Friday, March 25, 2022

Catch-Up, Part 8: Best Picture Edition

With the Academy Awards coming up, I thought I'd catch up on some of this year's Best Picture nominees. I wanted to check them all off, but I also didn't want to drop piles of cash subscribing to additional streaming services when I've yet to exhaust the ones I'm already paying for. I'm arranging these in reverse order, so the last movie listed is the one I think *should* win.

That said, with one exception I think all of the nominees I've seen range from very good to extremely good. Of the seven movies below, four are separated by a hair - I won't bat an eye if any of those win. All of them deserve it.

I think the movies in spots 5 and 6 are great, but not quite in the same league. I certainly won't be upset if either wins: they're not my picks, but I still really enjoyed them. As for the last movie, well...

7. Don't Look Up (2021)

I find it bewildering that this was nominated for Best Picture. The only thing that makes this standout at all is its weirdly impressive cast, the majority of which, to be fair, does great work in a mediocre picture.

Honestly, "mediocre" might be overly generous. This just isn't well written, directed, or edited. It's a tonal mess that fails to actually deliver on the promise of its premise, which - at this point in time - amounts to screaming the obvious, then kind of muttering incomprehensibly for a couple hours. The central idea is fine (albeit not entirely original - variations on this "joke" have been floating around the internet for a while), but the execution amounts to what might be the most boring version of this movie possible.

One of the movie's largest sins was failing to deliver on the genre. This was, first and foremost, a satire. But satires are really supposed to reflect reality dialed up to eleven; this thing feels muted and understated. Obviously the threat is bigger and more immediate than climate change, but public reaction in the film feels less comically exaggerated than real world responses to that and COVID.

The movie's tone undermines itself, as well. The actors clearly think they're acting in a modern day Dr. Strangelove, but the editing tries to interject pathos throughout. The result is neither darkly humorous nor dark: it's just dull. I get what the flashes of stock footage are trying to convey, but I'm just not feeling it.

I respect the impulse to speak up about climate change, and I share the frustration with a world that refuses to acknowledge the obvious. But, aside from some fun performances, this just doesn't work as a movie, and the point it's trying to make - while absolutely well intentioned - is lacking the teeth it needs.

6. Nightmare Alley (2021)

Full disclosure: I watched this not realizing it was a remake of a 1947 movie, a fact that's kind of significant in terms of how this hits. Having not seen that or read the book both versions are based on, I'm unable to offer any insight on how this compares or plays off of ideas from the source material. Taken entirely on its own merits as a standalone piece of entertainment, this is...

Well, it's a noir from Guillermo del Toro, so it's obviously going to be good. But good and satisfying are very different things, and as the end credits rolled, I was a little underwhelmed. I had a pretty good idea how it would conclude from early on, and it more or less circled back to where I expected, and the few surprises it offered felt somewhat unearned. That said, as soon as I realized this was a remake, everything fell into place. Of course the ending was telegraphed: they're assuming viewers are already familiar. And of course the twists are more inline with old genre conventions than believable character motivations: this is a remake of an old genre movie and older novel.

I get it, and it's well done. Really well done, in fact (though I'm not entirely sold on the Best Picture nomination). Again, it's a good movie. And I loved the first half. But the second half, after the movie shifted away from the carnival, grated on me a bit. Then, as I said, the ending didn't surprise me. These aren't flaws, but ultimately the experience was less than I'd hoped.

I won't be upset if this takes the prize - it really is a good movie - but I think it's a tier below the nominees in spots 1 through 4.

5. King Richard (2021)

This is nothing like I expected. Based on the premise and the fact it was nominated for Best Picture, I assumed this would be a melancholy sports drama with a triumphant ending. Instead, I found myself watching one of the funniest movies of the year. I had a blast.

That's not to say there's nothing dark or serious in the movie - there are a handful of violent moments when Richard is attacked or his family is threatened, and there's some drama in the third act - but those scenes are exceptions in a film that's otherwise a delightful comedy.

What impressed me most was the movie's ability to transform what should have been a major liability into its most effective asset: we all know what's going to happen. Hell, even I know Venus and Serena Williams are the best tennis players in the known Universe, and there's no one on the planet who knows less about sports than me. This should have kneecapped the film: it effectively robs them of the ability to build stakes. Instead, they saw an opportunity to exploit the fact that literally everyone is in on the joke. From the second Will Smith's Richard starts making outlandish claims about his daughters' abilities to rich, white people who think he's crazy, we start chuckling because we know who's actually the butt of the joke. The movie exploits this to amazing effect: it's just wonderful.

If I were ranking this based on my enjoyment, it would be three spots higher. But, unlike my end of year rankings, I'm trying to give my opinion of which movie most deserves the award. And as great as this was, I think the stylistic and tonal complexities of the remaining films place this at a disadvantage.

That said, I'm certainly not rooting against this. Comedies don't get anywhere near enough respect - I'm thrilled this was nominated.

4. The Power of the Dog (2021)

I went into this knowing it was an R-rated western, it had been nominated for a pile of awards, and some of the cast. I naturally went in expecting gun fights and bloodshed, which in hindsight feels kind of silly.

This is, indeed, a western, though it's set quite a bit later than the era that genre is typically associated with. More than that, it's a far more grounded take on the genre. I'm not sure "realistic" is the right word - by its nature, fictional media is rarely if ever realistic - but it's extremely honest about its subject matter. The characters are flawed and believable. None are unbelievably effective or talented. It's a movie set, in more ways than one, in the literal shadow of the mythic west. I should note that it's as much a drama as a western, maybe more so. I'll add it's heavily indebted to a third genre, as well, but I won't reveal which to avoid spoiling the film's resolution.

This is a great movie, but that's not to say it's going to please everyone. The Power of the Dog is slowly paced and keeps the viewer at arm's length from the characters. It's one of those movies where the narrative feels unfocused until the end, at which point everything snaps together. Anyone looking for action is likely going to feel disappointed; those willing to explore the characters on the movie's terms will find this far more rewarding.

To be perfectly honest, I found myself somewhere in between those extremes. The Power of the Dog was masterfully made, but I'd be lying if I said it perfectly aligned with my tastes.

3. Dune (2021)

I've both reviewed this and discussed it on my end-of-year ranking, so I don't really have anything else to say. I'm only including it here to note where I'd put it in these rankings and why. And, for what it's worth, it's held back here for an entirely different reason than it was held back last time.

Unlike the end-of-year thing, I really am aiming for "best" here, or at the very least the movie I think deserves that award (at least from the ones nominated). And there's a part of me that thinks maybe this should take the statue. I certainly won't be bothered if it wins (that goes for most of the nominees I've seen, though).

Dune is sort of an unusual situation, where I think it's the best of these, but not the best movie. To put it another way, it's an experience unlike anything else nominated. It's an engrossing, expertly constructed universe, incredible to see and hear. On every technical level, it's really in its own class.

But it's also half a movie. I don't think that's a big problem for what was being sold, but if we're handing out awards, I think it needs to be taken into consideration. And, when all's said and done, the fact it really isn't a complete film should probably preclude it from taking the prize.

2. Drive My Car (2021)

This is an extremely difficult movie to describe, because any attempt is likely to make it sound boring and pretentious, and part of what makes this so impressive is it isn't. Instead, I walked away feeling like I'd seen something profound, even before I had a chance to finish parsing out what any of it actually meant. And, hell, I'm still not entirely sure, but that's sort of the point. This is about the connection established between the audience and the thing they're watching. It's about translation, communication, interpretation, and the way stories change us and help us overcome trauma. What you make of the ending is up to you.

And, yeah, that would usually register as pretentious, but in this case... it just doesn't, at least not to me. Maybe it's because the movie is extremely methodical in its delivery. Or maybe it's just edited in such a way you can't help but be drawn in - I'm honestly not sure why this works as well as it does.

Regardless, it's a hell of a film. Just a hell of an achievement.

1. West Side Story (2021)

It's a pretty good sign when the biggest issue I can find with your adaptation of one of the most famous musicals in history is there are a couple character decisions that never felt believable in the source material you only mostly managed to smooth over and sell in the context of the movie. Otherwise, this is about as close to flawless as adaptations or remakes get and easily one of the best movie musicals ever made. Visually, it offers a gorgeous world that feels like it's set at the intersection of '60s film and stage. It's an engaging, beautiful accomplishment deserving of the accolades it's received.

I honestly don't know what else to say - this was a fantastically well-made movie. It's one of Spielberg's best films, which is saying quite a bit.

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