Strong Island.

Strong Island, available on Netflix, is another of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars and is one of the two that I think was somewhat widely known before the nominations came out, along with Last Men in Aleppo. Ostensibly the story of a murder that took place on Long Island in 1992 for which no one was ever charged, it’s much more the story of that murder’s effect on the victim’s family over the 23 years between when it happened and when the filmmaker, the victim’s brother*, began the project.

William Ford, Jr., was 24 in April of 1992, trying to pass the physical requirements for a job as a corrections officer, the oldest of three children of Barbara and William Sr. His girlfriend’s car had been hit by 19-year-old Mark Reilly, a white man working at a nearby garage (rumored to be a chop shop), who offered to fix the car for free if they didn’t call the cops to report the incident. Ford and his girlfriend, both African-American, agreed, but when Reilly took too long to repair the car and then swears at Ford’s mother, he returned to the garage to confront him, only to have Reilly shoot him with a .22, killing him. The grand jury returned a no true bill against Reilly, choosing to believe it was self-defense even though Ford was unarmed. Ford’s mother claims in the film that the grand jury was all white, and many members weren’t paying attention during witness testimony.

Yance (pronounced “YAN-see”), the middle child in the family, directed this documentary and appears in it frequently along with his* younger sister, his brother’s best friend (who was there when the murder occurred), his mother, and a good college friend of William Jr.’s. Not appearing, however, are anyone connected with the investigation; the ADA at the time declines to comment at all, even on the phone, while the investigating officer does comment in a recorded interview but does not appear. Neither Reilly nor the other white man at the garage that night appear, and Ford himself has been very clear that he does not want to give Reilly any “space” in the film. The murder is described, but it is an inflection point in the broader story, not a mystery to be solved. The reveal, such as it is, is minor to the viewers but major to Yance.

* Yance Ford identifies as queer in the film, but is referred to everywhere within the film as a daughter, a sister, etc. Apparently since filming ended, he has come out as trans, and most subsequent media coverage uses male pronouns (without, from what I can see, acknowledging the disparity). I’m just following their lead, but I may be wrong.

It is, therefore, a somewhat frustrating documentary, because the topic is so insular. A happy nuclear family was blown up by the murder of their son and oldest child, after which grief starts to tear apart the fabric holding them together. The father dies not long after the murder, long enough ago that he’s only in the film on video once, in archival footage. But their grief is quiet and private, and I didn’t get an emotional connection to the tragedy the way I think Yance might have intended. Their loss is huge, but William, Jr., is a figurative ghost in the film. And the racial aspects, while undeniable – if you don’t think a black man would have been indicted for the same crime with a white victim, I don’t know what to tell you – are also somewhat academic here. There’s nothing here to prove racial bias in the investigation or grand jury proceedings. Instead, Strong Island feels a bit like reading someone else’s diary – like I’m intruding on the grief of a family I don’t even know, and the cascading tragedies of the story are too distant to get the emotional response the writer would have had himself.

That said, it wouldn’t shock me in the least if this won the Oscar, given the racial politics of the film and high profile right now of Black Lives Matter and similar movements. It’s not the best documentary this year, but its subject matter might resonate more with voters than topics like Syria, doping, or the financial crisis.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) that originally aired on PBS’s Frontline, earned one of the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars. The film follows Abacus, the only bank to face criminal prosecution in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crisis, through the subsequent trial, largely from the perspective of the Sung family, who founded and still run the small neighborhood bank, based in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The resulting picture is one of politically-motivated prosecution of a non-white institution, of whom the overly ambitious Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., could make an example, while getting himself in front of the cameras. You can stream the film for free on PBS’s site, or via Amazon Prime.

Abacus Federal Savings Bank discovered in 2010-11 that one of its loan officers had submitted several loan applications with false information – such as forged employment info or inflated income claims – and had skimmed money from some clients, so they reported the violations to the Office of Thrift Supervision themselves, fired the offending loan officer, and began examining other loans he’d made. Despite the self-reporting, the Manhattan DA’s office chose in 2012 to indict the bank and its officers on over 200 counts related to mortgage fraud, including grand larceny, threatening the group with jail time, fines, and the potential closure of the bank. The Sung family, who founded the bank in 1984, chose to fight all charges; one of their daughters quit her job in the DA’s office and went to work on her family’s defense. Their defense included evidence that the offending loan officers had taken steps to hide their misdeeds from executives, that the loans in question still performed, and that their decision to report themselves showed they were not engaged in any systematic attempt to defraud Fannie Mae, which purchased many of the loans in question.

The Sungs are the stars of Abacus, of course, and their dismay and indignation power the film. It’s clear from the start that the family members involved in the bank saw no choice but to fight the charges, recognizing that even a generous plea agreement might ruin the company, and in the film they repeatedly emphasize what the bank means to the Chinese community in which it operates. Tom Sung, a co-founder of the bank and the family patriarch, recounts the difficulty Chinese entrepreneurs would have in obtaining loans from white-owned banks that were perfectly happy to take those same customers’ deposits. Along with community activist Don Lee (who has a politician’s coiffure) and several reporters who covered the case, the Sungs describe the different norms of the Chinese business world, and how American rules that might target mortgage fraud also made it harder for immigrants to obtain such loans, even if their income was legitimate and their default rates were extremely low. (Abacus claims a 0.5% default rate on mortgages it originates; the national rate for serious delinquency reached 4.9% in 2010 and dropped to a ten-year low of 1.1% last year.)

Vance and Polly Greenberg, who served as chief of the DA’s Major Economic Crimes division from 2012 to 2015, both appear in the film to their own detriment, as they come off in the final product as vindictive and unapologetic despite evidence that they put extremely unreliable witnesses on the stand, possibly suborning perjury in the process. (The film was made before revelations that Vance declined to prosecute Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault around the time that Weinstein contributed to Vance’s campaign.) Their star witness, in particular, lied repeatedly under oath and eventually had his plea deal revoked as a result of his false testimony. It’s entirely possible that James isn’t showing enough of the prosecution’s side of the case, although given his reputation and the ultimate outcome of the trial, I am inclined to give him and the film the benefit of the doubt. At the absolute least, Vance and Greenberg failed in their duty to do sufficient due diligence on their key witnesses, and that opens them up to charges of malicious, racially-motivated prosecution. Vance Jr. was unopposed in the November election, which is too bad, as Abacus would make a fine campaign film for anyone running against him.

I’ve seen three of the five nominees for this category now, with Netflix’s Strong Island downloaded for my next flight, and Faces Places due out on DVD at least on March 6th (after the awards … this is so stupid; if you’re nominated and can’t get into theaters, put it out to stream right away, I am trying to give you my money). Abacus is the best made of the three documentaries I’ve seen, but lacks the emotional punch of Last Men in Aleppo or the holy-crap aspects of the more timely Icarus. FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey has pointed out that this year’s slate of nominees is extremely weird anyway.

A Fantastic Woman.

A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica), Chile’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and one of the five nominees, is notable simply for its casting: A trans woman plays a trans woman who happens to be the film’s main character. Daniela Vega delivers a tour de force performance as Marina, the fantastic woman of the movie’s title, a woman whose life is suddenly turned upside down when her cis male lover dies suddenly, putting her in conflict with the man’s estranged family – most of whom refuse to accept her for what she is.

Marina is a nightclub singer who by all external appearances is a woman, but whose status as transgender appears to be known by everyone she encounters, even characters who should be complete strangers to her. She and Orlando, a somewhat older, genteel man, have an unremarkable, romantic relationship, where she has just moved in with him and he surprises her for her birthday with plans for an exotic vacation together. This all goes right to hell when he dies suddenly and his ex-wife and son enter the picture, complete with their bigotry, hatred, and threats of violence, all of which show how they don’t even see her as human, let alone as a woman. The movie documents her refusal to surrender to them, and society as a whole, even in the face of physical attacks and a system that dehumanizes her at every turn.

Vega is remarkable in a role that demands that she go through numerous events that I would imagine would trigger awful memories for any trans person (and perhaps any non-binary person, period). Because Orlando falls down the stairs while Marina goes to get the car keys to rush him to the hospital, the authorities assume that she was a prostitute who’d fought back when a client assaulted her, or that she even assaulted him for reasons unknown. There’s an early scene where a doctor and a police officer refer to her in the third person, as if she’s not even there, using male pronouns, even though – again – you wouldn’t think she was trans even after talking to her for a few minutes. (I found this a bit confusing; perhaps the doctor looked at her neck, but that wouldn’t occur to an ordinary person.) Later, Orlando’s son, who proves the most bigoted of all, asks if she’s had “the surgery” (I think Laverne Cox made it clear to everyone that it’s not an appropriate question) and asks the most dehumanizing question of all, “What are you?” Her answer – “I’m flesh and blood, just like you” – and his inability to respond to it spell out the constant fight that trans people face in a society full of people who, frankly, are just too damn obsessed with other people’s sex lives.

This is a star-making turn from Vega, although she dominates so much of the film that there’s little room for anyone else. (Why she wasn’t nominated for Best Actress is beyond me; she’d be a worthy winner, and deserved it over at least two of the nominees.) Gabo, Orlando’s brother, played by Luis Gnecco (star of 2016’s Neruda, Chile’s submission to the Oscars last year), is the most three-dimensional of the other characters, showing uncommon empathy for Marina and the mere willingness to use female pronouns for her. The script, co-written by director Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, doesn’t dispense with these characters lightly, but their appearances in the film are a function of their relationship to and interactions with Marina. They’re real because the dialogue feels real, because the treatment she gets at the hands of almost every single person she meets is exactly what you would expect in a majority-Catholic country that only recognized gay marriages in 2017.

Transgender characters have had extremely poor representation in film; other than Boys Don’t Cry, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Danish Girl, all of which featured cis actors in trans roles, major films that have featured trans characters have largely done so for shock value or comic effect. A Fantastic Woman features a trans character, played by a trans woman, in a story that is about everyday life as a trans person in an intolerant society – but in a way that can be interpreted more broadly, too, to capture that feeling of being utterly alone, of feeling unsafe in your own skin, and of the need to find something that helps define you for yourself as opposed to the way that others define you.

I still have Loveless and The Insult to see of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, but Sony Classics has been so slow to roll Loveless, a Russian film that won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year, that I may not catch it before the Oscars.

Loving Vincent.

One of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with the modern classic that is Boss Baby), Loving Vincent stands out primarily for its appearance: It is the first animated film made from hand-painted frames, in this case done with oil paints on canvas. The conceit was to tell a story about Vincent Van Gogh that used his style and even images from his paintings as the background, while actors portrayed the various characters in front of green screens and were painted into the frames. The 94-minute film comprises over 65,000 frames, each its own painting, created by over 120 painters, while the story comes from letters recovered after Van Gogh’s suicide and the subsequent death of his brother, Theo. The plot here is a bit thin, although the work by the actors – who are more than just voice actors here – elevates what story we get. If you appreciate the visual aspects of animated films, though, you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen. (It’s on iTunes and amazon.)

The story begins a year or so after Van Gogh’s death, when the Postman Joseph Roulin asks his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver a letter from Van Gogh to his brother and patron, Theo, that was somehow lost but serves as the last letter he wrote before he took his own life. The quest to find Theo turns into a deeper interest in learning what happened to Vincent in the last few months of his life, and why a person who claimed six weeks earlier to be in great spirits decided to end his own life. Armand, who’s a bit credulous to be entirely credible here, bounces around like a sort of soft-boiled detective, visiting the guest house where Van Gogh stayed and the doctor who treated him for his depression and, later, who saw him after he’d shot himself. The mystery aspect here – at one point, Armand becomes convinced Van Gogh was shot by someone else, perhaps in a prank gone wrong, and was covering for the culprit – isn’t compelling at all, since there isn’t any real doubt that Van Gogh 1) was suicidal and 2) shot himself, but the story here is the means to the end of walking us through a tour of Van Gogh’s output.

I went into this knowing almost nothing about the works of Van Gogh, and decided to leave any further reading until after I watched it lest I spoil some aspect of the film. The poster for the film uses his 1889 Self-portrait, but you’ll see many of his most famous works as backdrops for critical scenes; I spotted The Night Café, Wheat Field with Cypresses, Wheat field with Crows, The Town Hall at Auvers, The Sower (at the end), and Café Terrace at Night (the opening scene). The filmmakers also used Van Gogh’s paintings to ‘design’ the characters, most of whom are based on real people Van Gogh painted, with other characters created from his paintings. Some of the likenesses are remarkable, especially Jerome Flynn (Bronn in Game of Thrones) as Dr. Gachet, although there was really little they could do here to make Saoirse Ronan look like anyone but herself.

Because the story itself is so slight, Loving Vincent is more of an achievement than a great film; there’s never been a movie that looked like this, and it subtly introduces some of the audience to the works of one of the most important painters in western history, several of whose paintings have sold for nine figures. (Only one of Van Gogh’s paintings sold during his life, out of the 800-plus he painted.) It’s a gorgeous film to watch, and the leisurely pace of the plot fits the content; you’re meant to savor and even examine these backdrops, not to just focus on the action or dialogue. But that also means it’s not a film for everybody; I’m probably on the outer fringes of the audience for this movie, because I know nothing about art and don’t feel like I even appreciate it like most art fans and collectors would. I can say, however, that I understand Van Gogh’s style more now having seen the movie, and would at least be able to identify some of his works as his, which is more than I would take home from most movies I see.

Graduation.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by maps, and especially by certain countries or parts of the world. Eastern Europe was one of those areas; the countries there all seemed more “foreign” because they were still behind the Iron Curtain (I’m old). Most of the people there speak Slavic languages that just sounded more different to my young ears, often written in different alphabets. Then you have Hungary, a country of non-Slavic people with a history and language unrelated to anyone else in Europe outside of Finland and Estonia (the latter of which wasn’t independent until I was in college), and its own complicated history of independence and subjugation. You had Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, two made-up countries resulting from international meddling and post-war treaties; neither exists any more, with Yugoslavia, at the time appearing to be the most moderate of Communist countries because its dictator, Tito, led the “non-aligned movement” of countries that declined to take sides in the Cold War. Yugoslavia comprised at least a dozen different ethnolinguistic groups, now split into seven independent countries, two of which have majority Muslim populations, two others of which speak the same language but use different alphabets for it and thus both claim they’re speaking something different. Czechoslovakia has been split into two countries, although there’s a historical third (Moravia) that appears to be gone for good. The Soviet Union itself subsumed at least nine independent countries in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, plus some short-lived entities like the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus.

And then there was Romania, another oddball in the region, the only language east of Italy where the primary language is from the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family; Romanian has evolved a more complex, Slavic-influenced grammar due to its geographic and political isolation from other Romance languages, but if you’re fluent in any of the latter you can probably gather the gist of written Romanian. Moldova, an independent country on Romania’s border, also has Romanian as its primary language, but they call it Moldovan and insist that it’s a distinct tongue. (To say nothing of the Gagauz.) Transylvania, which is totally a real place, is now part of Romania. They were briefly one of the Axis-allied nations in World War II, along with Hungary and Bulgaria, the latter of which had a real knack for picking the wrong side in world wars. The country featured the most dramatic and violent shift to democracy, executing its dictator and his equally corrupt wife on live television, and at one point appeared to have a nascent software industry that might lead to rapid economic development.

That didn’t happen, and if you wanted to know just how Romanians view their country right now, Christian Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation, paints a grim portrait where corruption is so woven into the societal fabric that nothing would function without it. Mungiu won the Palme d’Or and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film for 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and was named co-winner of the Best Director Prize at Cannes in 2016 for this movie, which Romania did not choose for its annual submission to AMPAS. (His 2012 film, Beyond the Hills, was Romania’s submission that year and made the shortlist but not the final five.)

Graduation, which is streaming on Netflix, tells a small story to explain the big theme of the rot that institutionalized corruption has caused in Romanian society. Romeo Aldea is a successful doctor in a modest city in western Romania who returned from somewhere abroad with his wife in the hopes that Romania was developing into a modern society. Their daughter, Maria, is about to take a critical test to secure her scholarship to Cambridge University in England, but the morning before the exam, she’s attacked by a would-be rapist, injuring her arm (so she can’t write easily) and traumatizing her. Romeo, who was busy with his mistress when he received the call that Maria had been hurt, decides to play the system, moving a patient up the list for a liver transplant in exchange for having his daughter’s exam graded favorably enough to retain the scholarship.

Romeo is an unpleasant fellow who would probably bristle at such criticisms; he’s even praised at one point in the film for his spotless reputation and refusal to take bribes from patients in the past. He clearly thinks he’s doing what must be done for Maria, given that this is how Romania works and that other parents wouldn’t hesitate to call in favors or pay bribes to help their kids – especially to get their kids out of the dead-end cycle the film tells us is trapping everyday Romanians in a lower-class, hopeless life. A western education at a premium university is a ticket out, and even though Maria seems to be waffling in the wake of the attack and her commitment to her shiftless boyfriend Marius, Romeo commits himself to this path, convinced he’s doing the right thing even as the situation starts to worsen around him.

The entire movie seems to take place on cloudy days in a city where every color is some shade of gray and the dominant architectural aesthetic might charitably be described as communist chic. There’s construction, but to no apparent end, and the chaos of it creates the opportunity for Maria’s attacker. A minor subplot involves Romeo’s mistress’s young son, who has a disability and may do better in a specialized public school that has no openings because they’re all reserved for siblings of current students – or for those who have paid their way in. Another thread revolves around Romeo’s affair and how his wife reacts not to the infidelity itself, which she already knew about, but to Maria’s discovery of it. Romeo still seems unfazed by the changing attitudes of everyone around him, including his daughter’s own disdain for his attempts to use the system to benefit her, because he’s so thoroughly convinced of his own correctness. And while it’s easy to condemn him from the other side of the screen, what parent among us wouldn’t bend or break a rule to help our children?

On Body and Soul.

On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) is one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the tenth time a Hungarian submission has made the final cut since they began submitting films in 1965. A film that alternates shockingly brutal imagery with a lyrical, otherworldly story about two of the shyest people you could imagine, the movie is a starmaking performance for actress Alexandra Borbély, who won the Best European Actress award in 2017 for her work here. It’s exclusively available on Netflix.

Borbély plays Maria, the new health inspector at a Hungarian cattle slaughterhouse, replacing the unseen Bori, who left early for maternity leave and appears by implication to have been a fairly lenient inspector. Maria is shy, lacks the ability to read social cues, and often seems emotionless to the workers at the facility, who make halfhearted attempts to connect with her. The factory’s CFO, Endre (Géza Morcsányi, a playwright in his first film role), is also shy and awkward, a well-meaning man who has lost the use of his left arm and keeps most of his colleagues at arm’s length. We realize before they do that the two of them are sharing the same dreams night after night, where each is a deer in a snowy forest, a fact that only becomes apparent to them when a theft at the factory leads to psychiatric interviews with all of the possible culprits. The discovery changes both of them, driving Maria to try to figure out how to relate to another person, while Endre rediscovers the sense of empathy he seems to have lost through years of disappointment.

Director/writer Ildikó Enyedi is unafraid to jar the audience with images of cattle being chained, killed, and bled, although many of these images have parallels to the strange journey of Maria and Endre, especially Maria. She has many aspects of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome or who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, although her condition is never named; these facets of her personality include extreme organization and cleanliness, which makes her perfect for her job … as long as she doesn’t have to interact with other people. Borbély, who had some TV experience and just three or four previous film roles, is marvelous in every way in this role, giving Maria both the affect-less expressions and intonations of a person who can’t read social cues or sense emotions in others, as well as the innocence, trepidation, and wonder of a child seeing or experiencing things for the first time. The role requires her to walk a tight rope to avoid Rain Man-like caricature without giving Maria too much emotion or sensibility, as if a relationship could ‘cure’ her. Even when the story hits its dramatic climax near the end, Borbély does not veer outside the character’s boundaries, reacting at one point in a matter-of-fact way to something awful that it became a darkly humorous moment instead.

Enyedi’s script offers a meditation on loneliness, especially for people who were, perhaps, not made for this world, like Maria, or who have grown tired of its letdowns, like Endre. Even with this utterly improbable link between them, the two find it difficult to communicate with or understand each other, and that disconnect threatens to leave them lonelier than they were before they discovered their shared experience. The script does lose steam a little in the final quarter of the film, because the setup is so strong – two people with no apparent connection are simultaneously dreaming the same dream, in an otherwise rational world where such a thing should be impossible. Resolving that story in an interesting way, other than simply having Maria fall into Endre’s arms, is difficult, and Enyedi gets it about halfway right. The big twist is also a bit predictable, and yet honest at the same time, because one character’s reaction to pull away from the other is understandable in the context of the film. I thought this would end up happening, but I also couldn’t tell you a more realistic resolution, either.

On Body and Soul won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, as did Spirited Away, A Separation, and the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea; like A Separation, it also took the Grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival, so in theory it should have a reasonable chance at the Oscar. Instead, the betting site GoldDerby gives it the worst odds of the five nominees, with A Fantastic Woman considered the favorite – although neither that nor Loveless has played anywhere but New York or Los Angeles so far. Having seen four of the five Best Actress nominees, however, I will say Borbély more than deserved a nomination – it’s not unheard of, with Isabelle Huppert getting a nod for the French-language film Elle just last year – and I’d vote for her over both Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan.

Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is a meticulous film, by turns grim and grinning, featuring a tour de force performance from Daniel Day-Lewis (his final role, if you believe that sort of thing) where he’s matched line for line by the two actresses playing against him. It’s also kind of bonkers, as the three characters move in unconventional ways, forging subtle alliances with each other only to surprise the viewer with reactions that shred the clichéd plot devices we’ve all come to expect, even from ‘smart’ films.

Day-Lewis plays the hilariously-named fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who makes the highest of high-end dresses for the elites of London in the 1950s, operating the House of Woodcock with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), to whom he refers as “Old So-and-So.” When the film opens, we see the two of them at breakfast with a third woman, who is clearly in love with Reynolds but who is exasperated with him ignoring her in favor of his art. While en route to a house in the country, he stops for breakfast and is taken with the waitress who serves him, Alma (Vicky Krieps), inviting her to dinner and quickly moving to install her in his house as his muse. When he tries to run roughshod over her as he apparently has with previous women in her station, however, Alma gives as good as she gets, creating a seesawing battle of wills between the two of them, Cyril, and the ever-present spectre of Reynolds’ late, beloved mother. Alma reaches the point where, presumably, her predecessors have left the house or been steered out by Cyril, but instead takes the initiative in drastic fashion, making Reynolds depend on her while shifting both the balance of power and the audience’s perception of her as the ingenue under the thumb of the great master.

There is enough going on beneath the surface of this film to fill a joint thesis for a psychology and English literature degree. Reynolds sews ‘secrets’ into the linings of his dresses, and reveals to Alma early in the film that he keeps a lock of his mother’s hair sewn into his jacket – over his “breast.” He’s a manipulative bully to Alma, and speaks to everyone in tightly clipped tones that imply some deep repression. His fastidious nature may not be affect, but where everyone around him treats his idiosyncrasies as the mercurial nature of the great artist, Alma pierces his armor and even tells Cyril that he’s “too fussy,” which understates the matter just a bit. I can’t imagine that Woodcock’s surname was some accidental reference, nor do I think the choice of Alma (which means “soul” in three Romance languages, deriving from the Latin word almus, meaning “kind” or “nourishing”) was inadvertent. Cyril bears a man’s name that means “lord,” and she certainly rules the House of Woodcock and her brother’s life while brooking no dissent. And do we need to go into detail about the symbolism of the asparagus in one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes?

Some details in Phantom Thread don’t quite ring true on their own, and Anderson relies on the immersive nature of the world he’s created to help the viewer skate past some of those moments. Reynolds’ order at the restaurant where Alma works is hilariously long and detailed, especially since we’ve just seen him getting dressed and thus seen how slight he is, almost looking gaunt. But Anderson manages to make some of these less than credible details work because of the compelling, three-dimensional characters he’s created at the heart of the film. Would Alma truly take that diabolical step to bind Reynolds to her? Would he then make the choice he does at the end of the film when he realizes what’s happening? Is this actually love between the two of them, or some sort of mad obsession – not with each other, at least not in the traditional romantic-sexual sense, but with their pursuit of a shared ideal of life and work and a union where all boundaries between the two of them are utterly erased? (If you’ve already seen the film, check out The Cut’s excellent Q&A with a psychotherapist about the Reynolds-Alma relationship.)

Day-Lewis is superb, as he always is, infusing this perplexing, often childish character with an undeniable charisma that helps explain the way women fawn over him throughout the film. There’s no surprise here, given his body of work to date, but Manville (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Krieps both deliver stellar performances that allow their characters to stand against him. Either was worthy of a nomination, but Manville does a bit more with less dialogue than Krieps gets, and by the end of the film, Cyril remains the most impenetrable character. Manville likely has zero chance of a win – her competition includes Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird and Allison Janney for I, Tonya – but I wouldn’t count Day-Lewis out completely, given that some voters may hold favorite Gary Oldman’s anti-#MeToo comments against him. Similarly, Anderson seems like an underdog in the Best Director category, but he’d be more than deserving, and only Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) seems to have had more influence as a director on his film than Anderson did here.

As for Best Picture … I’d have a very hard time choosing among the nine nominees. The best movie I saw from 2017 remains The Florida Project, which did not receive a nomination, losing out to the blank space the Academy always leaves in the tenth slot. I’d put Phantom Thread in the top three of the nominees, along with Dunkirk and The Shape of Water, just ahead of Call Me By Your Name. Just don’t hold me to that opinion yet.

Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour seems to have made a late push in awards season, landing a Best Picture nomination that I think would have been a total shock to reviewers back in November, as the consensus was that Gary Oldman was great as Winston Churchill but the movie itself was just fair. That might even be generous – this is kind of a bad movie around a good performance boosted by great makeup, and utterly hokey in so many spots that I’d warn anyone unfamiliar with the true history of that period away from the movie because it’ll give them the wrong idea.

The story takes place in May of 1940, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the champion of the appeasement policy that handed the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler because dictators are always satisfied with modest gains, loses a vote of no confidence in Parliament and resigns his position, creating a vacuum that is filled by the adipose, sodden Winston Churchill, a choice that seems to satisfy nobody. The King is terrified of Churchill’s unpredictable mouth, while members of Churchill’s own party doubt him based on his own history of questionable policy choices. Churchill takes the reins just as Belgium is about to fall, as is France’s Maginot line, which leads to the events that begin the far superior film Dunkirk. Over the course of Darkest Hour, Churchill must decide whether to negotiate terms with the Nazis or to resolve to fight, knowing that the Germans would likely attempt to invade Britain, all while dealing with duplicity from within his own party, including a very British coup attempt by Lord Halifax.

You know how it ends – Churchill declines to negotiate, arguing that Hitler would never adhere to any terms; he orders the civilian effort to evacuate the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, which succeeds beyond any expectations; and the Germans begin the bombing of London known as the Blitz. It was a decisive point in the war, and given Hitler’s decisions to wipe his ass with other treaties and agreements he’d made with the Allies, the right one in hindsight. What we get here, though, isn’t true or even particularly fair to anyone, including Churchill, whom Oldman portrays as addled enough by liquor that you could wring him out. The process involved in getting to this decision may have been ad hoc, as portrayed in the film, but the climactic scene, set in a subway car, is a complete fabrication, dripping with British jingoism and seasoned with a heavy dose of political correctness as well. It’s as subtle as a children’s story, and less reliable too.

Oldman is very good as Churchill, and truly unrecognizable under the prosthetics, makeup, and accent – he disappears into the role in a literal sense, as well as a figurative one. Oldman is a very talented actor whose work I’ve long admired, including his turn as the iconic George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and, of course, his creation of an iconic film character in his role as Sirius Black. Here, though, it’s hard to separate the impression from the performance; he’s so busy doing the voice, the walk, the bug-out eyes that I found myself questioning whether the praise heaped upon him was more a function of how much he looks and sounds like the modern impression of Churchill. (If you can’t picture any of this, think “drunk Alfred Hitchcock” and you’re about 90% of the way there.)

The generally incredible cast here is otherwise wasted on silly or trivial roles. Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Churchill’s too-perfect wife and seems to be here primarily to look old and humanize the Prime Minister. Lily James plays a real person who was Churchill’s assistant, but didn’t take that job until well after the events of the movie, and seems to be here primarily to look cute and give the audience some cheap emotional moments. (There’s a shot of her walking that begins at her shoes and works up to her face that came off as leering; there’s absolutely no reason to show her in that light unless the intention was to remind viewers that, hey, Lily James is an attractive woman.) Samuel West, who was excellent in the TV mini-series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell*, is one-note as Anthony Eden, Churchill’s Secretary of War. The one supporting performance that stood out in a positive light was Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI; if you don’t know Mendelsohn’s name, you might know his face; he played the worst of the various sociopaths in 2010’s Animal Kingdom and has made a career of playing villains, but here gives ol’ Bertie a bit of humanity and providing one of the film’s accurate subplots, the growth in the King’s relationship with Churchill from mutual distrust to a sort of professional friendship, some needed credibility.

(King George VI was known for having a speech impediment, and Mendelsohn does his best to reproduce it. Lord Halifax couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r,’ and Stephen Dillane incorporates that into his speech as the character, while also seeming to pronounce everything from somewhere two feet behind his face. And Oldman is also doing an impression for the entire movie. The end result, while perhaps true to the characters’ actual speech, is that I had a devil of a time understanding everybody; it’s one time where less accuracy might have made for a better film.)

I’ve seen eight of the nine Best Picture nominees, and this is easily the worst movie; the fact that this got a nomination, and the Academy left one spot open, while The Florida Project was not nominated is absolutely galling. If you want some rah-rah history, and don’t mind being taken for a ride along the way, Darkest Hour is superficially entertaining. It’s just not very good history, and once you leave the theater, the ecstasy of the film’s resolution will fade all too quickly.

* One of the trailers before the film was for the upcoming movie, 7 Days in Entebbe, retelling the famous 1976 Israeli military operation in Uganda, where IDF commandos rescued over 100 hostages who’d been taken by pro-Palestinian terrorists and German idiots. Shimon Peres is portrayed in the film by Eddie Marsan, who played Mr. Norrell in the above-mentioned mini-series. Trailers can be very misleading, but this at least made me want to see the film, as everything except the choice of music looked spectacular.

The Post.

The Post is about Some Very Important Things, and the writers, Liz Hannah and John Singer, really want you to know that This is All Very Important, and they hope you leave the theater understanding the Importance of all of this Important Stuff. While it has its entertaining moments and two excellent performances, The Post hits you over the head with its heavyhanded delivery so often that I left my seat with a mild concussion.

This is the story of the Pentagon Papers, told from the perspective of Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee, and the reporters on the Washington Post who picked up the story after the New York Times was hit with a federal injunction. The Papers comprised 47 volumes and 7000 pages, the result of a lengthy study undertaken by a task force set up by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967 to evaluate the state of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. Among other notable findings, the task force concluded that the war was unwinnable, and that the continued effort in southeastern Asia was more about saving American face than fighting communism. One of the men who worked on the papers, Daniel Ellsburg, leaked them to the Times and later to the Post, because he believed the war was unjust and that multiple Administrations had lied to the American people.

This film starts in Vietnam, with a war scene and a scene on a plane where Ellsberg tells McNamara and President Johnson that the war isn’t progressing, after which we’re whisked into the world of the newspaper, where we learn that the Washington Post is about to sell shares to the public for the first time. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) owns the company in the wake of her husband’s suicide. (Philip Graham did kill himself, but it was in 1963; the film implies that his death was much more recent.) Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the editor in chief, is less interested in the business than in turning the paper into an important, national voice on the news. When the paper gets scooped by the Times with the publication of the first of the Pentagon Papers, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), an assistant editor, tracks down the Times‘ source, gets the Papers, and the film finally kicks into gear in a sequence that lands the group in court and leads to a lot of white men mansplaining to Graham why she shouldn’t do any of this.

Graham was a hero of her time for making a difficult decision that incurred substantial risk to her person, including the loss of her company and possibly her freedom. We tend to take Streep’s acting prowess – and the inevitability of her receiving a Best Actress nomination, which she did for The Post, her 21st Oscar nod – for granted, but she is superb as Graham, a woman who senses the need to be a strong leader, yet faces internal doubts about her ability and external pressure from the old white men who constitute her board and advisors, led by Bradley Whitford at his most annoying (by design). The story of how a woman altered the course of an industry and possibly a country is, by itself, sufficient fodder for an entire film, but The Post seems to downplay it in stages, only to have it surge back to the surface at the end, including in an artificial scene near the end where she exits the courthouse and walks through a gauntlet of admiring women.

Odenkirk is the real revelation in the film, giving Bagdikian the perfect blend of nervous energy and dogged seriousness required for the reporter who breaks the story and almost can’t believe his own good fortune. I’ve seen little of Odenkirk’s work before but primarily knew of him as a comedian; here he seems like a seasoned character actor, completely credible as the determined, world-weary reporter who gets the scoop on gut instinct and some very old-fashioned hard work. I would have given him a Best Supporting Actor nomination over Woody Harrelson, easily, because The Post doesn’t work unless the actor in this role does his job.

Hanks, on the other hand, feels too much like he’s giving us an impersonation of Bradlee than a performance. There’s a clenched-teeth affect to his speech, and the way he’s written, he’s the too-perfect boss for a reporter, valuing the story over all else, without even desultory regard for the legal and financial consequences of losing the lawsuit over publishing the Papers.

The Post entertains, and on some superficial level, it educates, but this was written as an Important film for the masses, one that lays on a thick layer of simple lessons rather than challenging the audience in any way. To compensate for what might seem like the slow pacing of reporting out a story, the film has numerous jarring edits that almost cut characters off mid-sentence, and some of the tonal shifts between the hunt for the Papers and Graham dealing with men who think she’s a silly little woman are just as incongruent. The movie wants you to feel something, and I did – if you want to be proud to be an American, the First Amendment is about as good a reason as you’ll find, and the publication of the Papers and court case that followed were very much about the role of a free press in enforcing accountability of the highest officials in the federal government. Everything is just a bit too pat, too tidy to do that subject or Katherine Graham sufficient justice.

I still have The Darkest Hour to review and then need to see The Phantom Thread, at which point I’ll have all 9 Best Picture nominees and can at least start a discussion of how to rank them.

Call Me By Your Name.

Call Me By Your Name has been consistently lauded since the Toronto film festival in September as one of the best films of 2017, powered by a great lead performance from Timothee Chalamet and a gorgeous setting in northern Italy. It is a very different sort of film from anything to which you might compare it, and while it suffers at the top from languid pacing, the script delivers a powerhouse speech at the end that ties everything together in a way that gives the story its deeper meaning.

Adapted from a 2007 novel by Egyptian/Italian writer André Aciman (who has a brief cameo in the film as a flamboyantly gay friend of the main family), Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a summer romance between two young men, Elio (Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), when the latter comes to stay at the northern Italian summer house of Elio’s family. Set in 1983, Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg, looking very much like Good Will Hunting-era Robin Williams) is an archaeology professor who invites graduate students to stay with him each summer and help him with filing and other administrative tasks. Elio is dating a beautiful local girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel), but it becomes clear quite early that he’s attracted to Oliver, who seems more interested in chasing local women until Elio implies his feelings to Oliver while the two are running an errand in town. The romance between them blossoms late in the summer, and Oliver in particular seems aware of its ephemeral nature, especially in an era where homosexuality was still decades away from mainstream acceptance. Eventually, Oliver must return home to the United States, and Elio is left to cope with his grief and his new understanding of who he is.

The beginning of the film is … well, it’s romantic and unhurried if you like it, I suppose, but about 20 minutes into the movie, I was seriously questioning my commitment. The pacing is slow to the point of soporific. It isn’t just that so little happens, but that James Ivory’s script takes too much time setting the scene, which director Luca Guadagnino is more than happy to oblige by giving us beautiful shots of the country house, the pools, the river, the unnamed town, and so on. If you clipped the first half of Call Me By Your Name, you could turn it into a very compelling video for the Lombardy board of tourism.

The inflection point for the script comes when Elio hints to Oliver that he’s gay and attracted to his friend, to which Oliver’s immediate response is that they can’t discuss or act on these feelings, which he obviously reciprocates. Then the real story begins, including Elio’s awkward attempts to make Oliver jealous, in a stop-and-start pattern before they finally begin their clandestine affair. (Or what they think is clandestine; Elio’s parents are both highly educated, intelligent people, and there’s never any indication that they’re ignorant of what’s happening.)

Stuhlbarg’s performance for much of the film feels a bit too familiar as he does the socially awkward, highly intelligent professor act, but as the script approaches its end, his character emerges as a more complex, thoughtful, compassionate person than you might have had any reason to expect. The talk he gives to comfort Elio after Oliver has left Italy is beautiful and concise, accentuated by Stuhlbarg’s note-perfect delivery. Chalamet is outstanding as the conflicted, teenaged Elio, the most important and demanding role in the film, but he’s not matched by Hammer, who – in addition to sounding almost exactly like Jon Hamm – never quite fills out the role of Oliver, seeming more dismissive than aloof early in the film, then coming off as patronizing to Elio in moments where they’re supposed to be at their most intimate.

Call Me By Your Name has also received some unwanted and unwarranted attention for the nature of the central romance, which occurs between two men aged 24 and 17. The legal argument, that the age of consent in Italy is 14, never held much water for me, and reading about the film I thought how I might feel if my daughter were 17 and I had a 24-year-old houseguest strike up a romance with her. (Answer: Not great, Bob.) The script answers the question in two ways, however, by making it clear that the relationship is in no way predatory, but also because of the time and place in which the story occurs. Life as a gay man in 1983, even before the scourge of HIV, included few guarantees of happiness, so for Elio and Oliver to fail to seize the day when this one chance for a transcendent romance arrives would be its own tragedy. That point was still unclear to me until Stuhlbarg’s soliloquy, which rounded out the story without sermonizing.

The score features some lovely selections of classical songs for the piano – I particularly loved the use of “Une barque sur l’ocean,” a piece by Maurice Ravel – but the intrusion of the vocals from Sufjan Stevens’ contributions during the film itself was unfortunate, as was the decision to boost the volume of his first song, a reworking of “Futile Devices” from his The Age of Adz. The film makes much better use of one of Stevens’ new songs, “Visions of Gideon,” which plays over the final scene along with the credits and adds to the haunting melancholy of the film’s conclusion. (Also, the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” a favorite of mine from the new wave era, plays a small role in the plot.)

All of the predictions I’ve seen so far have Call Me By Your Name snagging a Best Picture nomination, with nods also for Guadagnino (Best Director), Chalamet (Best Actor), and one of Hammer or Stuhlbarg (Best Supporting Actor). I wouldn’t be surprised to see nominations as well for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, although perhaps I’m misplacing credit due to the Italian countryside. Garrel isn’t in the film enough to merit a nod for Best Supporting Actress, but I thought she was superb in a limited role. The soundtrack is ineligible for Best Original Score, unfortunately. I have no vote on the Oscars, of course, but Chalamet is the only candidate I’ve listed for whom I might vote … and I haven’t seen Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.