Saturday, March 11, 2023

Catch-Up, Part 12: The Oscary Edition

I did something like this last year, so I figured I'd gather together my thoughts on as many of the big awards movies I'd seen but hadn't already reviewed elsewhere. This year, that's going to mean movies nominated for either Best Picture or Best Animated Picture. I've now seen all five of the animation nominees, along with seven of the ten Best Picture contenders. I'm also throwing in a couple reviews for last year's Best Picture Nominees I missed at the time. 

To avoid repeating myself, I'm not going to rehash my thoughts on movies I've already reviewed or written up. For the most part, this year that means movies I talked about in my end-of-year retrospective, where I discussed Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Banshees of Inisherin, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, and Turning Red (I also reviewed Turning Red on its own back when it came out). I also just posted some thoughts about Elvis over at Mainlining Christmas, so you can read about that there.

I'm going to refrain from ranking, but my current picks are Turning Red for Animated and Everything Everywhere All at Once for Best Picture. That said, I consider both categories extremely competitive this year. The animated, in particular, is incredibly close, with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On so close, I'm still second guessing myself. I didn't like Pinocchio quite as much as some people, but I can absolutely see why they like it. Frankly, all three deserve to win.

On the Best Picture front, I'm definitely in the Everything Everywhere All At Once camp, though to be honest it's less because I think it's the best of the nominees than I think it winning would be the most interesting outcome and would age the best. I have a hard time seriously comparing it against Women Talking, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Banshees of Inisherin in terms of quality: they're all amazing films in very different styles. Any would be deserving of the prize, frankly. The others I've seen feel are close behind. I might roll my eyes a bit if the prize unexpectedly goes to Elvis or Top Gun Maverick, but I certainly won't be angry.


Belfast (2021)

My thoughts on this movie are going to be a little sparse, because frankly I think the basics are pretty obvious. It's good. It's very good. It does interesting things with shot composition, use of black & white (and even occasional color), and perspective. It's a good movie that delves into difficult subject matter in a novel way.

I enjoyed it.

Do I think it was robbed of the Academy Award? Well, I actually haven't seen Coda yet (it's the only one of the bunch I haven't gotten to, mostly because it's tucked behind an inconvenient paywall), so I can't say for certain. I didn't really think this was appreciably better than the other nominees I watched (excluding Don't Look Up, but being better than that is a low bar to clear), but it wasn't necessarily worse, either. This would have been a fine pick, but then so would have Dune, King Richard, The Power of the Dog, Drive My Car, and (my favorite so far) West Side Story. All really good movies; none so much better than the rest to make a different outcome egregious in my mind. Nightmare Alley strikes me as maybe a hair below (still really good, just not quite on par with the others), and Don't Look Up isn't in the same league as any of them.

I wish I had something worthwhile to say about Belfast, but part of being late to a party like this is knowing when it's best to sit quietly in the corner. I like how the movies and plays the characters watch feel more real than the world they inhabit. I'm almost tempted to argue the holiday segment qualifies this as a Christmas film and write it up for Mainlining Christmas, but I don't actually believe that. It's a cool movie, but I haven't got much to say beyond that.

Licorice Pizza (2022) 

While I enjoyed Licorice Pizza, the truth is I found myself a little lost, and some assumptions I made about the film turned out to be incorrect. I certainly hadn't realized the lead was based on a real person, for example, and that alone makes me reconsider the overall premise. Within that context, the somewhat disjointed structure takes on the feeling of a series of secondhand stories being reassembled into a rough narrative. You're left with something closer to a fairytale than a memory, which is likely the point. The movie's about a time, place, and life that seems fantastical.

Because it's Paul Thomas Anderson, it's all very beautiful and evocative, full of extended takes and gorgeous color. Which is good, because the content, perhaps by design, is less engaging than what we're seeing. I don't want to dismiss this as style over substance, because there's real substance to the style. But for better or worse I wasn't particularly invested in the main characters or their relationship, and I found the humor more charming than funny. Whether any of that's an issue comes down to what you want out of the experience: again, this pulls you into a fascinating world I can best describe as the filmmaker's interpretation of anecdotes told to him by an aging movie producer. While it's technically a romantic comedy, it actively works against ever feeling like one in ways I don't think I've ever seen before. On that level, it's a fascinating experiment.

Is a great film? Maybe. I found it interesting enough to agree the nomination it picked up was deserved, but I'd probably be raising an eyebrow if it had actually won. I haven't seen as many of Anderson's films as I'd like, but I don't think this is at the level of There Will Be Blood or Phantom Thread, though it wouldn't surprise me if viewers with a different perspective on the '70s disagreed. 


Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (2022)

This is one of those times I find myself watching a movie I've heard a thousand people insist is delightful then, as the end credits roll, find myself with the piping hot take of, "that was delightful." So, yeah, if you've heard anyone talk about the fantastically charming "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" before, you can probably skip my write up, because I'm not challenging the consensus here. It's actually that good. 

I'll offer a few observations that surprised me. First, for some reason I thought this was going to be a road trip movie, which it absolutely wasn't. I think I'm used to movies with similar starting points turning into archetypal Odysseys, so I assumed this would follow suit. Instead, it's a much more intimate exploration of emotion and existentialism. Not at all what you'd expect from a family-friendly expansion of a web series from more than a decade ago, but damned if it doesn't work.

A big part of why it works is the movie's faith in the inherent comedy of talking shells with feet (or at least shoes) openly discussing their fears and hopes. You could actually do a version of this story with all human characters (assuming you replaced the scale and shell specific jokes), but the dialogue would be cloyingly melodramatic. But because they're shells, the movie's able to leverage the audience's already suspended disbelief to explore very big ideas openly and honestly. You're left with the sensation you're seeing something profound. It's a moving and beautiful demonstration of how powerful a silly idea can be in the right hands.

The cinematography here is likewise fantastic. The movie treats its primary location - a small, rundown house - as if it's a vast environment. The use of light and focus give the setting depth and complexity despite its size.

I'm not sure whether I'm rooting for this or Turning Red right now, but it's a hell of a movie. I should also note it's been a good year for Jenny Slate, who co-created, co-wrote, and voices the title character. And on top of all that, she also plays the dog lady in Everything Everywhere All At Once, so either she's doing a hell of a job picking A24 projects or they should start casting her in every movie they make.

The Sea Beast (2022)

This had been on my radar for a while, but kind of fell off after failing to make much of an impact (that's right - impact, not splash: I don't invoke puns lightly). The Oscar nomination bumped it up on the queue, so I gave it a watch. I enjoyed it - particularly the first half - immensely, though I was ultimately left thinking it was better an experience than a movie. And, somewhat awkwardly, it's The Sea Beast's strongest aspects that prevent it from fully working as a film.

To be clear, there was never a point in which I didn't expect this to pivot from "dark fantasy adventure" to "How to Train Your Dragon with sea serpents." Even if it hadn't been clear from the trailer, it was obvious from the start there was a twist coming. And, from an ethical point of view, it did need to be there. You can't make a kids movie where the moral is, "Hate and destroy things that are different, and believe authority without question." When I say I wanted the whole movie to continue with the tone and narrative of the first half, I'm speaking in terms of my emotional reaction and engagement, rather than any kind of serious critique.

That said, there's a reason I felt that way, and it brings us to the catch-22 that is The Sea Beast: they made the first half too good. And, so we're clear, I think that's actually a problem with the movie, at least from a structural point-of-view.

Here's the thing: the stuff about privateers on a fantasy world enlisted to hunt massive sea monsters is handled amazingly well. It draws you into their world and mindset, selling you on the nobility of their profession and romance of their lives. And, on one level, it's supposed to! It's supposed to set up the twist where we learn (surprise, surprise) that the "monsters" aren't evil; they're mostly just defending themselves. It's a good idea on paper, but - again - they did too good a job. So when the inevitable turn comes, you just want to go back to the visceral, grounded adventure that's been taken away.

And, to be frank, the mostly by-the-numbers misunderstood monsters story isn't managed well enough to make up the difference. On top of that, because this is as long as it is, it feels less like a second half and more like the film resets halfway through.

To be fair, there's some good stuff in that second half, including funny sequences, some cool action sequences (including what can only be described as an animated kaiju battle), and an ending with more thematic teeth than I expected (though I worry some of it could be misread as anti-science, rather than anti-hate and anti-capitalism).

But the second half just isn't anywhere near as good as the first, which almost makes you feel like you're on the ship (the visuals are great, but don't overlook the role sound has in creating that illusion). The closest comparison I can think of is Wall-E, which elicited a similar response from viewers, but I think there's a crucial difference. The disconnect between Wall-E's two halves didn't undermine the thematic core of the movie and prevent the story from fully connecting; here, I think it does. The movie as a whole would have been stronger if the first half hadn't been as well executed.

That said, I'm glad it was, because I just loved every second spent on that ship. They sacrificed the whole for the parts, but the first half was so good, I found it worth it for the experience.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

It's a catch-22 - I'd never have bothered seeing a Puss in Boots sequel if I hadn't heard it was amazing, but by the time I watched it, it was never really going to live up to the hype. To be fair, it comes close: The Last Wish does a phenomenal job building compelling emotional journeys for its main characters. And there are more main characters than you'd expect - there's a case to be made this movie belongs as much to a new character (at least I think she's new) who steals the show, just as the titular one did in Shrek 2, the last installment in the Shrek-verse I actually watched.

Which for those of you uncertain when these films came out, means I've never seen the first Puss in Boots movie. That may have been a mistake. Regardless how good or bad it might be, it would have been useful having some background on Kitty Softpaws. I don't feel like it's essential, but it would have been nice to know upfront whether she was a returning character or just being retroactively added into the backstory. It's a situation where I understood and appreciated the arc, but suspect it would be stronger if there's a sense of resonance around her presence.

The plot in The Last Wish meanders a bit and would probably have benefited from a bit of streamlining in the first act (was the cat lady sequence really the best way they could think of to introduce a few characters and conveying Puss's despair?), but on a whole it's nice to see one of these concerned more with an inner journey than saving the world (though technically I suppose there's a bit of that, as well).

Moving on to the animation, we're clearly in the post-Spider-Verse era of the medium. This borrows stylistic elements from that and Mitchells vs. the Machines, though it doesn't use them as effectively. This is using framerate mismatches, 2D shading, hand drawn flourishes, and stylized backgrounds, but it's not as clear what they're going for. I guess it looks like kids books I've seen from the early 2000s - maybe that's the reference? It looks good, but I'm not sure it's actually a better choice for this story than just updating the look of earlier installments.

Ultimately, I don't think this is on par with the top three animated movies of last year. Still, this is a well-written, well-directed exploration of character, which is a hell of a thing to be writing about the sixth theatrical movie in the Shrek franchise. It's absolutely worth seeing, and it may very well play even better to those with more of an investment in this property.


All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

I assumed from its Best Picture nomination that this adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front would be good, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite this beautiful. I generally expect war movies (or at least antiwar movies) to be intentionally ugly. But the vast majority of the movie was instead hauntingly gorgeous. We're treated to long shots of wintery landscapes, and mountains with mist rolling off. Even the battlefields look colorful and almost magic at times.

You'd think that would undermine the message; instead it highlights the absurdity of war and the senselessness of slaughter in the face of such beauty. The war is an utterly pointless one, and the movie lays the blame at the feet of those who command it be waged in the name of honor. But the movie demonstrates again and again that real honor lies only in compassion, even when compassion is impotent to stem the loss of life.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

My thoughts on Maverick are admittedly a bit simplistic. I think I've seen the original once, and that was more than twenty years ago. I recall thinking it was fine, but it didn't leave a lasting impression on me the way it did for some of my generation.

My feelings for the follow-up are somewhat similar: I thought this was pretty good, as far as legacy sequels go, but I wasn't floored by the experience. That said, it's worth acknowledging my experience with Maverick wasn't what the filmmakers intended - I watched this on a television, not a movie screen. And given how much of the movie's appeal is based on the fact the actual actors are filmed in actual fighter jets (with Cruise even flying his), this is obviously going to feel very different on the small screen.

That said, I don't think this would have completely wowed me even if I'd gone to the theater. That's not an indictment of the film, mind you: it's more a "me" thing. I don't have a great deal of context for what real footage taken from inside a fighter jet looks like, so - honestly - it's kind of academic. I know intellectually this was the real deal, but it doesn't actually strike me as more "realistic" than, say, some of the better Star Wars dogfights from the sequel trilogy.

Incidentally, I've had similar reactions to some of the stunts in the recent Mission Impossible movies - I think it's cool that Cruise was strapped to an airplane, but I don't think it made my experience better than if they'd used visual effects. I love the Mission Impossible movies because of tone, pacing, plotting, and genre, not the choice to use practical over visual effects. Hell, I think the HALO jump in Fallout looked kind of cheesy (still a great movie, though).

I realize this isn't a common reaction among action fans, and I truly don't mean to dismiss the incredible accomplishment of pulling some of these stunts off. I understand and respect why Maverick tops so many best-of lists from last year. And, again, I still liked it quite a bit. Just not as much as fans who waited decades or are in awe they managed to film so much of the flying for real.

Tár (2022)

Fair or not, the movie Tár most reminds me of is Joker. Both are impressively shot character studies of anti-heroes centered on phenomenal lead performances, both were nominated for Best Picture, and the narratives in both jump around a lot. Hell, they're even both focused on music.

For the record, I think Tár is the better of the two, though I have a similar issue with the film. My biggest problem with Joker was that it approached an important issue and failed to really say anything. While I certainly don't believe every movie needs to offer a thesis or political stance, I do think there are subjects that really require more than asking questions if you're centering a movie around them. I thought Joker's decision to invoke the health crisis around mental illness then sort of abandon the idea was in questionable taste. I think the same is true of Tár's choice to tell a story where a lesbian abuses her power to take advantage of impressionable young women.

I spent most of the film thinking it was going somewhere. There's a through line implying Tár emulates the old, straight men who dominated her field historically, to the point she sees herself as one of them: I expected the movie to follow through on this idea and perhaps explore the idea that patriarchal systems will produce patriarchal oppressors, even if the person being transformed is a woman. Or perhaps ask whether it's possible for anyone other than an abuser to ascend into power in a system built around abusers. There are fascinating ideas posed by the movie, but they're largely abandoned in the last act. Some viewers may be satisfied with the decision to pose the question: I'd have liked the film to take a stance.

The movie's still very good, mind you. Blanchett's fantastic, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the sound design is evocative. In the interest of full disclosure, I will note that, had this not already been nominated for Best Picture, I'd most likely have a more favorable view of it. Hell, if it had been overlooked entirely, I might be fawning over how good this looked and sounded, and of course how amazing Blanchett is in the role. So take my lukewarm endorsement with a grain of salt: I think this one falls short of what I want from Best Picture winners, but it's still a pretty great film.

Women Talking (2022)

I'm almost more impressed that Women Talking winds up feeling like a movie at all than the fact it's a fantastic one. The script is really closer to a philosophical dialogue than a narrative story, at least for the first two-thirds. It is, quite literally, about a group of women debating ethical, religious, and philosophical issues to determine the best course for them to take in response to a lifetime of trauma and injustice. The inciting incident is over by the time the movie starts, and - while there are individual character arcs - it's less about the individuals than the collective.

Before going on I want to clarify that looking at this as a philosophical dialogue, I'm of the opinion is very good one. Characters represent various evolving viewpoints, they begin with only simple foundational principles, then use reason to construct a compelling philosophical system bringing them to an inevitable conclusion. Frankly, the script would be good addition to college classrooms teaching classical philosophical texts (at least in states where it's still legal to teach such things). This is a great script, but I'm not sure it was a script to a movie.

But it turns out Sarah Polley's as good a director as a philosopher, because she manages to make this feel like a film. She's not alone in deserving praise here - the cinematography, editing, and performances all go a long way to giving a movie where nothing really happens the gravitas of an epic - but she brings this together in a way that's stunning to behold. Women Talking is gorgeous to watch, emotionally engaging, and viscerally powerful: pulling that out of an extended philosophical debate is one hell of a magic trick. Frankly, it's a crime Polley wasn't nominated for Best Director.