Tuesday, January 3, 2017

January is for Oscar Movies

Gonna be tough to keep up with the storm of guild announcements, televised awards shows, personal year-in-review posts and late-breaking Oscar players over the next two months. I'll just have to figure out a way.

For those last minute stragglers, I won't have the luxury of exercising my full review muscles (consider my La La Land piece a holiday indulgence), but I'll deposit my abbreviated thoughts here throughout the month.

My first screening of the new year was Denzel Washington's realization of the long dormant Fences adaptation, scripted by its original playwright August Wilson some time before his 2005 death. The screenplay itself doesn't take much advantage of the opportunity for other forms of exposition besides dialogue, but Washington's direction is sturdy, unobtrusive, and has a more cinematic eye.

Besides, the film is really a performance showcase above all else, and Denzel is at the centre of it. His is powerhouse potboiler of lifelong regret and resentment. Viola Davis lands multiple moments of enormous dramatic impact in a turn that seems destined to deliver her 'make-up' Oscar (never forget The Help). The rest of the tight-knit ensemble work wonders. Whether or not you believe the whole thing feels more like theatre than cinema, it'd be hard to argue that these actors aren't compelling to watch.
Whether or not Martin Scorsese's long gestating passion project Silence will be an Oscar movie or not remains to be seen (it's lengthy runtime and very specific subject matter may make it a difficult sell), but in this viewer's estimation it's Scorsese's best in ten years. Glacially paced but never boring, this complex, challenging meditation on faith -- and the action/inaction that defines it -- leaves a lot for patient audiences to unpack.

As we've come to expect from a master of Scorsese's status, it's a thoroughly well produced endeavor, with special mention to Rodrigo Prieto's painterly cinematography and authentic dressing by his go-to designer Dante Ferretti. It's a shame that it's late release and lack of guild attention has sucked all the oxygen out of its campaign.
Another would-be contender that's fallen victim to a super late release is Mike Mills' wonderful 20th Century Women. I could spend hours just sitting inside the world of single mom Dorothea (Annette Bening), her tenants Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup), her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and his friend Julie (Elle Fanning). Like Mills' previous semi-autobiographical slice of life Beginners, nothing much happens in terms of narrative, but he opens a window for us to get to know his characters, if not fully understand them. In a way, struggling to understand people is the point of the film, most immediately recognized in Bening's totally immersed performance as Dorothea, a daughter of the depression trying to raise a son in an era of sex, drugs and rock n' roll.

If any premise of a plot exists, it's planted and swept out of the way early when Dorothea beseeches Abbie and Julie to help make Jamie the man he needs to be in an ever-changing world; A task they approach with trepidation but credence. That's really just an excuse for Mills to explore as many different dynamics within this retro modern family as possible. All five principals are doing beautifully complex, specific character work here that truly meshes, flavoured with naturalistic humour throughout. Their omission from the SAG ballot for Best Ensemble is criminal.

Mills also invites us into his recollection of a briefly distinct and just as quickly forgotten chapter of American history: One that straddles the gap between cultural/sexual revolutions of the seventies but prior to the eighties' technological explosion, shaped by Mills' careful curation of images, poetry, literature and punk music.


  1. Of all the performances, what did you think of Neeson's and Ogata's? I've heard the latter at least is pretty superb.

    1. Neeson is only in it for a few scenes, and honestly, he's not doing anything special.

      Ogata's is certainly the most entertaining performance in the film, but borders on the comedic in such a way that I can't tell whether it's intentional or not.