You have enough on your plate. Nominee luncheons. Press releases. Etc. I get it. You don’t have time to watch all the nominated films. No worries. I’m pleased to step up to the plate, watch the movies, and offer my (informed) opinions. I know you’ve looked forward to this memo for the last nine years, so how could I possibly disappoint you by skipping a year? So attend your lunches and write your press releases lauding improved diversity numbers among your ranks. Leave the Oscars to me. I’ll take it from here.
The tradition continues. I’ve been documenting my top films of the year since 2002, when Bowling for Columbine took the top spot. This past year had some real gems, including those that made this list, as well as some that didn’t, like low-budget indie The Florida Project and large-scale blockbuster Beauty and the Beast. Check out my 2017 list, then tell me what made your list.
Two months ago, I encouraged several people to watch this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. My only instruction: have tissues handy. Hard-hitting themes ranged from Syria, to end-of-life decisions in an ICU, to Syria, to the Holocaust, to Syria.
So months before the White House fired its missiles in the direction of the Middle Eastern country this week, the Academy was providing us privileged folk sitting in soft recliners with varied perspectives on the crisis that’s happening halfway around the world—where instead of privilege there are regular shellings, and instead of soft recliners there are scared children. The nominated documentaries, “The White Helmets” (the eventual winner), “Watani: My Homeland,” and “4.1 Miles” each offer a completely different take on Syria’s civil war, and each gives us reason to care. This is essential viewing. Below I give a brief synopsis for each film, including the full version of “4.1 Miles.”
I have a bit of an attachment to this film. “Stutterer”, written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, was submitted to a film festival of which I was a member of the screening committee. I loved it. Of the 100 or so films I screened that year, it was one of the best I had seen. I championed it to the programmers in hopes that they’d agree and add it to the festival’s slate. Alas, the film didn’t make the cut—not because it wasn’t good or deserving. Great films are often rejected from festivals for any number of reasons. Months later, “Stutterer” was nominated for an Oscar, along with one other film I screened for the same festival (which I also championed and was also rejected). “Stutterer” won. (I should start my own damn festival.)
Eight years later, I’m still waiting for that magical piece of mail, inviting me to join your fine organization. But that’s not keeping me from sounding off on a few Oscar categories. I’ve seen all the nominated films, and I have some thoughts that should be considered. So allow me to make your job easier. Here’s who should win. You’re welcome.
One of the most notorious feuds in Hollywood history is that of rival sisters Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. And they’re the subject of my most-anticipated show of 2017, Ryan Murphy’s newest anthology series, Feud, starring Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis. Have a look at the show’s recently released opening sequence. The pair’s 1962 psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? airs as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar on March 2, just three days before Feud‘s March 5th premiere on FX.
I’ve been seeing a deluge of posts online about how great Hidden Figures is. I like the movie, but it’s by no means as terrific as people say, in my opinion. Yes, it’s a good thing that this story has come to the surface, giving due recognition to these important people. But…
Full disclosure: I’m not black.
However, I do believe the film trivializes the African-American experience in the 1960s. There are nearly no hurdles for the women in the film to overcome. How can that be? They’re black in the 1960s South! Every obstacle is cleared in the same scene in which it’s presented. Three examples (minor spoilers ahead):
On the occasion of the poster release for new film Christine, allow me to tell you a brief story about why doing means so much more than just talking.
Some years ago, I happened upon my college’s Wikipedia page. As I scanned over the “Notable Alumni” section, one name stood out to me—one that I didn’t recognize: Christine Chubbuck. I clicked on her name and found myself reading this story of a troubled woman whose tragic actions shook the world of live television. I happened to think about her again just last year when a psychotic man gunned down a reporter and her cameraman during a live feed in Roanoke, Virginia.
HBO has long been at the forefront of quality TV movies. Among this year’s offerings are three based on real people, two of which are based on Tony-winning plays. Each is primed for Emmy consideration.
All the Way
Following up his Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo and four Emmy wins for portraying Walter White on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston reprises his Tony-winning role of LBJ in this TV adaptation of the 2014 Tony-winning Best Play. I caught this Robert Schenkkan-penned play on Broadway—liked it, but didn’t love it. Schenkkan adapted his own work for HBO, so I’m curious to see how he interpreted this story for a different medium.
Logline (courtesy of IMDb): Lyndon B. Johnson becomes the President of the United States in the chaotic aftermath of JFK’s assassination and spends his first year in office fighting to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Robert Schenkkan Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Bradley Whitford, Frank Langella Runtime: 132 min.
Written and directed by actor Nate Parker in his feature directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation tells the story of former slave Nat Turner (played by Parker), who leads a liberation movement to free slaves in Virginia in 1831. The film also stars Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union, and Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley.
The Birth of a Nation is this year’s big Sundance hit, winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and notably shattering a sales record at the Festival by selling distribution rights to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. With a fall release date of October 7—and with a powerhouse indie distributor in Searchlight, which also released recent Best Picture winners Birdman (2014) and 12 Years a Slave (2013)—it’s bound to ride high through next year’s Oscars. So perhaps #OscarsSoWhite will finally be a thing of the past.