All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

Life Itself

I’ve seen more new movies in 2016 than during any single year of my life—and there are still 12 more days to go.  Selective consumer that I am, I have enjoyed nearly all my filmgoing experiences to date, and have had enormous difficulty cramming the best of the best into a traditional top-10 list.

As I continue reflecting on all the wonderful moments the cinema offered in an otherwise wretched year for the human race, I offer some fleeting impressions of my final four—a quartet of films that burrowed deep under my skin and never really found their way out.  Four singular conceptions that—in radically divergent form—satisfied (or nearly satisfied) Roger Ebert’s definition of a truly great film:  “It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.  It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

MOONLIGHT

“You can pick from the menu.  Or I can give you the chef’s special.”  So says Kevin, the chef, to his childhood friend, Chiron.  Now in their late 20s, the two men haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.  In all probability, they would’ve remained strangers for the rest of their lives, except that Kevin recently phoned Chiron in the middle of the night to ask what he’s been doing with himself.  And now Chiron has driven 700 miles from Atlanta to Miami—materializing in Kevin’s diner, unannounced—to provide him some semblance of an answer.

Why?  Because, for all their time apart, he and Kevin share a secret that can never be reconciled until they are in the same room at the same time.  Their history—forged in one rapturous, terrifying moment many years ago—is at once totally alien to the society they inhabit, yet absolutely essential to understanding who either of them truly is.

The circumstances of their upbringing—namely, being poor and black in America—have prevented them from facing this complicated truth head-on, and so they have both chosen to suppress it—albeit in strikingly different ways.

And yet, on this night, in this diner—as Kevin prepares the chef’s special—there is suddenly the prospect of a reckoning—an echo of John Adams’s plea to Thomas Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other”—and with it, the possibility of love, happiness and inner peace.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

In the greatest legal circus of the 1990s—The People of California v. O.J. Simpson—Mark Fuhrman was supposed to be the prosecution’s star witness.  He was the LAPD detective who found the pair of black gloves linking O.J. Simpson to the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.  One glove was recovered at Nicole’s house, the other at O.J.’s.  Both were splattered with the DNA of all three individuals, as were the driveways of both homes and the innards of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.

In short, it was a slam dunk:  With a veritable orgy of both direct and circumstantial evidence, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that Simpson—an NFL hall of famer, actor and all-around celebrity—had committed double homicide.  Game, set, match.

And then Fuhrman took the witness stand, and everything fell apart.

To the defense team’s delight and the prosecution’s unending chagrin, Fuhrman turned out to be a scumbag:  A crooked, racist maniac with a long, proud history of brutality against LA’s black community.  Having bragged about his bigotry and deceitfulness on tape, he became Exhibit A in the defense’s theory that the O.J. evidence may have been planted—a narrative of institutional racism that jibed perfectly with the actual history of the LAPD, to say nothing of the nation as a whole, then and now.

In Ezra Edelman’s documentary, prosecutor Marcia Clark muses, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  Therein lies one answer to how a clearly guilty man could be acquitted by a jury of his peers:  Because after 400 years of white people in America getting away with murder, maybe it was time—if only just this once—for a black person to do the same.

ELLE

Michèle Leblanc has been having a very strange week.  Her son is moving into an apartment he can’t afford with a fiancé he doesn’t love who’s carrying a child that (probably) isn’t his.  At work, her underlings are fomenting a rebellion against her take-no-prisoners managerial style.  Elsewhere, her sort-of divorced mother is carrying on with a lover half her age, while Michèle herself is fooling around with her best friend’s husband and—for good measure—growing very flirty with her married next-door neighbor, Patrick.

Oh yeah:  And on Thursday afternoon, a mysterious man in a ski mask entered her apartment, wrestled her to the ground, savagely raped her and left.

By all outward appearances, that last item was the least-distressing moment of Michèle’s week.  Apart from a quick doctor’s visit, she doesn’t bother telling anyone about having been assaulted until dinner on Saturday evening—and even then, she hastens to add, “I feel stupid for bringing it up.”  When her flabbergasted dining companions ask why she hasn’t called the police, she shrugs, “It’s over—it doesn’t need talking about anymore.”

Is she in denial?  A closet masochist?  Just plain nuts?

As Rick Blaine would say:  It’s a combination of all three.

Played by Isabelle Huppert, Michèle is shown, in the fullness of time, to be a woman ruthlessly in pursuit of her own happiness—a process that, in her case, has a curious tendency to rob everyone else of theirs.  Like a wilier version of Selina Meyer in Veep, she is a fundamentally rotten specimen—a textbook sociopath who derives all earthly pleasure from making others squirm—yet somehow emerges as a compelling, magnetic—perhaps even heroic—femme fatale, prepared to turn any setback—up to and including sexual assault—to her advantage and assume control of her own destiny.  What a nasty woman.

KRISHA

It’s the morning of Thanksgiving.  The house is bouncing with activity, inhabited by at least half a dozen adults, another half-dozen twentysomethings, one newborn and an indeterminate number of dogs.  All is well—if a bit chaotic—and then Krisha walks in.

Who is Krisha?  In one sense, she is the person for whom the phrase, “There’s one in every family,” was coined.  She is the sole dinner guest who seems out of sync with everyone else around the table:  The one you don’t engage in direct conversation, for fear of what she might say, do or drink.  A reigning expat from the Island of Misfit Toys.

But no more:  She’s here now.  She’s sobered up (allegedly).  She wants to help out with the cooking and reacquaint herself with her kin and be an all-around better person.

And everyone present is thrilled to hear this.  They miss her, they know what an unholy wreck she had become, and they’re willing to give her every chance to earn her way back into the fold.

Except…not really.  Yeah, sure, if she’s serious about turning over a new leaf, then she has their unwavering love and support and blah blah blah.

In truth, Krisha’s family knows her better than she knows herself, and it all boils down to one unshakable fact:  There is no real hope for her in the end.  She has burned too many bridges—neglected too many responsibilities—to start over again from scratch.  Whatever forgiveness she wants for her sins—indeed, for her entire history to be cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness—she cannot summon the strength to concede what can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.  When push comes to shove, she would just as well have another drink.

Trey Edward Shults’s film, drawn from his own life experiences, is a testament to the notion that life doesn’t always offer redemption.  It is altogether fitting that it would be based on real events and be released in 2016, since its portrait of a woman teetering on the edge of the abyss is a perfect metaphor for the blazed, desperate nation that produced her.