Here are some unsolicited thoughts on the Oscars and reviews of some films you might have missed.
I’m an inveterate Academy Awards watcher, one who has viewed the oft-times unwieldy, sometimes sanctimonious, occasionally irreverent, rarely surprising, and all-too-often stupefying spectacle since I was a wee lad pleading with my parents to stay up way past my bedtime.
This year I turned it off early (I caught up with it the next day on Hulu), since this particular ceremony, after a striking opening with presenter Regina King, petered out rapidly through the incessant inclusion of nominees’ life stories, recollections and genuflections. When—let’s face it—many of us wanted film clips of the actors and supporting actors, those little moments that might even spark the casual viewer to seek out a certain film. Yes, there were funny acceptance speeches (Youn Yuh-Yung for Best Supporting Actress), inspiring moments of eloquence (Tyler Perry accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award) and good sport Glenn Close (she lost yet again) showing off her dance moves.
There was also the (unintended) anti-Hollywood ending, in which the producers (Steven Soderbergh) switched the order of the Awards and pinned all their hopes on what they perceived to be the inevitable outcome: the late Chadwick Boseman winning Best Actor for his exceptional work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
However, in a move that shocked and disappointed practically everyone (but should have surprised no one), Anthony Hopkins won for “The Father,” but not in attendance—leaving presenter Joaquin Phoenix to accept the award and the show to abruptly end. I know hindsight is 20/20, but perhaps the Awards order could have been left as is—with a special tribute to Mr. Boseman at the conclusion (especially if he did not win the Oscar). Though this might have struck some as too much of a special circumstance, consider Chadwick Boseman: In his too-brief career, he etched indelible portraits of heroes both super and real. These characters were flawed but that made their achievements all the more compelling and accessible. The actor—and his impact—became much more than the sum of his parts. Bozeman was a man who epitomized grace under pressure, as it became clear that his most recent performances were produced under unimaginable physical obstacles. That his death came as a genuine shock to many reflected the great respect the media had for the actor. Would a tribute have been unusual? Yes, but few would argue it wasn’t deserved.
Which brings me to some of the films that may have heretofore escaped your radar, but might have aroused your curiosity if you were among those (relatively few) that stayed with the Oscars:
“The Trial of the Chicago Seven” (Netflix) from Aaron Sorkin and “Promising Young Woman” were reviewed earlier, but they’re both films that are well worth seeking out (either of them would have been my choice for Best Picture). With finely-crafted, thought-provoking screenplays, exceptional performances (Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen among many in “Trial…,” Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman”) and assured direction, both bely the notion that this year’s Oscars are of anti-entertainment value.
“Nomadland” (on Hulu)won for Best Picture, Director and Actress (Frances McDormand’s third, in case you’re counting) and it is a good and quietly gripping film about disenfranchised people who nevertheless manage to find some dignity amidst the transient nature of their lives.
“Nomadland” does a fine job not only of exploring a lifestyle that has been imposed on all too many people, but depicting the humanity and sense of community. The fact that several of the fine performances come from non-actors only adds to the verisimilitude.
“Minari” is slow, deliberate and worthwhile if you stick it out. The story of a quietly determined, implacable Korean father who is determined to fulfill his vision of the American Dream in the form of his own farm (despite the obstacles imposed by nature and human factors), “Minari” has some moments of considerable emotional power, courtesy of some fine performances by Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri as the parents (who are often in simmering conflict mode), and Youn Yuh-jung as the Grandmother. Do I think it should have been among the Best Picture nominees? Well…only if Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” had also been included.
“The Sound of Metal” (on Amazon Prime) was perhaps the nominee most unknown to me (prior to its nomination.) It is an engrossing study of a metal drummer (Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed) who is losing his hearing (essential in his line of work, though Beethoven might disagree) and is encouraged to attend a self-contained wellness haven for the deaf (in which he’d be encouraged to live and stay among his fellow deaf residents.)
However, Ruben needs to drum, and despite the encouragement from the man in charge (Oscar nominee Paul Raci), he seeks out medical/technological ways to restore his hearing, which may not be as easy as it seems—and may have unforeseen consequences. The film does a fine job of helping the viewer experience the disorientation of disillusionment of the protagonist; for a character as dedicated as Ruben, the options as presented the film are limited—and equally unsatisfying.
“Mank” (Netflix) contains a terrific performance from Gary Oldman as alcoholic (but incredibly talented) screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, who is collaborating with wunderkind Orson Welles on “Citizen Kane” —which of course is the fictionalized version of film star Marion Davies and newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst.
As the film points out, “Mank” is more than an observer of the Hollywood social scene; he serves as ribald court jester and occasional confidante to the high and the mighty. The film juggles two storylines, one his work on the screenplay, and the other, an extended flashback which purports to show how his views of the Hollywood elite had evolved—and one in which his self-destructive tendencies are on full display. Beautifully photographed in black and white, with several fine performances (among them Amanda Seyfried’s nominated turn as Marion Davies), it is worth seeing.
As a sidebar you should see another fine film about the questionable activities of W.R. Hearst: “The Cat’s Meow” from director Peter Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros (OK, he’s my very talented brother), about the mysterious death of director Thomas Ince and a speculation on what might have happened on a fateful voyage upon a yacht owned by Hearst (a towering Edward Herrmann), with Ince (Cary Elwes), Marion Davies (Kristen Dunst), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) and Louella Parsons (Jennifer tilly) among the passengers. Witty, well-paced and always entertaining, it can (and should) be seen.