Sunday, February 26, 2017

2017 Best Picture

I have not yet seen Fences. It just became available for purchase on iTunes and I expect to view it this week and update this post.

Of the other eight nominees, here are my short reviews, ranked from eighth to first. I liked all of them a lot. However, since they are up for Oscars, I still have to be critical.

8) Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge is an almost instantly forgettable war film. It's based on an interesting true story, and I like Andrew Garfield, but the film is far too Hollywood and the script is extremely predictable. The film also overstays its welcome by taking far too long to get where it is going. It's worth seeing, but it is not Oscar material in my opinion.

7) Arrival 
I know a lot of people really loved Arrival. I did too. But it has a lot of problems. From a science fiction standpoint, little in the film makes any sense. And what makes it worse for me is that the film looks like a low budget film. Here we have an event that is about to change the world, and we have what feels like four or five speaking roles in the entire film. Except for a few news shots, I don't think any scene has more than half a dozen people in it. The filmmakers created a very closed universe for a film which is about opening up the universe to the audience. The visual effects were effective, but they were deliberately murky much of the time, and I kept thinking of the old Outer Limits series, where that was a budgetary choice and not a creative choice. It's a very good film, but I don't think it should have been nominated for Best Picture. What I did like was the fact that they made the film about communication, and that humanity had to learn to work together to overcome challenges. Even without an alien visit, we need to learn to do that now.

6) La La Land
I really liked La La Land a lot, but it is a severely flawed film. I'm not sure why they made the main character a jazz musician, because nothing he plays is anything like what he claims to like. He claims to worship Thelonious Monk but I don't think there is a minor second anywhere in the film. I agree with the criticism of whitewashing in the film, which Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote about much more eloquently than I could in The Hollywood Reporter here: Although the two leads did sing their vocals live, neither of them is good enough to maintain musical interest, and the dancing is kind of lame. The songs are forgettable. However, when the film does work, it works extremely well. The dance scene shot overlooking the valley at sunset is gorgeous. I know many people think this film is favored to sweep the awards, but it is not worthy in my opinion. In 2011 the Academy gave Best Picture to The Artist. Although I loved that film a lot, I think the worst thing the academy could do right now is give the award to another nostalgia film. It's the equivalent of Hollywood giving the Oscar to itself. There are several other films that are far more worthy, and that will stand the test of time better than The Artist or La La Land.

5) Manchester By the Sea
I know a lot of people really loved this movie, and I liked it a lot as well, but I think since I grew up only a few miles from where the movie is set, it was not as involving, as I know too many people like the characters in the movie. In fact, one of the first shots in the film is of the gas station my family went to in my hometown. Maybe it was too close to home for me, literally. I did like the acting and the script. What I did not like was the ending, where the film just stops. I had this complaint about a number of films this year. You don't need to tie up every thread in the film, but I need to know what I am supposed to take away from the film, and I really took nothing with me after the film was over.

4) Hell or High Water
In any other year, Hell or High Water might have been best picture. The move fires on all cylinders. The script and acting are excellent. This film certainly has me looking forward to more by the same filmmakers. But for me, there were several other films that mattered more than this one.

3) Lion
We are now getting into territory where it is harder and harder to delineate excellence. Lion is an outstanding piece of filmmaking with several amazing performances. I hope a lot of Americans see this film so that they are reminded how much worse their lives might have been if they had been born into the abject poverty that the main character was. My only real criticism of the film is that the last third of it is fairly predictable, by-the-numbers Hollywood screenwriting, when the fist two thirds felt completely fresh. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film to everyone.

2) Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures is far from perfect, but I found it one of the most emotionally involving films of the year. The first act of the film is written a little sloppily, but once it gets underway, the film really grabs the viewer. This film is also guilty of whitewashing, as the Kevin Costner character did not really exist in real life, but the studio insisted that there be a bankable (meaning white) star for the film. The acting was really outstanding. In addition, this film fills in some important Afrincan-American history that has not been widely known. And the film is about science, which is something that is being overlooked nationally right now.

1) Moonlight
Moonlight is in a class by itself. I sincerely hope it wins. Like many of the other films I enjoyed this year, the film is important socially. The main character is a closeted gay boy that we see in three periods of his life. I think most people have no understanding of how difficult it is to be black or to be gay in America now, and this movie tackles both very well. Also in terms of filmmaking, they pulled off the impossible. If you write a script with different actors playing the same character, you are likely to be told the script is unmakeable. It is very, very hard to pull off performance continuity, especially when one of the actors is fairly young. But this film does it very well. I cannot recommend the film highly enough.

2017 Animation

Animation is one of my favorite forms of filmmaking because you can do anything imaginable with it. This year the animated films were excellent.

A company called Shorts HD has packaged four of the five animated Shorts nominated for the Oscar for $8. They can be viewed here:

The fifth film is Pixar's nominee Piper, which is available on iTunes. As always, Pixar's nominee has it all. The character animation and lighting are amazing, and the story, although very short, is engrossing. I'm not sure this is the best short of the year though. 

Of the four on Shorts HD, I prefered Blind Vaysha, which has dark animation to accompany a thoughtful Russian folk tale. The style of animation matched the tone of the story perfectly, and it's a film I will remember and think about for a while. 

Pear Cider and Cigarettes is by far the longest of the shorts, at 35 minutes, but it sustains its time well. I liked the animation, and the music matches the main character of Techno, who is apparently based on a real person, but I think this was a missed opportunity for sound design. The music gets old fast, and the film is wall-to-wall voiceover, but the character is engrossing enough to justify watching it. 

Borrowed Time is a nice short, but it has a student feel to it. The characters and animation are good, but the story has no emotional resolution, which makes it feel long even though it is only three minutes. It almost feels like a demo reel for a feature. 

Pearl is the weakest film of the lot. An extended music video, with music that is not very good, the film has its heart in the right place, but it does not payoff. The style of animation looks like it was shot on video and digitally animated, but the animation is quite rough. I'm not sure how this got nominated. 

This year's features were all excellent. My personal favorite is The Red Turtle, which is still in a few theaters. It's a feature-length film with no dialogue, and most of it with only one human character. And a turtle. It's really beautiful, and like Blind Vaysha, I will be thinking about the film for a long time. 

I also loved Zootopia. This is a very important film right now as it has a moral - that anyone can be anything regardless of what they look like. I wish everyone saw this film. 

I really loved Kubo and the Two Strings as well. A beautiful story with characters you will really care about. 

Moana was also entertaining but I honestly felt like it was a little too long, and the mood shifts were somewhat jarring. I know a lot of people thought it was the best animated film of the year though. 

I have not seen My Life as a Zucchini. I believe it is still in a few theaters. 

There was one more animated film I loved this year that was not nominated. The Little Prince is a film that will last through the ages. Unlike other films which have tried to adapt short books into feature length and failed, this film adds a nice layer of depth to the book with the new material that they added to flesh it out to feature length. It is also great family entertainment. 

I also very much enjoyed The Jungle Book, which has a live action main character, but almost everything else in the film is animated digitally. This one was of the best films of the year in my opinion. It's nominated for Visual Effects and I think it will win as most of it passes as live action even though it is not. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

2017 Documentaries

NOTE: Updated with Shorts reviews below.

Here is my take on the Documentary Features nominated for the major awards this year, starting with the five films nominated for the Oscar. It was another truly outstanding year for documentaries!

OJ: Made in America is probably the best documentary series on TV in ages. We watched the entire series in a few nights. The runtime without commercials is a little under 8 hours. At the end of 8 hours, I actually felt like I could watch more. The later part of his life is not covered as fully as I had hoped. This film won the IDA Documentary Feature award, beating several other excellent contenders.

Four of the five Oscar nominees deal with racial issues in some way. Three of the five nominees for the Documentary Feature Oscar deal with African-American relations in the US. OJ deals with it quite well, I believe all of Part II (if I remember correctly) was about setting the racial tone in Los Angeles when the first trial happened. If you only saw part one, you should really watch the entire series. It's online at ESPN: 

However, I find it odd that this is nominated for the Oscar when it was a TV series. I know it is legal by their rules, but voters are supposed to vote ONLY on the part that was theatrically released, which was Part I. In some ways this gives it an unfair advantage as no other nominees had the scope of a miniseries. On the other hand, I think the association with television might turn off AMPAS voters.

Side note, I cannot bring myself to watch the miniseries based on the trial. I tried but I could not watch it as entertainment. I lived through a lot of it in Los Angeles, and even stopped working to watch the Bronco chase. Some things just don't work as entertainment.

13th was nominated for the IDA Doc award and is nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award in addition to the Oscar. It's available on Netflix. It's a doc produced by Ava DuVernay about the American prison system and the racism inherent in the system. It's a brilliant documentary, and may very well win the Oscar and/or Spirit award. I'm not sure it is my favorite doc of the year; I felt the filmmaking was a little too choppy on some of the issues, but I certainly recommend viewing it. It's on Netflix at:

I am not Your Negro was also nominated for the IDA Doc award and is nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award in addition to the Oscar. I found this film very interesting and it holds up better than I expected, based on the fact that is adapted from an unpublished manuscript (which I believe was very short) by James Baldwin. It makes very effective use of stock footage to bring the story to life. If there is any criticism, it is that the movie feels smaller in scope than some of the other nominees. I do not believe it is easily available for viewing.

Life, Animated is about a young man with autism who discovers that he can communicate using dialog from Disney films. It;s a fantastic film and completely worthy to be in this group.

The fifth Oscar nominee was Fire at Sea, which was also nominated for the IDA Doc award. I found this film to be one of the most powerful of the year. It's a very well made documentary that, for the most part, lets the story tell itself. To me, this is a more interesting way to structure a documentary than through voiceover. The film is about a small island which acts as a welcome port for refugees fleeing from all over Africa and the Middle East. This should really be required viewing for people who think we should be closing borders to immigrants. It can be rented on YouTube or iTunes:

Here are a few other documentaries that were not nominated for the Oscar, but for other awards.

Cameraperson was nominated for both the Spirit Award and the IDA Doc Award. Describing it makes it sound a lot worse than it is. It's basically a doc cinematographer's reel. But the work is indeed outstanding, and very well edited. In fact, it contains footage from some of the other nominees this year. It's on Amazon Prime: 

Sonita was nominated for the Spirit Award. It is an excellent doc about a 14 year-old girl who is an Iranian refugee in Afghanistan who is about to be sold into marriage, but she takes a huge chance and decides to write and perform a rap about her dilemma. It's amazing that she managed to pull it off. Although some sections appear to be staged for the camera, it is still an outstanding film. I don't think there is currently any way to see the film in the US.

Under the Sun is a very strange movie. I really liked it a lot because it is original. While making propaganda for the North Korean government, the filmmakers manage to also make their own film by leaving the camera running between takes. As a filmmaker, this feels odd, as they were lying to the subjects, yet at the same time, it is a rare look into North Korea that most Americans would never otherwise know. This was also one of my favorite films of the year. It can be rented on Youtube:

Weiner was nominated for the IDA Doc award. It's what you would expect, a documentary about Anthony Weiner. I am amazed at how much footage they got and how open he and especially his wife were on camera. This is probably the least moving of e the docs I have listed here, but it is still worth a watch. It's available on ShowTime and for purchase on a few sites.

I've seen 4 of the 5 shorts nominated for the Oscar this year.

Probably the most notable is The White Helmets, which won the IDA Doc award for short. It has recently received publicity because the Syrian cinematographer was denied a visa to attend the awards. This is an extremely important film about a group of volunteer doctors who willingly go into the most dangerous war zones in Syria to aid the injured. This is incredibly brave, as were the people who risked their lives to make the film documenting this important work. This is a must-see film, available on Netflix:

Extremis is a short doc about doctors dealing with end of life decisions. It was also nominated for the IDA Doc award. It's also a very moving and very relevant film. It can be viewed on Netflix:

4.1 Miles is a nice companion piece to Fire at Sea (mentioned above). The 4.1 miles refers to the distance between the Greek island of Lesbos and the mainland. It sounds short, but the waters are treacherous, and the island deals with thousands of refugees passing through. Resident on the island risk their lives on an hourly basis to help them reach shore. I believe this short was made by students. It is available to view for free on the NY Times web site: 

Joe's Violin will make you cry. It's the story of an elderly Holocaust survivor who donates his century-old violin (through the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation) to a 14 year-old African-American girl in the Bronx. It's available for free viewing at the New Yorker's Youtube channel: .

The last of the five Oscar nominees is Watani: My Homeland. I believe the only way to see this is to go to a theatrical screening of the nominees released by Shorts HD. Shorts also has the films available on Google Play

The other IDA doc nominees were The Above, which is a very lyrical doc about a balloon permanently stationed above Kabul by the US government, with little explanation as to its purpose. It can be viewed online for free here:

Pickle is the only uplifting film in the bunch. It's about a quirky, wealthy couple and their devotion to their pets. It is available for free viewing on the NY Times web site:

Red Lake is a very interesting documentary about the survivors of a school shooting on an Indian reservation in Minnesota. It is very interesting, but I do not believe it is available for online viewing.

Clinica De Migrantes: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is about a clinic that is addresses the medical needs of undocumented immigrants. Unfortunately this is not available for viewing either.

Watching documentaries is one of the reasons I look forward to awards season. There is not a bad film in the bunch.