Sing Street.

Sing Street is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1980s, that also serves as an homage to the distinctive pop and new-wave sounds of the first half of that decade along with the new medium of the music video. Written and directed by John Carney, who wrote and directed the wonderful 2007 film Once (now a Tony Award-winning musical), Sing Street uses largely unknown actors and original music that manages to evoke classic ’80s pop tunes without directly ripping them off, and includes all kinds of little visual cues to remind those of us who grew up in that era of the atmosphere of the time. The film earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical or Comedy (it’s both), but didn’t earn a Best Song nomination, and was totally overlooked by the Oscars. I named it my #10 movie of 2016 on my post last weekend. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

The film follows Conor, the youngest of three children of squabbling Robert (Aidan Gillen, a.k.a. Mayor Carcetti from The Wire) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy, a.k.a. Mrs. S from Orphan Black), as he’s moved from a posh private school to a free school run by the Christian Brothers called Synge Street, named for the Dublin street on which it’s located. (The street and school are both real.) Conor’s bullied right away by the tough kids in the new school, but spots an attractive girl standing across the street – complete with ’80s big hair – and lies about being in a band to try to impress her, asking her to be in their first video. Then he has to make a band, which becomes Sing Street, and launches the remainder of the story, along with the film’s wonderful soundtrack.

Each Sing Street song is a thematic copy of something that’s popular at the moment, like Duran Duran’s “Rio” or Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” If you remember the ’80s act Danny Wilson, who had a minor hit in the U.S. in 1988 called “Mary’s Prayer,” their lead singer Gary Clark wrote most of the music for Sing Street, and has a clear knack for this sort of knockoff – the song that sounds like some other song, but has enough of a hook to work on its own, with new and often quite clever lyrics. I’m far from the only person who thought “Drive It Like You Stole It” was robbed of an Oscar nomination – neither Sting’s version of the same song he’s been rewriting since “They Dance Alone” or that awful Timberlake song where he trolls the entire world deserved a spot over this one – but you could make a case for “Up” or closer “Brown Shoes” too.

The story itself is a little light, and we’re mostly just following the two main characters, Conor and Raphina, as they start to grow up a little, make some mistakes, and develop a sort of teenage crush. Everyone else is comic relief, including Conor’s manic, frustrated musician brother Brendan (played by American actor Jack Reynor, who’s great except for his bad Irish accent); Mark McKenna as rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist wizard Eamon; and even class bully Barry, who has a predictably awful home life but gets his little moment in the sun. And Carney works in several ’80s music-video tropes, including shots of the main couple running out of a concert hall or the two of them running down the alley in the half-light, as well as clips of the band filming amateur music videos that imitate the stuff they’ve seen on TV.

Carney himself has said he regrets the ending, joking that he wishes he’d killed the two protagonists off, but I found his comments puzzling because, before I saw his comments, I didn’t think the ending was so unambiguously happy. Other than the clear reference to “Rio,” except for Conor getting poured on as opposed to Simon LeBon basking in sunshine, the ending seemed open-ended and doubtful to me. There’s no real reason to believe good things are going to happen to either character in what would hypothetically follow the final sequence. It’s an escape, because the film itself (and the music videos that inspired it) is an escape, but the characters are only escaping from, not escaping to. To compare it to the other great musical of 2016, La La Land, there’s probably no chance Conor and Raphina are staying together for long. They’re two kids in something like love, doing something rash and impetuous that probably won’t work out, but so what?

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo has a star-making turn as Conor, playing him with little flashes of the charisma of a lead singer, but primarily as a shy, slightly nerdy kid who’s barely coming into his own over the course of the film. He was 16 when it was filmed and won’t turn 18 until this October, if you want to wonder what you’ve done with your life. Lucy Boynton has less to do as Raphina, but she manages to pull off a solid combination of insecurity and superficial haughtiness, while also proving to be quite the chameleon as the costume and makeup folks run her through a series of looks that are unquestionably ’80s and best left there. (She’s also going to appear in the upcoming film version of Murder on the Orient Express.) Walsh-Peelo is the one I’d like to see some more, though, since he sang his own vocals and has a certain presence even behind his character’s meekness.

For more on how Carney & company created the convincing sounds of a band of teenagers who’ve just started playing together, I recommend this piece from MIX magazine.

Author: The JT Leroy Story.

I’ll be doing a Facebook Live event on Monday at 11 am ET as part of our buildup to the April 25th release of my book Smart Baseball. I also have a new boardgame review up at Paste, covering the cooperative game for kids Mole Rats in Space, from the designer of Pandemic.

Author: The JT Leroy Story is an unusual documentary because its subject, Laura Albert, recorded many of the phone calls she made during the time period where she was posing as the bestselling author who, it turned out, wasn’t real. Albert herself does most of the talking in the film, which makes it so much more compelling than many documentaries (but raises reasonable questions about the reliability of what we’re hearing), and makes the film’s revelation at the end that much more effective of a stomach-punch and an explanation for so much of what came before. The film was nominated for a Writers’ Guild award for Best Documentary Screenplay and is free on amazon prime.

JT Leroy was a fictional author who wrote real books, an HIV-positive teenager/young adult who had worked as a truck-stop prostitute and been pimped out by his drug-addicted prostitute mother, and who expressed genderfluid feelings before that was part of the common vernacular. He was either the creation of Albert, a woman in her mid-30s at the time of Leroy’s ascension, or a separate ‘avatar’ who expressed himself through her; Albert seems to vacillate between explanations, but is clear that this isn’t dissociative identity disorder, at least. She ‘became’ Leroy to write, and wrote fictional stories about what were supposedly his real-life experiences. Leroy’s first two novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, were critically acclaimed and became best-sellers, earning the author a cult following that extended to the celebrity world, only some of whom appear to have been aware that Albert was the actual writer behind the works.

In 2005, a New York article outed Albert as the writer behind Leroy and her sister-in-law as the person acting as Leroy in public, with the New York Times later corroborating the story. Painted as a grand hoax, Albert’s authorship of Leroy’s works doesn’t seem analogous to hoaxers like James Frey or plagiarists like Q.R. Markham; Leroy’s novels were original works of fiction, and never presented to anyone as fact. At most, they were said to be based on fact, or inspired by it, which is false but shouldn’t alter anyone’s perceptions of the quality of the content. (I haven’t read any of Albert’s works under any name and thus have no opinion on whether any of it is good.)

Author attempts to answer two questions about the scandal. One is simply to tell everyone what happened, because the story was major news for a few weeks in 2005-06, and then faded away as such controversies do, especially since in this case the only harm done to anyone was to the film company that eventually sued Albert for fraud. (She signed the option contract as JT Leroy, rather than under her own name.) The documentary gives us the story from Albert’s perspective, punctuated by dozens recordings of phone calls with her publisher, her therapist, her friends, and celebrities who befriended Leroy or Albert (including Billy Corgan and Courtney Love), plus a few others who appear on camera to discuss their roles in helping bring Leroy to the reading public.

The second question is always the toughest for any documentary to answer – the reason(s) why – although in this case, Author at least gives us the central figure’s own explanation with some supporting evidence. The filmmakers here chose to leave the biggest revelation until the end of the film, a gimmick that I found extremely effective, because instead of essentially absolving Albert up front for everything that comes afterwards, Author tells you everything that happened (through Albert’s lens) and then finishes up by giving us a clue on what spark may have started the conflagration.

Author lacks the completeness that a thorough documentary requires; Savannah Knoop, who posed as Leroy in public, appears just once near the end of the film, and Geoff Knoop, Albert’s husband at the time, is nowhere to be found. All we’re getting is Albert’s retelling of the story, in which she takes some responsibility but also depicts herself as someone wronged by media coverage of Leroy as a “hoax” rather than an avatar of a pseudonymous writer. I admit to finding hoaxes fascinating, largely for the motivations of the perpetrators and their general belief that they won’t get caught, and Albert has a reasonable complaint that she’s been treated unfairly. If you thought the novel had literary merit, is that merit diminished at all just because the author wasn’t actually male, young, genderfluid, or HIV-positive?

A Man Called Ove.

A Man Called Ove was one of five nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, won by the preseason favorite, the Iranian movie The Salesman, whose director had won previously for the amazing film A Separation. Ove was Sweden’s submission for the award, and it is a perfectly serviceable movie but not remarkable in any way. It’s just very well-made and well-acted, but it’s based on a best-selling book of the same name that seems like the sort feel-good pablum that offers a superficial meaning-of-life message like “be nice to others.”

Ove is a grumpy old man, recently widowed, obsessed with following and enforcing rules, making enemies of everyone in his little planned community. He’s utterly miserable and tries multiple times in the film to kill himself to be with his beloved wife, Sonja. When a new family moves in, with the father Swedish and the mother, Parvaneh, of Iranian descent, they interrupt more than one of these suicide attempts, and the mother seems totally immune to his misanthropy, forcing herself into his life, making him teach her to drive and even to watch her kids one night, to the point where she cracks his exterior and gets him to tell her (and us) his life story. In the end, Ove becomes a changed man, a friend to all, a grandfather surrogate to her kids, and I’m sure you can guess what happens after that. (It’s available to rent on amazon and iTunes.)

This movie goes nowhere without the performance of Rolf Lassgård as Ove (pronounced “OOH-vuh”), a turn that won him the Swedish equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Actor. Ove is the only nuanced character in the entire film, a grumpy old man whose grumpiness is a cover for misery, loneliness, and a return to the chronic shyness that plagued him pre-Sonja. There’s something inexplicable in his resistance to kind overtures from neighbors, or simple requests from one woman he’s known for decades to help fix her radiator. (The reason turns out to be both funny and stupid at once.) It seems like Lassgård had a harder task because he was playing a character whose complexity was compromised by the absurdity of his behavior.

The story itself is faintly ridiculous, not least because the movie never gives us a single reason to think that Sonja, who is kind, intelligent, and very pretty, would have the slightest interest in the insular, moody, and unromantic Ove. He doesn’t so much pursue her as stalk her, and she responds by more or less leading him around by the nose. They have almost nothing in common, and their personalities are dead opposites. I can see why she illuminated Ove’s life to the point where he says there was nothing before Sonja and there is nothing after her, but what exactly did she see in him?

(Incidentally, part of why I found Sonja so compelling was her taste in literature. When they first meet, she’s reading The Master and Margarita, my favorite novel ever.)

Parvaneh is too relentlessly positive to be realistic, and the fact that she’s already very pregnant at the start of the movie means we know that baby is going to pop out before the film ends, probably at a dramatic or inopportune moment. (It’s like Chekhov’s gun.) The story checks all the boxes about modern prejudice – we see Ove get over his casual sexism, racism, and homophobia over the course of the film. And one of the various subplots in the story, the fate of Ove’s neighbor and former rival Rune, has an utterly ridiculous deus-ex sort of resolution that undermined all of the details that came before it. None of this made Ove’s revival in the film’s final 20 minutes any less emotional to watch, but when A Man Called Ove was done, I had the distinct feeling of having consumed a lot of empty calories.

Oscar picks and movie rankings.

It’s Oscars Sunday, and for the first time since the 2013 ceremony, I’ve seen the majority of the nominees for Best Picture and several other categories. Here are my rankings of all of the 2016 movies I saw, based on release date or Oscar eligibility. Any linked titles go to reviews. As I review a couple more of these this week, I’ll update this post to link to them.

1. La La Land
2. Moonlight
3. Manchester by the Sea
4. O.J.: Made in America
5. Tanna
6. Arrival
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
8. Tower
9. The Lobster
10. Sing Street
11. Fences
12. Loving
13. Zootopia
14. Hell or High Water
15. Moana
16. Hail Caesar
17. Fire At Sea
18. Love & Friendship
19. Kubo and the Two Strings
20. Author: The JT Leroy Story
21. Midnight Special
22. Louder than Bombs
23. Finding Dory
24. Life, Animated
25. I am Not Your Negro
26. A Man Called Ove
27. The Red Turtle
28. Hidden Figures
29. The 13th
30. Phantom Boy

I’ve still got a half-dozen or so 2016 movies I want to see, which I’ll mention as I go through the remainder of the post.

I don’t pretend to any insider knowledge of the Oscars, so any predictions here are just for fun, and I think I only managed to run the table of nominees in one category, so don’t take my opinions too seriously.

Best Picture

Who should win: I’ve got La La Land as the best movie of the year, although I think Moonlight is more than worthy too.

Who will win: The heavy betting has been on La La Land all year and I don’t pretend to know any better.

I haven’t seen: Lion, which I’ll see eventually, and Hacksaw Ridge, which I won’t see because the director is an anti-Semitic domestic abuser.

Who was snubbed: All the movies I have in my top ten that didn’t make the final nine nominees would have been extreme surprises if they’d earned nods. I think O.J.: Made in America was the best movie not nominated, but if we’re limiting to realistic candidates, then Loving would be my pick.

Best Director

See above. I know sometimes these two categories are split, but I usually don’t understand it when it happens, and can’t imagine that happening this year.

Best Actor

Who should win: Casey Affleck gave one of the best performances I’ve seen in years in Manchester by the Sea. The only reason I could see for him to lose out to Denzel Washington would be Affleck’s off-screen issues – he has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment.

Who will win: I’d give Affleck 55/45 odds over Denzel.

I haven’t seen: Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) or Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge).

Who was snubbed: Colin Farrell was terrific in The Lobster. And A Man Called Ove fails utterly without Rolf Lassgård’s performance as the title character.

Best Actress

Who should win: I think Emma Stone for La La Land, but I’ve only seen two of the five nominated performances.

Who will win: Stone seems like a lock.

I haven’t seen: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), or Natalie Portman (Jackie). That last film just hit digital last week, so when it becomes a rental option I’ll see it. I won’t see Elle.

Who was snubbed: Amy Adams for Arrival.

Best Supporting Actor

Who should win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

Who will win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Dev Patel (Lion) or Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals). I’ll get Lion soon.

Who was snubbed: I thought Kevin Costner was pretty great in Hidden Figures, one of the only characters with any complexity in that film. Shannon was excellent in Midnight Special, but he’s just kind of great in everything.

Best Supporting Actress

Who should win: Viola Davis for Fences, which was really more of a lead performance. She owns the second half of that film.

Who will win: Davis.

I haven’t seen: Nicole Kidman (Lion).

Who was snubbed: Octavia Spencer got a nomination here for Hidden Figures, so was Taraji Henson submitted in the lead category for the same film? If Henson was eligible for this category, she was better in a harder role than Michelle Williams’ brief appearances in Manchester by the Sea. I also thought Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) and Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) were worthy.

Animated Feature

Who should win: Tough call for me, but of the four I’ve seen I’d give the nod to Zootopia for the best combination of animation quality, story, and voice acting.

Who will win: I think Zootopia wins this too.

I haven’t seen: My Life as a Zucchini opens in Philly this upcoming weekend and in Wilmington the following Friday. I’m dying to see it.

Who was snubbed: Finding Dory wasn’t a great film by Pixar standards but I think in many years it gets a nod, perhaps losing out because there were two other Disney films in the category.

Cinematography

Who should win: I think of the three nominees I’ve seen, I’d give the nod to Arrival.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: Lion or Silence. Adnan Virk loved Silence – I think he named it his top movie for 2016 – but I think I’ll pass given its length and my short attention span.

Who was snubbed: Hell or High Water was beautifully shot, with wide pans of the New Mexican landscapes.

Documentary Feature

Who should win: It’s almost unfair that the seven-hour O.J.: Made in America documentary (from ESPN) is eligible in this category, but it is, and it’s among the best documentaries I’ve ever seen regardless of length or format.

Who will win: O.J.: Made in America. If anything else wins, it’ll be a travesty.

I haven’t seen: None. I got all five here.

Who was snubbed: Tower was absolutely deserving of a spot over at least three of the other four nominees; I could see an argument Fire at Sea over Tower, even if I don’t agree with it.

Foreign Language Film

Who should win: I have only seen two of the five, and neither of the two that appear to be the critical favorites. Tanna would be more than worthy of the honor, but I can’t say if it’s better than the two leaders.

Who will win: It sounds like The Salesman is going to win, because it’s a great film and because of the Muslim ban’s effect on its director.

I haven’t seen: The Salesman, Toni Erdmann, or Land of Mine. I will probably have to wait for digital options for all three.

Who was snubbed: I haven’t seen any other foreign-language films from 2016, but am very interested in seeing two films on the shortlist, Neruda (from Chile), which I just missed the one weekend it was playing near me, and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (from Finland), which hasn’t been released anywhere here or online that I can see. That latter film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes through 13 reviews.

Music (original song)

Who should win: Tough call for me, but I think La La Land‘s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” hits the right combination of great song and essential to the film’s story, over Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go,” which I’d say is the better song outside the context of the movies. That said, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a national treasure and I will never be upset to see him give an acceptance speech.

Who will win: I get the sense “City of Stars” is the favorite here.

I haven’t seen: I didn’t see Jim: The James Foley Story but I’ve heard the nominated song, “The Empty Chair.”

Who was snubbed: Sing Street‘s total absence here is a farce. “Drive It Like You Stole It” was my favorite from the film, but I could argue for a couple of others as well. Also, my favorite song from Moana was actually “We Know the Way.”

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Who should win: This is Moonlight‘s to lose.

Who will win: Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Lion.

Who was snubbed: The screenplay for Loving was deemed to be “adapted” by the Academy, although the Writers’ Guild classified it as original.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Who should win: The Lobster.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: 20th Century Women.

Who was snubbed: Tanna.

The Red Turtle.

If you saw that The Red Turtle came from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and figured this was another charmer from the producers of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, well, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. This 80-minute, dialogue-free film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature this year, is by turns dark, pensive, and bizarre, operating almost entirely on a metaphorical level to elevate its paper-thin plot to something much more. And I still couldn’t really tell you how much I liked the film.

The movie opens with a man apparently surviving a shipwreck and washing up on a very remote tropical island, from which he begins to try to escape by building rather ornate rafts. Each time he tries to sail away, however, an unseen creature, which turns out to be the turtle of the title, smashes his raft to bits, so when the turtle comes ashore at one point, he attacks it and flips it over, leaving it to die. Somehow, this causes the turtle to morph into a woman, who then becomes the man’s mate, with the second half of the story following their life together as a couple and eventually parents of a young boy.

There isn’t even really that much of a story – we see a few events, like a tidal wave destroying much of the island, but so little happens here that I couldn’t process the movie in my head without immediately considering its possible metaphorical meanings. The arc of the entire movie has the main character starting at sea, landing, starting a family, growing old, and … well, the movie can only end in one or two ways, so I’ll leave it at that.

So what does the turtle/woman represent? I haven’t settled this in my own mind yet, but I think the turtle – the only red one in the film, as there are lots of turtles, but the rest are green – might stand in for maturity, or the way that the world forces maturity on us. Faced with the terrifying prospect of being stranded forever (growing up), the man tries to escape multiple times rather than facing the reality of the situation. The turtle prevents him from running away (and perhaps dying in the process), and only when he accepts that he has to stay can he continue with his life, at which point the turtle becomes his partner and eventually the mother of his child. But the turtle could represent commitment, or religion, or something else that he was fleeing before we first see him adrift in a storm.

The Red Turtle also has a strong ecological underpinning, with the man wholly dependent on the island for his survival. He begins by battling his environment, including the overt fight with the turtle, before submitting to his fate, and developing a way to support himself and eventually the woman and their child off what the island can provide them. If this was a deliberate theme, it comes through more in the animation itself than the story; the natural elements, especially the water and the foliage, around the island are drawn more delicately and thoroughly, with greater depth and complexity of color, than the relatively plain, barely-drawn people. If nothing else, I inferred that the filmmaker, Michaël Dudok de Wit, loves nature.

The film as a whole is dark, visually, in literal contrast to the other four nominees plus Finding Dory. The combination of the muted color palette and the lack of dialogue or significant action made the film seem a lot longer than it actually was; I enjoy some philosophical works of fiction, whether on the page or the screen, but perhaps The Red Turtle left too much of the deep thinking to me rather than putting it on the screen. This is the movie that wins the art film festival award, but if I were an Oscar voter, I would put it fourth among the four nominees I’ve seen for the category. (I haven’t seen My Life as a Zucchini yet, but I saw the trailer before this film, and it’s bright and colorful and looks absolutely fantastic; it opens in Philly on March 4th and here in Wilmington a week later.)

Hidden Figures.

The story of the three African-American women who broke through color and gender barriers at NASA in the 1960s makes perfect fodder for a Hollywood movie, and Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name, has become a surprise commercial success, earning more than any of the other eight nominees for Best Picture this year. The story itself is wonderful, a fairy tale of talented women of color whose good work was recognized for what it was and who persevered through an era that didn’t respect them as people to help develop the American space program. But this movie … this is a movie for kids. Even with lots of great performances, it’s incredibly bland, and it’s hard for me to believe that the truth was this simple.

The story revolves around Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn, the three women, all black, all working at NASA, all relegated to the “colored computer” room – a time when a computer was a person who computed, not a machine that did it for you. Goble (Taraji Henson, who gives the film’s best performance) was a child prodigy in math, according to the film, solving quadratic equations when most kids were doing arithmetic, and has become an adult who can, apparently, do trigonometry in her head. Her story is the most central of the three, as she’s drafted to fill an opening in the Space Task program, one that no white man was able to handle, working for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, who’s pretty fantastic as well), a character made up for the movie. (NASA has a brief FAQ that explains that several of the white characters in the film aren’t real, but that John Glenn really did ask for “the girl” to double-check the calculations.) Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) ran the colored computer room and ends up teaching herself Fortran, one of the earliest programming languages, so she can run the new IBM mainframe NASA is installing. Jackson (Janelle Monae) has the least to do in the film, but became the first black female engineer at NASA, thanks in part to her challenge of a whites-only rule at the school where the classes she needed to take were offered.

The three actresses who play the three women do well with what they’re given, but the characters we see on screen are just a little too cute and the story created a bunch of fake obstacles for them to overcome. The “colored” bathroom detail is inaccurate, but forms a big and very silly part of the story. (Plus the script makes Goble appear to be a klutz.) I wouldn’t want such a script to create fake racism for the women to face, but at the same time, I find it very hard to believe that this was the height of the interference for three black women in Virginia circa 1960, a state where many facilities were truly still segregated and mixed-race marriages were still illegal. Did Goble’s white male colleagues in the Space Task program really go no further than asking her to use a separate coffee pot? And did we really need the white savior figure in the pastiche character of Harrison to force everyone else to accept Goble as part of the team?

There are a lot of recognizable faces among the remainder of the cast, delivering mixed results. Kirsten Dunst, also playing a character contrived for the story, plays the garden-variety Southern white racist woman who seems to think she’s not racist. She was just missing her Sunday hat to make the stereotype complete. Mahershala Ali, who appeared with Monae in Moonlight, appears as a very one-dimensional love interest for the widowed Goble. (The scene where his character proposes is more saccharine than a case of TaB.) Glenn Powell, who was so damn good as the philosophical Finn in Everybody Wants Some!!, is incredibly charming as John Glenn, but that character was written with less nuance than anyone – he’s the Great American Hero, so let’s not tarnish him in any way.

The truth behind Hidden Figures had to be more interesting than what we’re getting here on film. This version feels like it was made for kids – and my ten-year-old daughter absolutely loved it across the board. She loved that the women outsmarted the men, that racism took the L, that science and math were at the heart of the story, and that it says women can do STEM jobs just as well as men. But it didn’t exactly give her a fair picture of race in America at the time of the story, either, and when she asked if it was really “like that” afterwards, I told her that it was probably much worse. These three women deserved a better story than the one they got here, even if the truth is uglier than we’d like it to be.

Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Oscars, or perhaps one of the four nominees that’s going to lose to Zootopia … although I could craft a good argument for Kubo winning instead, especially if the quality of the animation and visual style count as much as the story and voice acting do. It’s available to rent or buy (just $10) on amazon and iTunes.

Kubo is a 3D stop-motion film from the same studio that produced Coraline (which is fantastic), Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, all also filmed with stop-motion animation, a painstaking process of which you get a glimpse if you hang around through Kubo‘s closing credits. It’s incredible to look at and I found it hard to believe some parts were done via stop-motion because they were too smooth and vivid, things we would normally associate with computer animation like Pixar uses in its best-in-breed films.

Kubo is the main character, a one-eyed young boy who lives in a cave outside of his village with his ailing mother, whose grip on reality seems to ebb and flow with the daylight. She tells him heroic stories of his father, Hanzo, a warrior who disappeared while trying to protect his family, and Kubo repeats those stories by day in the town square, using his magic shamisen, which builds and animates origami figures as he plays and talks. By night, he must return to the cave, or his evil grandfather and aunts will return to try to steal his other eye to make their powers complete.

Needless to say, he stays out one night, there’s a battle, and Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s missing armor so he can protect himself from his grandfather (voiced by Ralph Fiennes, who is a little too good at the whole villain thing). He’s joined by Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a totem he kept who was animated by his mother’s last burst of magic, and eventually Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a giant insect samurai with meory loss, who help him try to retrieve the three parts of the armor and perhaps learn some Valuable Lessons along the way.

The story is a bit hackneyed, but the characters themselves are well-written and there’s plenty of humor within it to keep it from feeling too much like a fable. McConaughey gives a pretty good Buzz Lightyear performance as the flawed hero, mixing in bravado with the absent-mindedness that provides a lot of the comic relief. But Kubo is more of a visual feast than a great story – it’s just such a beautiful and unique-looking film that even the slower sequences when the quest first begins are still riveting.

I’ll also mention Finding Dory quickly here – it wasn’t nominated, falling behind two other Disney properties and two foreign films, and I can see why. It felt a lot like the softer version of Finding Nemo, with a lot less of the first film’s wonder and more feel-good elements – although I thought showing two sequences where Dory is separated from her family might be too much for younger kids. It’s a stunning film to watch, as Pixar manages to animate water and other difficult substances like nobody else in animation history, and I enjoyed the Wire reunion of Idris Elba and Dominic West as sea lions sharing a rock. It’s free to stream on Netflix now.

Tanna.

Tanna is one of the five nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, despite the fact that it was Australia’s official entry in the category. (They speak English there, regardless of what those awful beer commercials say.) The movie takes place on the island of Tanna in the archipelago nation of Vanuatu, and all dialogue is in local Tanna languages, mostly Nauvhal (Nivhaal), a language with fewer than 5,000 native speakers. It’s one of the ten best movies I’ve seen from 2016 across all categories, a simple story perfectly told, with beautiful cinematography and stunning performances from Tanna natives with no acting experience. It’s available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Tanna itself is based on the true story of a young native couple who, in 1987, wished to marry for love rather than partake in the custom of arranged marriages between tribes (known as Kastom). The couple, the son of the deceased chief of the tribe at the center of the story and the girl who’s being promised to their rivals, choose to run away together, sparking a hunt for them around the island and the potential for war between the tribes. You can probably guess how this is going to end, which is also part of the actual story, but it’s how we get to that point that makes the movie click.

The background itself is mesmerizing – this film could double as a Vanuatu Tourism video, with the kind of lush jungles and deep blue waters that eco-tourists dream about. But the filmmakers also choose to deploy this asset wisely, since the film could easily be nothing but wide shots of the island, the forests, the volcano where the Spirit Mother resides (to which the islanders go frequently), or the waterways. The tribes depend largely on the land for everything, including food, shelter, and clothing, so it’s prevalent in just about every shot in the movie, even when the camera focuses tightly on one or two characters.

(The island itself was hit extremely hard by Cyclone Pam in 2015, not too long after filming was completely, with substantial infrastructure damage, and is still recovering nearly two years later.)

Once you get past the glorious sights of the island, it’s the performances by the amateur actors that carries Tanna. The actors all played characters with their actual names – Wawa is played by Marie Wawa, Dain (pronounced Dah-een) is played by Mungau Dain and was chosen because he was the best-looking member of the tribe. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, none of the members of the Yakel tribe had ever seen a movie, so the filmmakers strung up a sheet and showed them one to give the locals an idea of what they wanted to do. (Article contains spoilers.) There isn’t a false note in anyone’s performance here, not the young girl who plays Wawa’s sister, not the old men who play the Chief (the Yakels’ actual chief) and other elders. Even Dain manages to play the brooding romantic lead like a Hollywood veteran.

The production is a touch overdone at some spots, with needless flourishes that just don’t add to the film. When Selin, Wawa’s younger sister, tries to grab a mushroom off a tree and is warned that it’s terribly poisonous, you know it’s going to come up again (Chekhov’s gun, in a gun-free society). When Wawa and Dain embrace at the volcano’s rim, we don’t really need the volcano to spout sparks behind them to push the point home. Tanna‘s simplicity is its greatest strength, a straightforward story that puts these actors at the center, showing us the natives’ culture and history without condescension. The direction isn’t heavy-handed, but has moments where the touch could have been even lighter.

This is the first of the five Best Foreign Film nominees I’ve seen, but it certainly sets the bar for the category; I’ll do a ranking on Sunday, but this might end up in my top five overall. A Man Called Ove, another foreign-film nominee, is also available online, while the other three are still kicking around in art/indie theaters. I thought that the German-language Toni Erdmann might be the favorite based on early buzz, but Tanna seems to have a little hype behind it now and it’s certainly worthy of the honor.

Arrival.

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, another nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture, is something of a rarity in movies these days: a major-studio film with a thoughtful, intelligent script that challenges the viewer with big philosophical questions while also satisfying everyone’s desire for a compelling plot. Based on a Nebula Award-winning short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life,” Arrival looks like a story about humanity’s first contact with an alien race, but in the end it’s truly about human happiness and how knowing the future might change your choices in the present. (It’s now available to rent/buy via amazon and iTunes.)

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a polyglot and linguistics professor who is summoned by the US Army when twelve alien spacecraft land around the globe, including in one remote spot in Montana where most of the movie takes place. Before that, we see a brief overview of Louise’s story outside of the alien visit, where she’s married, has a baby, but loses the child to a rare disease in adolescence. At the landing site, she meets physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker, using a bizarre accent), and begins the process of trying to communicate with the aliens, dubbed “heptapods” because they have seven legs. They write in a pictograph-like script of circular images that deliver entire sentences in one symbol because the heptapods perceive time in a different way than humans do, and the center of the film revolves around the effort to establish for the two species to interact.

It’s an incredibly academic story at its heart; I joked on Twitter that this was the best film ever made about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is also the core subject of a book by Samuel Delany, Babel-17, currently sitting on my to-read shelf. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer could have skipped over a lot of the details, but instead treated the topic seriously, consulting linguists, developing a consistent writing system for the heptapods, and spending a fair portion of the script on showing us Louise’s efforts. The script treats the viewers like intelligent adults, and that was probably my favorite aspect of the film.

Great science fiction stories should just be great stories, period, in different settings. Once the science part of the science fiction takes over too much (like Red Mars, the most egregious example of this I’ve ever read), the whole endeavor suffers. Arrival manages to strike a perfect balance between its two halves – there’s enough of the science-y stuff to satisfy genre fans, but this remains a fundamentally strong story about people. This is a story about Louise, and about how we choose to live our lives, including whether we’d do something different if we perceived time the way the heptapods do. In that sense, it’s smart, emotional, and very thought-provoking; I saw this movie three days ago and am still turning the ending over and over in my mind.

I’m floored that Amy Adams didn’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance here; I’d probably have given her a nod over Ruth Negga from Loving, but I haven’t seen three of the other nominees yet. (As great as Meryl Streep always is, I also wonder if she’s just an automatic nominee at this point in her career.) Renner doesn’t have a ton to do here, although I think he also infuses humanity into what could have been a stereotypical “brilliant but aloof scientist” role. Whitaker’s weird accent, best described as “drunk Bostonian,” was a terrible idea poorly executed, and his character is the most one-dimensional of all, serving as the “we’re running out of time!” guy in most of his scenes. It’s not quite a solo record from Adams, but it’s pretty close, enough that the film sinks or swims with her performance, and I think she nailed every aspect of it. (I was also mildly amused by their attempts to make her look a little frumpy, especially when she’s at the university. Needless to say, it didn’t take.)

I’m dancing around the film’s twist, although rather than one big reveal moment, Arrival gives it to you gradually to pick up over the course of the story. I thought it worked on two levels – as a surprise revelation, but also as a way to change the entire meaning of the film. Without that, the film is smart; with it, it’s clever. The story really stuck with me in a way that other great movies of 2016, including Moonlight, didn’t. Between that and Adams’ performance, I can at least see how it ended up with a Best Picture nomination, although I would put it behind at least three other films that also received nods in that category, as well as at least two films that didn’t get nominations.

Fire at Sea.

Fire at Sea is about as far from a typical documentary as you can get; it feels for much of its two hours like you’re watching something unpackaged, an actual slice of life (and death) that hasn’t been cleaned up and edited for maximum impact. The film, which just hit iTunes two days ago, has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and became the first feature-length documentary to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, all the more remarkable to me for how peculiar a film it is. It’s available now on iTunes, but not yet on amazon.

Director Gianfranco Rosi wanted to show the real impacts of the migrant crisis, including the massive losses of life among those attempting to cross the Mediterranean in substandard boats, often after the refugees have paid hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for passage. They come from all over Africa, but they’re all fleeing war and/or extreme poverty, from failed states like Somalia and Libya, Islamist-held northern Nigeria, war-torn Syria, or just countries kept poor by repressive regimes in Chad and Eritrea. Rosi shows the boats arriving on the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy, about 200 km south of Sicily and closer to Tunisia than to any other country. With a population of just over 6000 people, Lampedusa has been overwhelmed by the inflow of migrants, and over 1500 migrants died at sea just in the first four months of 2015, part of the period where Rosi shot this film.

There are three intertwined narratives in Fire at Sea, but I found one of them never quite connected with the other two. The first involves the ships themselves – the Lampedusan and Italian authorities’ responses to distress calls from ships, efforts to bring them in safely, and their organized processing of migrants when the ships come into port. (Forgive my surprise, but as someone who’s ¾ Italian with quite a bit of family still there, I can say organization is not something for which Italians are known.) One ship, with 150 or so people on it, never arrives. Others arrive with some migrants dehydrated, burned, beaten, or dead, having traveled for a week in inhumane conditions. Rosi does nothing more than show their misery, to put faces to the statistics, and even show a few moments in the migrant camps, like what appears to be an impromptu soccer league organized by country of origin.

The second involves the main doctor who helps in the rescue efforts, and who speaks of the human tragedy he witnesses. He describes the conditions in the boats, the way that one boy is near death because of chemical burns, the corpses he has to count. It’s clear the job is taking an emotional toll on him as well, but he views helping the migrants as a moral obligation. But that third narrative, of a local family, a fisherman, his wife, and their misbehaving, obnoxious son, who is obsessed with making slingshots and slurps his spaghetti when he eats – seriously, I had to mute that scene – never tied into the rest of the story. Lampedusa is a small place, so it made sense to try to show us the migrant crisis through the eyes of the locals, like the doctor, but I never could figure out how the fisherman and his son or the radio station taking requests from older spouses tied into the bigger story. Rosi told NPR that he wanted to show the separation of the local population from the migrants and the operation that processes them, but I thought the result was just disjointed, and the kid is so unlikable that it detracted from the rest of the movie. (One exception: when he’s describing being short of breath to the doctor, there’s some unintentional comedy, because he’s clearly mimicking adults in words and gestures.)

The good stuff in Fire at Sea is Oscar-worthy – it’s an important topic, and one that provokes anger, xenophobia, and compassion in different people, but Rosi stays out of the way of the story. There’s no narration. There’s minimal conversation, period. You’re a witness to sordid history, which is something every documentarian should aspire to give the viewer. And I found it hard to see the migrants or hear them talk without imagining how awful the places they left must be that they would cross the Sahara, pay their life savings, and accept being packed into a tiny boat like anchovies in a tin just for the shot at something better in Europe – if they don’t die trying. That’s the real story of Fire at Sea and I would have been glad to have more of it.

I don’t think I’ll get the fifth Best Documentary Feature nominee, I Am Not Your Negro, before the Oscar ceremony, but of the four I have seen, I think ESPN’s own O.J.: Made in America is clearly the best, even if I discount it a little for being almost four times longer than the other nominees. It tells its story better than the other three told theirs, which is more important to me than the broader scope it achieves through its length.