no spoiler to say that they publish the truth and the city (and country, and world) is outraged. We’re still in this. We still know this and we often feel confused or powerless to help in situations like these. There isn’t an easy answer here and the movie isn’t designed to offer one. It’s the first step — the spotlight, get it — in highlighting a problem. That scope works for this narrative and I think that’s why it’s such a success. They set out to tell one specific part of an important, true, huge story and they nailed it.

Let’s close this year on one more discussion of context. I’ve heard a lot of discussion about how recent winners will be remembered, and indeed that was the main detracting argument about Birdman. I don’t know if people in the future will understand Spotlight and our context. It’s strange to watch a movie like Gentleman’s Agreement or The Life of Emile Zola now because they require you to step outside of yourself and your world. Spotlight isn’t timeless, but I don’t know that it needs to be in order to be great. Great film needs to make sense in the now, first, and Spotlight definitely does that.

The Best Part: Mark Ruffalo loses his mind towards the end of the movie because he’s frustrated about the progress of their story. He wants to do more and he wants to find the answer for how you “fix” the whole situation. There isn’t one. Everyone on the Spotlight team serves as an audience surrogate at some point or another in Spotlight, but no one nails the emotions the movie instills as much as he does in that moment. It’s an outstanding choice to contain the “anger” of the team to that moment, as well. They’re always driven, but that’s the only time it all overflows and becomes unproductive anger. How many of us would only be capable of unproductive anger in that real-life job?

The Worst Part: This is tough for Spotlight. While I don’t think it’s a perfect film, I don’t think there’s any one thing I didn’t like or would change. I think Room should have won Best Picture, so I’m tempted to go with “not enough time trapped in a room that inflicts psychological and biological terror.” In all seriousness, if I have to pick something I suppose it doesn’t really complicate the newsroom staff very much. Most of the heroes are solely heroes whose greatest faults include drinking beer after work and not sleeping enough. I don’t even know that making them complex figures would make this a better movie, but it’s something I noticed.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The difference here is an ocean. Spotlight is several magnitudes better than Crash. One interesting comparison here is the ensemble cast idea. Both movies lack a true “lead” but they play this different ways. Crash is all about how people enter and leave each other’s lives while Spotlight is about working as a team. Both kinds of ideas can work with an ensemble cast, but you’re only as strong as your weakest player. Spotlight doesn’t have a bad performance. Crash probably has a good one, somewhere, but after 88 of these I’m fairly convinced that it does not have a good anything.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.