Our Best Picture Quest Begins Anew

As we have done almost every year since 2012, Candice and I are on a quest to see as many of the “Best Picture” nominees as possible prior to the Academy Awards show on March 4th.  Last year we were on a roll…and then life intervened, and we only saw four of the nine nominees.  This year we’ll have to get them all in this month, as Candice will be otherwise occupied with hip replacement surgery on March 1st.  So to get ahead of the game, we saw four pictures in four nights last weekend (and into Monday).

Film Reel

Our wonderful American Film Institute Silver Theatre here in Silver Spring has been showing five of the Best Picture nominees, so it was easy to go two blocks and drop in for a movie.  All four that we’ve seen were excellent, each in its own way.  Here’s our initial take (from two highly unqualified movie critics).

We both loved The Post, as much for what it says about the importance of a free press as for the quality of the film, although that was very high.  It moves along at a quick pace, the ensemble acting is very good, and Meryl Streep is terrific as Katherine Graham. This is also a love letter to old-style newspaper production.  (The views of the presses at work are worth the price of the film.) You should go see this one to remind yourself why democracy matters, and how easy it can be to lose it (as if you don’t already know that in 2018).

The very next night we saw Phantom Thread, which is a luscious film for the senses.  Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible — as always — as the designer whose desire for order and perfection runs into love after he meets a waitress who refuses to fit into his mold.  The pace is as slow as The Post’s is quick, but that’s okay.  This won’t win the Best Picture award, but it is a movie worth seeing.  We both enjoyed it a great deal.

For our third movie, we took in Lady Bird, the coming-of-age movie that introduced us to Saoirse Ronan in the title role where she is a deserving nominee for Best Actress.  As with many such movies, it can be difficult to watch at times as teenagers move through those difficult years.  The views of Sacramento throughout the film helped you move, along with Lady Bird, from thinking of the town as the “Midwest of California” to the point at the end of the film where every turn is magical.  Again, I don’t think this will win the award, but we enjoyed the movie (as did our Claire).

Finally, we saw a film that I believe could very much be in the running to get the award:  The Shape of WaterThis story from the Cold War era and how the mute janitor Elisa (played with power by Sally Hawkins) finds out about the top secret project in her lab, kept us entranced throughout.  Octavia Spencer — from last year’s wonderful Hidden Figures — is a joy any time she is on the screen.  We didn’t know what to expect going into this film, and halfway through, we still weren’t sure where it was headed, but in the end it was very satisfying.

So there are our first four.  We’re going to try to catch three or more over the upcoming holiday weekend, so keep reading (and watching).  As always, comments on your favorites are always welcome.

More to come…

DJB

Quest for the Best (Picture) Returns

Film ReelAfter skipping a year, Candice and I are back and enthusiastic about choosing this year’s Best Picture winner for the Oscars.

We started this annual review of the top picture nominees from two highly unqualified movie critics around 2012, and did our last round in 2015.  Sometimes in year’s past, we weren’t interested in seeing up to a third of the nominees due to violence or other graphic content (I’m looking at you Quentin Tarantino).  But in reviewing the trailers for this year’s class, we’re excited about all of them.  We have a month…so let’s go!

Today, we walked up to AFI Silver to see Hidden Figures – a marvelous movie that we both highly recommend.  A colleague at work told me she had seen it three times already!  The story is compelling (especially since it is true) and the ensemble acting is superb.  Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan was especially compelling, but all three female leads were terrific from my perspective.

Get yourself to see this movie.  Oh, and bring your hanky.  Even though you know how the basic story ends, this is still a well-crafted tale that will probably spring some tears from those tear ducts.

We’ve set a high bar right out of the box.  I’ll post again after we get a couple more under our belt.

More to come…

DJB

Quest for the Best (2015 Edition, Round 2)

Film ReelSince our last report on our quest to see the Best Picture, Candice and I have seen three more of this year’s nominees.  So let’s get to it.

We walked to our “commercial” theatre (the Regal) in downtown Silver Spring earlier this week to see Selma. This movie has had its share of controversy, from the treatment of Lyndon Johnson in the film, to the snub from the Academy in terms of award nominations. David Oyelowo was excellent as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a performance certainly deserving of a Best Actor nomination. But the film was stilted at times, and uneven.

Selma is not the year’s Best Picture, but it is the most important film of the year.  We forget too quickly how difficult it was to attain rights for all, and how much pressure there is, even today, to restrict or even take away those rights.  I have members of my extended family who love to wave the Confederate flag, without any understanding of what that really means. I grew up in the South in the 1960s. I remember seeing these scenes on television. I saw first hand how blacks were treated then.  It was terrible. In some ways, it is still terrible. We can do better.

Last evening, we returned to the AFI Silver Theatre to see Birdman. Though it took a bit for me to get into this film, once drawn in I very much enjoyed this story of a faded Hollywood actor’s attempt to make it on Broadway. The acting here is terrific, beginning with Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson (the Birdman), Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter Sam, and Edward Norton, Jr. as the acclaimed Broadway actor Mike Shiner.  (Note: Ed Norton – Edward’s father – is a former colleague.) The chemistry between Stone and Norton is terrific. Naomi Watts as the actress Lesley (and Mike’s former girlfriend) and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer are also wonderful. The long single-camera takes are a great device, and the drumming in the soundtrack sets the tone for the story.  While this isn’t my first choice, I could understand – and support – this as the Best Picture winner.

This afternoon, we visited the Union Market redevelopment area of Washington, north of Union Station, to see Boyhood in the Angelika Pop-up Theatre.  This is another excellent movie, but to me it was flawed by being about a half hour too long. Tighter editing would have helped.  However, I enjoyed this coming of age story, and thought that the mother – played by Patricia Arquette – was especially good. Much has been made of the filming of this movie over a total of 12 years. I certainly enjoyed watching the characters age, and – with only a few exceptions – become more sympathetic.

We’ve now seen six of the eight nominees.  We’re planning on catching Whiplash in a few days, and we’re not going to see American Sniper.  (I’ll explain that choice in my next post.)

Here are my rankings of the six we’ve seen to date (and I’ve even changed my order from the last post):

1.  The Imitation Game

2.  Birdman

3.  Grand Budapest Hotel

4.  The Theory of Everything

5.  Boyhood

6.  Selma

And Candice has also weighed in as well.  Her rankings are:

1.  The Imitation Game

2.  Grand Budapest Hotel

3.  Birdman

4.  The Theory of Everything

5.  Boyhood

6.  Selma

Check back next week when I “declare” the winner.

More to come…

DJB

 

A Quest for the Best Picture (2015 Edition)

Film ReelAs we entered our empty nesting period, Candice and I took the plunge in 2012 and made a pledge to try and see all of the year’s films nominated in the Academy Awards’ “Best Picture” category.  We (almost) succeeded – seeing eight of the nine 2012  nominees – and every year since we’ve taken on the same challenge.  While we seldom get to all the films (we generally avoid the gratuitously violent ones such as 2013’s Django Unchained), we’ve seen the vast majority and have really enjoyed talking and – in my case  – writing about them.

This year there are eight nominees, and as we enter the final month we now have three under our belt.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful, lush, and very funny film by Wes Anderson, which we saw in March when it was first released. The acting by Ralph Fiennes as the concierge, along with that of the rest of the ensemble, is delicious while the plot is convoluted and crazed.  This is a very good film…but not the winner!

On Saturday, we walked to the historic AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring to see The Imitation Game. The story of Alan Turing, who helped break the German code in WWII and pioneered the computer in the process, is simply terrific.  There is so much to consider when watching this movie. It covers three periods of Turing’s life – his unhappy childhood, his work during the war, and his arrest after the war for his homosexuality.  His physical and mental deterioration is such a sad ending for a unique talent.  The line that spurs Turing in his youth, he then uses on fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke, and she ultimately uses to encourage him during his last year of life sums up the wonderful message of this movie:  “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as Clarke are both remarkable.  They turn in top-flight, Oscar-worthy performances.  Highly recommended, and a great candidate for Best Picture.

Earlier today, we returned to the AFI Silver Theatre to watch The Theory of Everything, about the life of physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane Hawking.  This was another excellent movie, with incredible performances by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen and Felicity Jones as Jane.  Hawkings’ diagnosis of motor neuron disease, soon after he meets Jane, sets up the challenges of increasing fame and increasing physical deterioration that drive the movie forward.  Both The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game demonstrate that movies without animation and action – and focused on brilliant minds, no less – can still be gripping, powerful, and moving.

Candice didn’t have a favorite between the last two, but I feel that The Imitation Game has more depth and is ultimately more satisfying.  So with three down, the completely untrained but joyfully opinionated DJB rankings for Best Picture stand as follows:

1.  The Imitation Game

2.  The Theory of Everything

3.  The Grand Budapest Hotel

Come back next weekend, as we’ll have at least two others to add to the list.

Let’s go to the movies!

More to come…

DJB

Quest for the Best (Picture) Update

Film ReelIn our quest to see all the Best Picture nominees before the March 2nd Academy Awards show, Candice and I find ourselves well behind our pace of recent years.  We’re going to blame it all on February.  Have I mentioned that I really hate February? Why does this month even exist?

But enough with the excuses…we’ve now seen four of the nine nominees.  I wrote earlier about the first two, so let’s focus on the most recent films we’ve seen.  Both were very satisfying.

Philomena stars the incomparable Judi Dench who – as Philomena Lee – undertakes a search for a son she was forced to give up for adoption some fifty years earlier by the nuns of an Irish convent.  This is a deeply moving true story, that is lovingly filmed.  Steve Coogan, as the journalist Martin Sixsmith who uncovers Philomena’s story, interacts very effectively with Dench on the screen.  I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen the movie, but this is one I strongly recommend.  Philomena is a terrific movie.

Earlier today, Candice and I walked up to AFI’s Silver Theatre (we really love our neighborhood theatre!) to see Nebraska.  Bruce Dern, as the elderly Woody Grant, is in search of what he believes is his $1 million sweepstakes winning pot. His son David (Will Forte), is the only family member who understands the search for what it really is, and after a couple of missteps he agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska, to “collect” the winnings.  June Squibb, as Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate, has some of the funniest – and most hurtful – lines in the movie.  Her response to Woody’s extended family as they try to shake him down is priceless.

Nebraska has so much to recommend it.  The beautiful black-and-white photography captures the bleakness of the Midwestern landscape, and the life of the Grant family. Tin Hat’s haunting acoustic chamber music is so evocative of the sadness and sweetness found in this story. The ensemble acting with Dern, Squibb, Forte, Stacy Keach as Woody’s old business partner, and Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s son Ross, is superb.

The essence of this movie is captured after Woody learns that he hasn’t won the million dollars promised in the magazine sweepstakes letter.  Woody leaves the office of the Nebraska marketing company and David turns to the receptionist to ask if this happens often.  She replies that it does happen on occasion, often with older people like Woody.  She asks is Woody has dementia.  David replies, “No, he just believes what people tell him.”  “Oh, that’s too bad,” replies the receptionist.

And there, dear reader, is one of the horrors of modern life.  We say things all the time that we don’t mean.

But (spoiler alert)  the ending is sweet.  This movie is well worth a viewing.

Now, after four movies, Candice and I have the same rankings in the Best Picture contest:

1.  Twelve Years a Slave

2.  Philomena

3.  Nebraska

4.  American Hustle

We hope to see Her tomorrow, at which point we’ll pass the halfway point.  Look for further updates from your unqualified, but enthusiastic, movie reviewer.

More to come…

DJB

The Muscle Shoals Groove

Wilson Pickett Hey JudeThe man in front of us in line said it best.  “After several days of watching a documentary or two a day with a heavy or depressing theme, I’m ready for some music.”  I knew what he meant.

Saturday evening Andrew, Claire and I had attended an excellent documentary as part of the AFI Docs festival at the American Film Institute Theatre in Silver Spring. Titled Blackfish, it chronicled SeaWorld’s treatment of their killer whales. Here’s the synopsis:

When SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was mauled to death by a “killer whale,” the tragedy was dismissed as a freak accident. In actuality, it was one of many such violent incidents between well-meaning trainers and wild orcas, the main attractions at marine parks all over the world. Utilizing astounding rare footage and candid interviews, BLACKFISH takes an unflinching look at the disturbing practices that keep such places in business and the corporate-led efforts to protect this highly profitable industry.

It was an important film…but when Candice and I stood in line on Sunday waiting to see Muscle Shoals, we were ready for some music.

And boy, did the film deliver.

We learned of the movie from the producer’s mother.  It premiered at Sundance, and was one of the feature films at AFI Docs.  From the opening shots of the Tennessee River to the closing chorus of Sweet Home Alabama, this was a two-hour love letter to a place and its music.

Rising out of the Deep South of 1960s America, a sound emerged that began to attract artists as diverse as Otis Redding, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones. That sound, and the people who helped create it, would go on to leave its mark on music history. The place was Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and this is the story of how it gave birth to some of the most memorable music of our time.

The stories were as rich and wonderful as the music.  Rick Hall’s dream that led to the founding of FAME studios.  The silence in Aretha Franklin’s first session as the singer and musicians seek common ground…and then Spooner Oldham begins playing the groove that broke the logjam and set the arc of a career. Keith Richards being…Keith Richards, with some great historic footage of the Stones session. Alicia Keys putting a beautiful coda on the film.

One of my favorite moments came when the movie explored Duane Allman’s connection to the Muscle Shoals sound.  After camping out in the parking lot until Rick Hall hired him as a staff guitarist, Allman and Wilson Pickett were hanging out at the studio over lunch because taking a black man and a long-haired hippie out in Muscle Shoals in the late 1960s was an invitation for stares and more.  So when Hall and the rest of the band returned, they found Allman trying to convince Pickett to cover the recent Beatles tune Hey Jude.  Both Pickett and Hall protested, but Allman was persuasive – and then played a solo that led no less an authority than Eric Clapton to say, “I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on a R&B record.  It’s the best.” A commentator in the film said, “This solo is where Duane Allman invented Southern Rock.”

To top it off, Wilson Pickett’s youngest daughter was in the audience, and she stood up at the microphone afterwards to tell the filmmaker that this movie was “pitch perfect” when it came to her father.  To me, the whole thing was pitch perfect.

And the good news…it has been picked up for commercial release this September with what promises to be one of the killer soundtracks of all times coming out on Rhino Records.

Be on the lookout…but until then, listen to Wilson and Duane (at about the 2:53 mark) groove to Hey Jude.

More to come…

DJB

Academy Awards Here We Come (Again)

Film ReelLast year I broke a 57-year-old tradition and decided to see all the films nominated in  the Academy Awards Best Picture category.  We had a blast, updating More to Come… when I thought we’d seen the winner, as well as on the night of the awards.

This year, Candice and I are back at it again.

We thought we had an early start. Over the summer and fall we went to a couple of movies that, to our eye, had Best Picture possibilities.  We both loved The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Moonrise KingdomShows what we know.

But we quickly hit our stride, and after tonight’s viewing of Beasts of the Southern Wild at AFI Silver Theatre, we’ve now seen four of the nine Best Picture nominees.

Since it is our most recent viewing, I’ll just say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is an interesting film, but best picture quality…ummm, I don’t think so.  And I’m sorry, but Quvenzhané Wallis did not deserve a nomination above Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Knowing that you, dear reader, are waiting with bated breath, here’s how I rank the four I’ve seen:

1.  Lincoln

2. Life of Pi

3. Les Mis

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild

I just asked Candice for her rankings, and she has:

1.  Les Mis

2.  Lincoln

3.  Life of Pi

4.  Beasts of the Southern Wild

In the other categories, I think Daniel Day-Lewis is a lock for Best Actor (and I don’t even have to see the others). I haven’t seen enough of the Best Actress nominees to have an opinion.  I loved Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field in their supporting roles in Lincoln, but I have no idea if they’ll win.

So there you go…feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section.  I’ll update you again as we get a few more viewings under our belt.

More to come…

DJB