[Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural installment of a new House feature compiling links to reviews of new and recent theatrical films playing in North America. It is intended as a sampling of critical opinion and not a guide to theaters because, hey, it’s a big world. If we’ve left out any titles, or if you’d like to call our attention to a noteworthy review, feel free to leave a comment below.]
Alexandra. Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra—a film of startling originality and beauty—feels like a communiqué from another time, another place, anywhere but here. Mr. Sokurov, a Russian director best known in America for Russian Ark, makes films so far removed from the usual commercial blather that it sometimes seems as if he’s working in a different medium. His work is serious, intense, at times opaque and so feverishly personal that it also feels as if you’re being invited into his head, not just another reality.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice: “Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings.”
American Zombie. Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times: “Grace Lee’s faux documentary takes one of horror cinema’s enduring subjects—the undead—and crafts an amusing media satire on our fascination with/fear of marginalized cultures.” Ben Sweet, LA Weekly: “Director Grace Lee plays an exaggerated version of herself in this mockumentary, which follows a pair of filmmakers as they shadow four zombies in an effort to infiltrate Los Angeles’ undead community…Computers don’t exist in their lives (a convenience-store slacker publishes a Xeroxed zine, not a blog); Live Dead, the zombies’ annual desert festival, is meant to be a Burning Man stand-in, but its dirty dreadlocked attendees and Ani DiFranco–esque balladeers are more reminiscent of Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair…The best zombie movies shock us into a realization about ourselves and the world in which we live, but how much can zombies teach us when their world so closely resembles 1995?”
Backseat. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “Only in America are adult men who refuse to grow up considered cute rather than developmentally disabled, and only in American movies is masculine immaturity celebrated with such regularity.” Ed Gonzalez, Slant: “Essentially a hit-or-miss affair, Backseat features a character who only communicates via text message, an expression of the filmmakers’ frustration for the sublimation of human relations that feels amusing but also weird for a film that suggests Sideways filtered through a hipster scrim.”
Boarding Gate.Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “I’m fairly certain one reason that the French director Olivier Assayas made Boarding Gate is that he wanted to watch the Italian actress Asia Argento strut around in black underwear and punishing heels. And why not? Ms. Argento looks delectable if somewhat demented in Boarding Gate, in which she comes across as a postmodern Pearl White, who starred in silent adventure serials like The Perils of Pauline. Ms. Argento seems to invite trouble, and Mr. Assayas, who has a way of capturing the seemingly ineffable, has a thing for troubled, troubling women.” Glenn Kenny, Premiere: “This is very much a French intellectual cineaste’s idea of a B thriller, and hence is as far from innocent in its genre as you can get. Which is not to say that Assayas deals in bad faith. There are some genuinely frisson-inducing twists, and he does wrap up the plot pretty neatly despite giving every indication that he’s not going to. In the meantime, his mastery of the camera and his always innovative approach to setting are constant, knotty pleasures; the Paris of the film’s first half is as alien to our perceived ideas of Paris as Godard’s Alphaville was, while his Hong Kong is a crumbling labyrinth where the only clues about which corner to turn are provided by cellphone rings.” David Edelstein, New York: “Boarding Gate was evidently made quickly and cheaply, and parts of it are fun. It’s too bad there’s no real viewer equivalent—that you can’t watch a film quickly and cheaply.” Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times: “The plot may be murky, but actress Asia Argento is a clear and commanding force throughout.”
Chapter 27. Nick Schager, Slant: “Jared Leto looks like he’s eaten his 30 Seconds to Mars bandmates in Chapter 27, a daft, unrevealing based-on-real-events film in which the actor packs on the pounds, habitually fidgets, and indulges in the occasional spazzy freakout in order to embody John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman during the three days prior to his fateful December 1980 crime.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “It’s established by now that Chapman, at the time of his crime, was full of contradictions, yearning to be like and pay tribute to Holden Caulfield, obsessed with and repelled by ’phonies,’ seeking fame by killing the most famous man in the world. Confused and profoundly vulnerable, in J.P. Schaefer’s film he is also calculating and judgmental, determined to forge order out of his own psychic and emotional chaos. His resolve inspired by a fictional character, Chapman’s insanity is here plain and not quite harrowing: he rides into the city in a cab, his profile set in deep, dark close-up as he worries out loud about the ducks Holden worried about; in a cozy bookstore, he discovers the Wizard of Oz postcard he will leave so ominously in his hotel room dresser. Every moment, every look, every brief interaction is here weighted with intent and possible meaning.”
The Cool School.Nick Schaeger, Slant: “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Los Angeles transformed itself from an artistic wasteland into a burgeoning mecca of modern art, thereby confirming there was more to the world of painting, sculpture, and photography than what was happening in Paris and New York. With narration from Jeff Bridges, Morgan Neville’s The Cool School details this vital period of creativity, in which a group of young artists championed by curator Walter Hopps at his famous Ferus gallery (1957 – 1966) made great strides in the areas of abstract expressionism and assemblage.” Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “It’s an old story in some ways, a myth-making tale of a group of post-World War II aesthetic adventurers who, working together and alone, created an exciting American moment. Given the lingering prejudice of some East Coasters and the inferiority complex of select West Coasters, though, it’s also a story that deserves to be told often and as loudly as possible.” Michael Joshua Rowin, IndieWire: “It’s hard to avoid faint praise even when recommending Morgan Neville’s I, which recounts Los Angeles’ frequently overshadowed 1950s and 1960s art scene. As ’Scenes of Yesteryear’ documentaries go it does right by its subject, providing an illuminating primer on a lesser-known strand of America’s eruptive postwar art movement, even as it doesn’t do much aesthetically to distinguish itself from the pack.”
Flawless. Scott Foundas, LA Weekly: “In director Michael Radford’s latest, Demi Moore stars as the sole female executive at the fictional London Diamond Corporation, who, upon learning she’s about to get the boot, teams with a crafty cockney night janitor (Michael Caine) to empty the corporate vault of its 100-million-pound inventory. Rife with the lipstick traces of Inside Man, The League of Gentlemen (which it explicitly references) and countless other superior heist pictures, Flawless is the sort of movie that tends to get called “enjoyably old-fashioned,” except that there’s nothing enjoyable about it.” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “Caine—who, contrary to common critical opinion, is perfectly capable of giving a dull or misjudged performance—redeems this film almost wholesale.” Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “Flawless makes an entertainingly nostalgic journey to old Britain—that black-and-white world we remember from long-ago Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean movies.”
A Four Letter Word. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “With its breezy shots of male genitalia and characters nicknamed Long John and Tripod, A Four Letter Word is a surprisingly endearing romantic comedy that explores gay relationships with low-budget verve.” Ed Gonzalez, The Village Voice: “Shot in and around New York City’s queer hot spots (I see Vlada! I see Boys Room—the new one!), and brought to you in part by Manhunt, Andreas’s pun-choked rom-com asks only for our passive identification, preening on the same wavelength as Jesse Archer’s Luke, who sets out to prove that he is neither exception nor stereotype, only exceptional, after Stephen (Charlie David)—a hustler, professed top, and Luke’s future boy toy—calls him ’a gay cliché.’ ’All our world sees of our community is you,’ says Stephen, almost as if he were describing the film.”
The Grand. Jim Ridley, Village Voice: “Great movies about gambling—Robert Altman’s California Split, say, or Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels—concern almost everything but the rules of the game or even the outcome of the wager. What matters are faces, surroundings, sharp talk, and the behavior of people in the grip of fixation—people undaunted by losing, yet unappeased by winning. The Grand, a largely improvised comedy set at a Las Vegas poker championship, isn’t as good or tough-minded as those movies. But it earns a seat at the table anyway, mostly because it’s funny—sometimes very funny.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “Werner Herzog plays The German. In another movie, this might be all you need to know. But in Zak Penn’s improvisational comedy, this delicious detail is slightly less meaningful. Though Herzog spends several minutes in mock-interview mode, describing how essential it is for him ’to kill something each day,’ these are fleeting and generally overwhelmed by the rest of the movie’s awkward unfunniness.” Philip Marchand, Toronto Star: “Just shy of being a first-rate comedy.” Jan Stuart, Newsday: “Why don’t mockumentaries ever go after targets worth the mocking?”
Hats Off. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “A documentary tribute to the 93-year-old actress Mimi Weddell, one of those people for whom the word ’individual’ seems especially apt. Widowed at 65 by a husband who left only unpaid bills and fond memories, the indomitable Ms. Weddell saw an opportunity to follow her passion. ’I love illusion,’ she says, describing an acting career that has paid her bills for almost three decades. From Law & Order to Sex and the City, from vampire movies to cheese commercials, this remarkable woman has compiled a résumé that defies the industry’s rampant ageism.” Matthew Margini, Washington Square News: “That a 63-year-old woman could give birth caused comedian Patton Oswalt to dismiss science as being ’all about coulda, not shoulda.’ Such words gnaw at Mimi Weddell, who treats her age as just a minor impediment to stardom, glamor and theatrical nobility. The new documentary Hats Off examines Weddell’s mystique from a number of entertaining angles, but doesn’t necessarily share (or preach) her unique perspective, which is at times stubbornly airy and self-obsessed.” Nick Schager, Slant: “Quaint and slight, Hats Off revolves around Mimi Weddell, a 93-year-old model and actress (of stage and screen) whose boundless energy and indefatigable spirit are amazing…ly ho-hum.”
Just Add Water. Ernest Hardy, LA Weekly: “There’s really only one reason to check out Just Add Water, and it’s Dylan Walsh’s wistful, smiling-through-the-melancholy performance as Ray, a man so defeated by life that he can no longer muster any resistance to the daily humiliations he suffers at home and at his blue-collar job. After discovering duplicity in his own home, Ray shakes off the doldrums, goes after the woman of his dreams and finally stands up to the Neanderthal teen bullies in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, bracketing Walsh’s thoughtful performance is a depiction of small-town, working-class life that swims in both formulaic indie-flick irony and Hollywood condescension.” John Anderson, Variety: “Whimsy and the macabre are the operating systems in Just Add Water, and they’re not always complementary.”
My Brother Is an Only Child. A.O. Scott, New York Times: “A lively minor addendum to the grand tradition of Italian fraternal cinema.” Ed Gonzalez, Slant: My Brother Is an Only Child—whose title I’ve yet to completely wrap my mind around—moves so playfully and briskly you may not notice its glibness, which may have been director Daniele Luchetti’s intent.” Nick Pinkerton, Village Voice: “The family as microcosm of a divided country: Two brothers ’come of age’ in late-‘60s Italy, as political strife reaches their provincial Latina (a city laid out by Mussolini’s government)…If expectedly cynical about junior black-shirt hooliganism, Daniele Luchetti’s film is also ambivalent about how piggishness takes the guise of ’free love’ among the left, and deadpan funny with its ’de-fascisized’ performance of ’Ode to Joy’ at a student-occupied conservatory.” David Edelstein, New York: “What makes My Brother Is an Only Child so alive and entertaining is how it dramatizes the endless tug-of-war between political conviction and personal experience—the way the lines twist and blur and finally implode.” Armond White, New York Press: “Luchetti’s film continues the Italian tradition of movies that simultaneously explore family life and national politics…The broken-down house the boys grow up in (from which Accio eventually liberates them to better digs) is, of course, a symbol for Italy itself.”
Priceless. Ed Gonzalez, Slant: “Pierre Salvadori’s re-imagining (read: vulgarization) of Breakfast at Tiffany’s wears its contempt on its sleeve.” Vadim Rizov, Village Voice: “Priceless begins as standard, unconvincing, assembly-line French farce and ends as a cop-out, feel-good rom-com. In between, it develops into something considerably more interesting.” Raphaela Weissman, New York Press: “The American poster for the French comedy Priceless shows an elegantly dressed Audrey Tautou surrounded by four hands offering up expensive baubles. From this, we can glean the basic plot: The adorable pixie from Amélie plays a gold-digger. It’s not inaccurate, but it is misleading. While the publicity’s focus is on Tautou, an actress Americans immediately recognize (she also starred in an art-house flick called The Da Vinci Code), Priceless belongs to her co-star, Gad Elmaleh, who lends the film the bulk of its charm, originality and genuine humor.” Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Because its shenanigans are so improbable, Priceless is too frivolous even to be called satire.”
Run, Fat Boy, Run. Eric Kohn, New York Press: “Even Simon Pegg has repeatedly underutilized the distinct comedic appeal of Simon Pegg. Run, Fat Boy, Run, the directorial debut of David Schwimmer—inextricably identifiable as Ross from “Friends”—gives Pegg a screenplay credit, suggesting that he has written to his weaknesses. In both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright’s sly genre deconstructions, Pegg mimics the audience’s thrill of being adrift in fantastical conflict with wide-eyed incredulousness and a goofy demeanor. Akin to the underdog appeal of slapstick artists like Buster Keaton, the pathetic nature of Pegg’s characters hardens into a heroic streak. In Fat Boy, playing an out-of-shape security guard who runs a marathon to prove his worthiness to an ex-girlfriend, Pegg just seems pathetic.” Matt Prigge, Philadelphia Weekly: “Did the guy who came up with hurling second-rate Prince records at zombies really dream up a gag about a volcanic foot boil being popped in some poor guy’s face?” David Edelstein, New York: “The director, David Schwimmer, underlines the jokes and adds exclamation points, but a softer touch probably wouldn’t have helped.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “Run, Fat Boy, Run is the kind of movie that’s apt to be dismissed a goofy lark. It is that. But it’s also a rare comedy that believes in its own message, and that could inspire the depressed and the demoralized to grit their teeth and keep running.”
Shelter. Chuck Wilson, LA Weekly: “Zach (Trevor Wright) is a promising artist who turned down CalArts to stay in San Pedro and help his irresponsible older sister (played by the amazingly gifted L.A. actress Tina Holmes) care for her little boy. At the beach, Zach, who surfs as often as possible, reconnects with his best friend’s gay-novelist older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe). The two start hanging out and eventually begin an affair, Zach’s first with a man. Like much of this impressive first film from writer-director Jonah Markowitz, Zach and Shaun’s relationship feels authentic and true; you can imagine them being together for a long time to come.” Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “The movie’s abundance of tanned bodies, rolling waves and golden sunsets create an aesthetic of inoffensive hedonism that perfectly matches the subject matter.” Fernando F. Croce, Slant: “The first project of the here! gay television network’s new movie initiative, Shelter regrettably plays closer to Lifetime fodder.”
Shotgun Stories. David Edelstein, New York: “The story is set in southeast Arkansas, against a landscape of isolated farms and dilapidated main streets, and the rhythms are languid; but the lines that pop out of these stuporous characters’ mouths have the bitter tang of real life.” Steven Boone, The House Next Door: “Glorious Southern fried sloth, in epic widescreen.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times. “Jeff Nichols’s drama about warring clans of brothers in small-town southern Arkansas defines the classic western phrase ’doing what a man’s got to do’ as both a moral imperative and a biological compulsion. The movie is filled with unremarkable men who would rather die than appear weak.”
Stop-Loss. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “Even if you think the U.S. presence in Iraq is justified, Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss provides a poignant and shattering portrait of what our soldiers have to endure in combat, at home, and from an army that sends its men and women back into battle over and over again.” Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly: “Comprised of bitter, beautifully observed truths butting up uncomfortably against loads of hoary Hollywood hooey, writer/director Kimberly Peirce’s extremely well-meaning Stop-Loss attempts to battle the trend of audience indifference toward Iraq War dramas. But the movie’s real war is with itself.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The sober, mournful piety that has characterized a lot of the other fictional features about Iraq—documentaries are another matter—is almost entirely missing from Stop-Loss, which is being distributed by Paramount’s youth-friendly label MTV Films. Not that the movie is unsentimental—far from it—but its messy, chaotic welter of feeling has a tang of authenticity. Instead of high-minded indignation or sorrow, it runs on earthier fuel: sweat, blood, beer, testosterone, loud music and an ideologically indeterminate, freewheeling sense of rage.” Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “This is a wrenching story of men at arms who cannot find peace outside the military circle, who return to civilian life on the horrific edge of violence and despair. In this Stop-Loss has a certain amount in common with Boys Don’t Cry. Peirce again concerns herself with men and violence as well as with individuals conflicted over gender roles trying to work out what society demands of them.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Peirce makes her points, all right. She just doesn’t trust us to get them.”
21. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “One would expect a movie about high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas and young, attractive savants using their smarts to break the bank at blackjack to be sexy and thrilling. Unfortunately, 21 winds up being about as exciting as freshman calculus.” Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “Greed is good and comes without a hint of conscience in 21, a feature-length bore about some smarty-pants who take Vegas for a ride.” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “21 isn’t pretentious, exactly, but it’s damn close, and in trying to whip up a melodramatic morality tale the film becomes an increasingly flabby slog.” Robert Wilonsky, LA Weekly: “The big-screen version of Ben Mezrich’s book ain’t no gamble at all—it’s about as risky as playing the nickel slots with 10 cents in your pocket. It’s as though director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) and writers Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool, as if) and Allan Loeb adapted the book-jacket blurb rather than crack the spine.”
The Bank Job. Jim Emerson, Chicago Sun-Times: “A serviceable B-grade British heist movie, “The Bank Job” is no worse than its generic title. And no better.” Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer: “Statham—reduced to muttering guttural groans in various bombs that close on opening weekend (In the Name of the King, War) or get released directly to DVD (Chaos) or spawn inexplicable franchises (Transporter, Crank)—at last proves himself a leading man who does more than lead with his head. It isn’t till the film’s end that he has to throw a few punches and land a few head-butts—contractually obligated, no doubt. But by then he’s managed to negotiate a screenplay in which there are complete sentences—whole paragraphs, even—that he gives his all without breaking a sweat; even when he has to convince his missus he’s a stand-up shitheel, Statham’s totally believable. He might yet become Bruce Willis.”
Be Kind Rewind. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: “Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is whimsy with a capital W. No, it’s WHIMSY in all caps. Make that all-caps italic boldface. Oh, never mind. I’m getting too whimsical. Maybe Gondry does, too. You’ll have to decide for yourself. This is a movie that takes place in no possible world, which may be a shame, if not for the movie, then for possible worlds.” Elbert Ventura, ReverseShot: “Be Kind Rewind contains reminders of the limits of this brilliant artist. That the movie still enthralls is a testament to the fact that Gondry’s starting point—an aesthetic in which each frame bears its maker’s sensibility—is miles ahead of where most filmmakers aspire to be.”
Chicago 10. J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “Chicago 10, an electrifying new “mash-up documentary” by Brett Morgen, vividly reconstructs the battles on the street and in the courtroom, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune moment.” Jim Emerson, Chicago Sun-Times: “Through the kaleidoscopic prism of Brett Morgen’s uproarious Chicago 10, a zippy mixture of documentary footage and motion-capture animation, we see how the confrontations between police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention played out as political theater.”
Cloverfield. Oily Richards, Empire: “Wise to the fact that the most frightening attack is the one without apparent reason, Cloverfield never chooses to explain its monster’s arrival. It’s suddenly there and, as one soldier notes, ’it’s winning’. It intends to scare, not educate. The constant air of panic is so pervasive that it’s easy to miss the skilful creation of the sequences, which include a rescue from a collapsing skyscraper and a tunnel sequence so butt-clenching you’ll crap diamonds for a week.” Keith Phipps, Onion A/V Club: “It’s absolutely terrifying, and it’s all the more effective for the way it lets viewers spend time getting to know the terrified stars, and the emotions and regrets behind their seemingly futile efforts to survive. It puts human faces on the victims of mass destruction, faces that might easily have been yours or mine, staring down the maw of something we don’t understand.” J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “[Producer J.J.] Abrams may be exploiting images of a national trauma, but politicians have been doing the same thing for years in pursuit of even less noble ends: the $10 you’ll spend on Cloverfield hardly compares with the estimated $487 billion spent to date on the war in Iraq.” Richard Corliss, Time: “A horror/sf/disaster movie loses points every time you’re forced to ask yourself, ’Why are they doing something so stupid?’, and the answer is, ’Because they’re in a horror/sf/disaster movie.’ And if you thought that Abrams—the creator of Felicity, Alias and Lost, and the writer-director of the spiffy if underperforming Mission: Impossible III—would produce a horror movie that was not just high-concept but high-IQ—you misjudge his faithfulness to a genre requiring that, in extremis, people act in a manner that’s way below their intelligence levels.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Is Cloverfield trying to be a ’fun’ monster movie, or is it trying to say something about the way, post-9/11, we experience horrific events? I simply have no idea.”
The Counterfeiters. Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: ” For the prisoners in Blocks 18 and 19 of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, meals were served, beds provided, light opera floated from the speakers. There was even a ping-pong table to play on. But as writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky shows, powerfully, affectingly, in The Counterfeiters, the privileges experienced by this small team of Jews and criminals came at a price.” David Denby, The New Yorker: “The Counterfeiters is a testament to guile.” Adam Bernstein, Washington Post: “Based on a real-life Nazi operation, the film is a tense drama with performances that elevate the movie to the front rank of films set in concentration camps, from Gillo Pontecorvo’s magnificent 1959 drama Kapo to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List of 1993.”
Diary of the Dead. Jim Emerson, The Chicago Sun-Times: “When young filmmakers gather to shoot cinema-verite video documentaries, watch out: Something really bad is going to happen. In The Blair Witch Project, it was…well, we don’t really know what it was, but it sure freaked out Heather. In Cloverfield, it was something large with an antipathy toward Manhattan landmarks. And in George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, as you have probably gathered by now, it is the meat-eating undead. These movies give the shaky-cam a reason to get shaky—but the kids try not to miss a shot.” David Edelstein, New York: “Compared with other first-person motion-sickness horror pictures like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead is weak tea, yet there’s enough social commentary (and innovative splatter) to acidulate the brew—to remind you that Romero, even behind the curve, makes other genre filmmakers look like fraidy-cats.” J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “Diary of the Dead proceeds as if the events of the first four movies never happened, starting over in the present with a handful of film students whose no-budget shoot for a mummy thriller is interrupted by an outbreak of zombie violence. The premise allows Romero a second childhood of sorts, a chance to revisit the independent spirit of his first big hit even as he reflects on how much America has changed in the past 40 years.”
Doomsday. Gideon Levy, UnderGroundOnline: “The most fun thing about Doomsday was watching a generic action flick run the gamut from near-future militarism to post-apoc tribal punkland to the Dark Ages without any boring plot twists to slow down the shoot & slash & run & kill. When they get to the souped-up sports car that appears out of nowhere, you’re ready for the chase scene & big boom at the end. If only the action scenes – the only backbone holding together this otherwise paper-thin film – weren’t so lazily and poorly edited, I could’ve really enjoyed this film that made no pretenses to being more than it was.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The New York Times: “Doomsday has an appealing punk-rock sneer, but aside from a few clever music cues—including a Fine Young Cannibals song that accompanies a deranged bacchanal given by fine young cannibals—swagger is, unfortunately, its only notable quality.” Gina Piccalo, San Francisco Chronicle: “There is no slow build in Doomsday. Geysers of blood, severed limbs and pustule-ravaged faces blanket the opening frames. Then Rhona Mitra’s machete-wielding babe with the removable, bionic eyeball shows up to wreak her own pickax-to-the-face brand of havoc, decapitating her way through tribes of Thunderdome-ready cannibals. That’s when things really get moving.”
Drillbit Taylor. Keith Uhlich, UnderGroundOnline: “There are worse things, I suppose, than being below-waistline roundhoused by a Hollywood celebrity. Chief among such tortures would be experiencing the complete sense of desperation that marks Drillbit Taylor’s each and every scene .” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “’You get what you pay for,’ the tag line on the advertisement says. I saw it free, and I still feel cheated.” Raphaela Weissman, New York Press: “Its comedy falls flat, and the film has a violent core where its heart should be.” Xan Brooks, The Guardian: “The final bell can’t come soon enough.”
Frownland. Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “It’s a horror film about everyday life in which characters who fail to recognize their own freakish aspects behave monstrously toward others: Marty by way of Eraserhead.” Daniel Cockburn, ReverseShot: “Its 100%-celluloid material and Method-ish performances may be just more convention, but all these conventions counterbalance to create something new.”
Funny Games. Fernando F. Croce, The House Next Door: “Michael Haneke is a clever guy. I promised myself I’d never revisit his 1997 film Funny Games, yet he’s tricked me into doing just that by remaking it, shot by agonizing shot…The plot is still The Desperate Hours rewritten by the Marquis De Sade.” David Edelstein, New York: “Naomi Watts produced this remake, apparently concluding that she hadn’t yet been sufficiently violated onscreen. King Kong, after all, turned out to be a softy—now she’s in the hairy paw of a giant ape artiste.”
The Hammer. Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “The synopsis of The Hammer makes it sound like a long-lost Billy Crystal movie: a smart-alecky, self-destructive Los Angeles handyman named Jerry Ferro (Adam Carolla) loses his job and his girlfriend, then reconnects with his past as a Golden Gloves boxer and tries to qualify for the United States Olympic team at 40. Mr. Carolla, an amateur boxer and cable television veteran, has a tendency to riff when he should be acting, and the whole project—written by Kevin Hench and directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein)—is rambling and disorganized. At the same time, though, The Hammer also has dry wit and unforced working-class swagger, and hits some surprising emotional notes.”
Horton Hears a Who! A.O. Scott, New York Times: “What distinguishes Horton Hears a Who! from the other recent Dr. Seuss film adaptations—How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, in case you need reminding—is that it is not one of the worst movies ever made.” Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: “An inspired CGI comedy that honors the spirit of the good doctor’s story even as it expands upon it thematically.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “The ratio of innocent enthusiasm to commercial cartoon formula is higher than I expected. Co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, scriptwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and the animators from Blue Sky (the Ice Age studio) have managed to adapt Seuss without turning him out, which I guess counts as progress.”
In Bruges. Bilge Ebiri, Nerve: ” Way more engaging than a bantering-hitman-with-a-heart picture released in 2008 has any right to be, Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges might have made serious waves back in 1994. Today it feels like a mysterious creature from another age—devoid of grit or naturalism, and shot with a composed elegance largely missing from today’s screens. In other words, it’s a fairy tale with guns and exploding heads. That’s its blessing and its curse.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Often it feels that McDonagh’s script is as adrift as one of the boats on the shimmering canals. The pace is too slow, at times lagging behind the adrenalin-packed story, the film relying heavily on Carter Burwell’s theatrical score. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about In Bruges is its predictable ending.”
Irina Palm: A.O. Scott, New York Times. “Irina Palm may be the work of a German-born Belgian director, but it belongs to a sturdy and very British genre: the naughty-granny comedy, in which an older woman is liberated and rejuvenated by an excursion into vice.” Jim Ridley, LA Weekly: “Nobody can reduce tawdry material to doddering quaintness like the British, but this staggeringly inane joint effort of U.K., Belgian, French, German and Luxembourgian film financing represents a true coalition of the witless.”
Jar City. A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The picture of Iceland that emerges in Baltasar Kormákur’s Jar City is vivid and powerful but not something the country’s tourist board would be likely to endorse. The landscape has its austere poetry to be sure—mountains framing the apartment blocks of Reykjavik, spits of volcanic rock jutting into a churning sea—but a fog of damp unhappiness seems to pervade every face and conversation. And yet by the end of this film, based on a popular mystery novel by Arnaldur Indridason, it is hard not to feel a certain affection for the place.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “This is not just a fictional story about a couple who lose their four-year-old girl to a brain tumor, nor just a tale about the search for a murderer and his motive, but an intriguing blend of the two, overlaid by a Big Brother that takes the form of the nonfiction, controversial deCODE Genetics Inc., a company specializing in genetic research that, several years ago, received access to all medical files in the Icelandic government’s database. Invasion of privacy or scientific necessity? As a government stand-in character argues near the beginning of the film, information isn’t ’personal’ since it’s been passed on for generations. Rather, it belongs to society. But does society have a right to know about every disease, even those that can’t be cured?”
Juno. Fernando F. Croce, Slant: “Lke the titular character’s accidental pregnancy, Juno has a fumbling start and an affecting delivery.” Elbert Ventura, ReverseShot: “Juno is occasionally funny, rarely intelligent, and often annoying. A crowd-pleaser for people who like to think they’re above crowd-pleasers but are actually not.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Juno doesn’t make judgments or pronouncements. Its great beauty lies in how generous it is toward all its characters.” Richard Schickel, Time: “Juno is not a great movie; it does not have aspirations in that direction. But it is, in its little way, a truthful, engaging and welcome entertainment.” Marcy Dermansky, About.com: “Though too precocious and polished, Juno manages to charm, with many lovely moments. In the tradition of maladjusted teen comedies, however, Juno doesn’t rank among the recent greats.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody has described herself as a ’naked Margaret Mead,’ a cultural anthropologist who for years studied the rites and rituals of the stripper tribe in lieu of the nine-to-five grind. It’s a great line and a quite telling one, for this writer’s scientific approach to life is precisely why Juno ultimately fails.”
Look. Maureen M. Hart, Chicago Tribune: “According to the producers of Look, the average American is unwittingly photographed up to 200 times a day, thanks to the 30 million surveillance cameras at work in this country 24/7. With all this attention, are we any safer? What is the state of privacy rights if we’re never really alone? For those answers, look elsewhere.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “Between the likelihood of surveillance cameras capturing every dramatically significant moment (with crystal-clear sound) and the filmmaker’s deployment of ripped-from-the-tabloids ugliness to amp up viewer involvement, Look grows less compelling and believable as it unreels.”
Love Songs. David Edelstein, New York: “Honoré has proven you can make a movie musical in which style doesn’t upstage content—a movie musical that blossoms from the inside out.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The Paris of Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs (Les Chansons d’Amour) belongs unmistakably to the present. Its residents talk on cellphones and drop the name of Nicolas Sarkozy (still an aspirant to the Élysée Palace rather than an occupant when the movie was being shot). But they also dwell, just as noticeably, in the Paris of classic French movies—in a vague, bracing atmosphere of good old Nouvelle Vague.”
Married Life. Bill Gibron, PopMatters: “Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry – and sometimes separate – that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs’ period piece drama Married Life is so downright flat?” Keith Uhlich, The House Next Door: “A deeply felt examination of the ties that bind.” Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “How is it that the disastrous repercussions of an extramarital affair could be considered entertaining, and even comforting, viewing? By presenting it as a nail-biting, cautionary tale set in another era. Director Ira Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman (who adapted the John Bingham Five Roundabouts to Heaven) take the basic ingredients of those old-time films noir, shake them in a postmodern martini mixer, then pour it into chilled glasses for our delectation.” Chris Wisnieswki, ReverseShot: “Married Life falls somewhere between parodic pastiche and straightforward narrative. Like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, it filters its period details through classical Hollywood genre while nevertheless striving for emotional resonance. Where Haynes pulled off this nearly impossible gambit, though, Sachs falls short on both counts.”
Never Back Down. Keith Uhlich, UnderGroundOnline: “As Never Back Down would have it, Orlando, Florida is a spoiled rich kid’s haven, littered with cavernous million dollar mansions and inhabited by sun-baked, iPhone-toting teenagers prone to nightly Fight Club-like bouts of bloodletting. Parents and trailer trash are non-existent, but rock-hard abs are legion (for truth-in-advertising purposes the film might best be subtitled ’Chest Porn’). Into this sweat-drenched sea of masculine mammaries comes fresh-faced Iowan Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), whose stretch-lipped, teeth-grinding intensity suggests he’s just graduated summa cum laude from the Tom Cruise Finishing School for Wanton Pretty Boys.”
No Country for Old Men. Jim Emerson, Scanners: “I’ve used the term ’existential thriller’ (and/or ’epistemological thriller’) to describe movies such as Chinatown and Caché. It’s a useful term because it can be used across genres and it describes the nature of the “thrills” the movie has in store. Chinatown is also a period American detective noir and Caché is a modern French intellectual puzzle and No Country for Old Men is a contemporary Texas Western chase movie, but they’re all inquiries into the nature of knowledge and existence. They all ask: ’What do we know and how do we know it?’ Is there a more worthy or essential question?” Michael Koresky, ReverseShot: “The most rewarding thing about No Country is the way in which its narrative is set up as a singularly unstoppable force, a shark constantly moving forward (every scene seems to have a goal, every frame initially gives off the impression of tightly relaying crucial plot information), only to allow itself to purposefully break down, both in terms of resolution and traditional narrative payoffs.” Sukhdev Sandu, Daily Telegraph: “Is it a masterpiece? Not even close.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “No Country’s message, such as it is (the Coens aren’t message-y directors) is not about Where We Are Now. It’s simpler and more encompassing, less reminiscent of reportage or the editorial page than the admonitions of a philosopher or court jester: Get over yourselves, Americans, and everyone else, too.” Andrew Tracy, ReverseShot: “What they’re doing is so impressive within its limits that the only criticism one can level is that the Coens are clearly aiming for something far beyond those limits, and have not the skill or character to reach it.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “I admire the creativity and storytelling craft of the Coen brothers, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what use they think they’re putting that creativity and craft to.”
The Other Boleyn Girl. Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “The Other Boleyn Girl is the most sterile of bodice-rippers, a genteel soap opera in which the sex and intrigue are so muted, so tasteful, that they practically blow off the screen in a scattering of dust.” David Edelstein, New York: “A brisk feminist melodrama that is, historically speaking, a load of wank.” N.P. Thompson, Movies Into Film: “The Other Boleyn Girl, about two virtuous daughters who become rival whores for King Henry VIII, may reach its apex when Anne (Natalie Portman) takes her sibling Mary (Scarlett Johansson) by the hand, on the night before the latter beds the King for the first time, and exclaims, ’My little sis-tah! My golden sis-tah! My milk-and-honey sis-tah!’”
Paranoid Park. Vadim Rizov, The House Next Door: “If I were over 40 and/or French—in other words, if I hadn’t been to American public high school recently enough to still experience a little residual shudder thinking about it—I might well be blown away by Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant’s not-so-breathlessly awaited return to the semi-conventional narrative.” Kevin B. Lee, The House Next Door: “Gus Van Sant finally crawls out from under his Béla Tarr-inspired long-take detachment and dares to explore an interior landscape in ways not seen since My Own Private Idaho. Indeed, the privacy of this film—a reflection of its insular protagonist—is what puts the shockingly violent death that haunts its sinuous narrative a league apart from those in Van Sant’s most recent work.” Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with such Hong Kong directors as Wong Kar-wai, Van Sant films Paranoid Park with dreamy, mesmerizing lassitude (those swooping skateboards), as well as the subversive brio of something caught on the fly; at one point, Doyle films Portland street scenes on Super-8 film, then bars the subjects’ eyes out, tabloid style. At other moments, Van Sant derives his inspiration from silent films. One memorable scene features the face of young actress Taylor Momsen as she reacts to unwelcome news, her wide-eyed expression resembling a cross between Lillian Gish and a Bratz doll.” Zachary Wigon, The House Next Door: “The awkwardness inherent in being a teenager is captured by one of the most rarely encountered cinematic techniques: a director intentionally using unintentionally bad acting.”
Shutter. Andy Webster, The New York Times: “The director, Masayuki Ochiai, conjures textbook J-horror miasma: clammy clinical interiors; overcast skies; diffuse cityscapes. He also gives Alfred Hitchcock a nod, with a sequence nakedly stolen from Psycho, and draws unease from Jane’s disorientation in a foreign city. Tokyo, in fact, may be the movie’s most fascinating player. But the mandatory bump-offs—a gouging through a viewfinder, a compelled suicide—lack novelty.” Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “Have you ever seen a horror film in which a character, against her better judgment, approaches a motionless body sitting in a chair facing the wall, then slowly turns it toward the camera? How about a horror film in which this happens more than once? How about three times?” John Hutchins, UnderGroundOnline: “With un-likeable, shallowly written characters populating a formulaically garbled storyline filled with plot contrivances, Shutter’s redeeming qualities are few and far between.”
Snow Angels. Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly: “David Gordon Green’s fourth feature is both magnificently silly yet strangely gentle, at least until two gunshots echo in the distance. Like his previous film, the confused backwoods-chase picture Undertow, Snow Angels finds this wonderfully distinctive filmmaker suffering growing pains, trying to wrestle his meandering, oddball sensibilities into the requirements of conventional genre forms.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “At its center, and much like David Gordon Green’s other movies, from the brilliant George Washington to Undertow, Snow Angels is about faith. More precisely, it’s about doubt and desire, the underpinnings of faith.”
The Spiderwick Chronicles. Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times: The Spiderwick Chronicles is a terrific entertainment for the whole family, except those below a certain age, who are likely to be scared out of their wits. What is that age? I dunno; they’re your kids. But I do know the PG classification is insane, especially considering what happens right after a father says he loves his son.” David Edelstein, New York: “The Spiderwick Chronicles boasts some of the ugliest animated creatures this side of Jar-Jar Binks, and the friendly ones are only marginally less repulsive than the lethal ones. (The obnoxious vocal stylings of Martin Short and Seth Rogen don’t help.)”
Sputnik Mania. Vadim Rizov, The House Next Door: “At times, the movie seems to be less about Sputnik and more of an Atomic Cafe redux.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “David Hoffman’s documentary treats 1950s America as an ancient time and place that can be scrutinized with archaeological detachment. Narrated by Liev Schreiber in wry, ominous tones, Sputnik Mania characterizes post-World War II America as a fat and happy society, secure in its belief that it ruled the globe and spooked by the ambitions of a despised and underestimated rival.”
10,000 B.C.. Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “About an hour into 10,000 B.C., a young boy prisoner is being shipped away to a far-off desert. His captors are mean, tall, and swarthy, and one, called One Eye (Marco Khan) for obvious reason, is especially brutal, given to whipping and kicking his charges. Still, Baku (Nathanael Baring) is spunky and steadfast, certain that his savior will yet appear. And indeed, he is rewarded, for lo! upon a distant dune, Baku spots D’Leh (Steven Strait), hollering as the ship bearing the captives heads off downriver. Baku yells back and smiles broadly, even as his young companion wonders if D’Leh will actually follow and save them. Oh yes, nods Baku. D’Leh is in love with yet another captive, the beautiful, blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle), and to illustrate, the boy makes a kissy-face and writhes in exaggerated pleasure, before he grimaces at the mushy thought. It’s an unexpectedly light moment in this ponderous exercise. Baku’s quite charming, and his understanding of this tiresome plot is dead-on. The hero will save the girl he has loved since childhood, fulfill his destiny, and oh yes, in the process also wreak vengeance on the nasty slavers. Even as Baku comprehends his dire situation, he also mocks the cliché. Thank goodness for small amusements.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Perhaps this film is rated PG-13 because it’s not suitable for anyone with post-pubescent thinking skills?”
There Will Be Blood. Glenn Kenny, There Will Be Blood: “Is Plainview a personification of the excesses of capitalism? Could be. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that this film invaded my consciousness (literally—I had a dream about it the first night I saw it, a very rare occurrence) and still has a tight, daunting grip on it.” Jeff Reichert, ReverseShot: “A slow-moving whirlwind that suddenly, utterly spent, just finishes.” Karina Longworth, SpoutBlog: “I confess: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has pretty much slain me.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice: “From the deliberately dark and fragmented prologue to the wildly excessive denouement, this movie continually defamiliarizes what might sound like a Giant-style potboiler.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “It isn’t perfect or entirely satisfying, but it’s so singular in its conception and execution that one can no more dismiss it than one can dismiss a volcanic eruption occurring in one’s backyard.” C. Jerry Kutner, Bright Lights After Dark: “It remains a story about aberrant individuals, setting us up for some great unexpected insight about community and our present-day world that it never delivers.” Bilge Ebiri, Nerve: ” An epic with a coal-black heart.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, a striking piece of American self-loathing loosely derived from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is lively as bombastic period storytelling but limited as allegory.” Armond White, New York Press: ““No!” is the first word spoken in There Will Be Blood, and it should be the last said in response to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest pretend epic.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “An austere folly, a picture so ambitious, so filled with filmmaking, that its very scale almost obscures its blankness.” N.P. Thompson, The House Next Door: “Minor virtues, welcome as they are, cannot begin to salvage There Will Be Blood.”
Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns.. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Perry keeps things moving at a brisk clip—aided by his editor, Robert Altman veteran Maysie Hoy—and the cast turns what might have been caricatures into interesting and fleshed-out characters.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “Madea, the vociferous, big-boned grandmother Mr. Perry played in that film (and then in Madea’s Family Reunion), makes a brief, raucous cameo near the end of Meet the Browns. Not for any reason having to do with the picture’s many story lines, but just as a kind of lagniappe, a gift of pure silliness for the loyal public.” Armond White, New York Press: “Ruthlessly alternating pathos with broad, profane family satire, Perry exceeds the boundaries of chitlin’ circuit theater.”
Under the Moon. Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “’What are you going to do, call the police?’ Hardworking, conscientious, and illegal, Rosario (Kate del Castillo) has no recourse when her employer (Jacqueline Voltaire) decides to ’let her go.’ Taut-faced and designer-outfitted, the woman has no cause to fire her housekeeper, but so what? She’s unaccountable and besides, she’s a dismal stereotype. ’Oh for god’s sake,’ she sniffs at Rosario, ’you’ll find something else, because you’re young.’ No matter that Rosario is struggling to make enough money to bring her nine-year-old son across the border, that she hasn’t seen that son for four years, or that actually finding ’something else’ will be an ordeal. The white lady—nicknamed ’Cruella de Vil’ by Rosario’s best friend and fellow domestic—has had a bad day. Rosario’s determination and resilience ground the moral design of Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna).” Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor: “Some tearjerkers are jerkier than others.”
The Unforeseen. Andrew Schenker, The House Next Door: “The Unforeseen neatly encapsulates the problems of the contemporary political non-fiction film: its importance as social document is everywhere countered by its poverty as cinema.” Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “The Unforeseen has the title of a science fiction thriller, not a thoughtful documentary on the environment, but there’s truth in that packaging. As directed by Laura Dunn, this unusual film unfolds like a mournful whodunit, with the Earth itself being the victim of the crime.”
Vantage Point. Talis Saule Archdeacon, Baltic Times: “The trouble with Vantage Point is that the movie—much like the terrorists it is about—is constantly shooting itself in the foot.” David Denby, The New Yorker: “The movie is intended as an homage to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but, really, it’s quite different. In Rashomon, the varying accounts of a rape and murder are shaped by self-interest. Vantage Point is more literal; it shows what each person actually sees, not what he wants to see. In each depiction, we get a little closer to comprehension of the entire affair only to have the film-makers—in a rather cheap trick—cut away to still another character’s restricted view of things. Finally, they abandon the vantage-point experiment, shift to an impersonal view, and finish the story in a conventional way. Like so many other thrillers, this one ends in a series of car crashes and shootouts.”
The Years My Parents Went on Vacation. Bill Stamets, Chicago Sun-Times: “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation gives us a boy’s-eye view of a turbulent Brazil in 1970. Pele and soccer goals mean more than Che or slogans spray-painted on walls. For a 12-year-old, reuniting your family scores higher than overturning a repressive regime.” John Anderson, Washington Post: “Call me a cynic, but it’s plain to see why Brazil made The Year My Parents Went on Vacation its candidate for this year’s foreign-film Oscar. Kids. Old people. Cuteness. Dire circumstances that don’t interfere with the cuteness but imply gravity nonetheless—the old Life Is Beautiful gambit.” Adam Nayman, Eye Weekly: “Doesn’t so much draw you in as glide on by.”
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship
The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.1.5
Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.
Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.
Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.
In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor
The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.2.5
Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.
In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?
Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.
Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).
If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.
Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.
Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score
John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.
That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.
Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.
Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”
Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.
Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.
Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917
Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
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