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): The Best-Laid Plans Edition

Film ReelWell, Candice and I were on a roll to get to all nine Best Picture nominees prior to Sunday night’s Academy Awards show.  But then two sold-out theatres (when we tried to see Fences and Lion), trips to Tennessee (both of us) and Florida (Candice), a board meeting, and a very bad head cold (the last two are mine) intervened.

So the four I ranked on February 18th are the only ones we’ll see prior to the awards show.  I’m sorry we did not see the other five nominees, and especially Fences and Arrival.  This was an especially rich year for Best Picture nominees.

Of the four that we saw, the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar is La La Land.  It is a delightful movie, but compared to the other three we saw, it is a lightweight.  What most reviewers note is that the voters love nothing better than to award good films about making films.

In reflecting on the other three – Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight – I think they all would be worthy Best Picture winners.  Moonlight and Manchester are the better films from the standpoint of the craft of film-making.  Hidden Figures is such a good story for our times.  My heart is with Hidden Figures, but if I were voting, I would go in the following order:

  1. Moonlight
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Hidden Figures
  4. La La Land

Well, let’s see what the Academy does on Sunday.

More to come…

DJB

Quest for the Best (Picture) – Part 3

Film ReelEarlier this week Candice and I saw the fourth of this year’s Best Picture nominees.  Manchester by the Sea is both a tragic story and a well-crated, artful movie.  It is very much a deserving nominee for the Oscar for Best Picture of the year.

The script is the first star here, in that the movie tells a story full of flashbacks and dreams that let the story unfold at a pace that is never rushed yet seems appropriately paced.  Lee Chandler – played masterfully by Casey Affleck – returns to his hometown after his brother Joe dies of heart failure.  He quickly learns that Joe has made him the guardian of his 16-year-old son, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges.  The relationship of Lee and Patrick could normally be seen as sharing a common grief – if from different perspectives – but as the movie unfolds it becomes clearer that Lee’s grief is much deeper and longer, and is sparked by a return to a town he had to leave in order to live.

There is a great deal to unpack in this movie.  First of all, it takes the viewer seriously.  This movie looks at the lingering – perhaps never-ending – affects of unspeakable tragedy, and accepts that neatly tied bows are for sit-coms, not life.  However, there is also a good bit of humor in this movie.  One reviewer noted that Lee and Patrick – for all the awkwardness in their relationship – make a great comedy team.  There were numerous times when our audience was laughing out loud – appropriately – at the short comments that punctuate the dialogue.  Heck, just watching Lee learn of – and then try and negotiate – Patrick’s two simultaneous romantic relationships is a mini-comedy in and of itself.

As Candice and I drove home from seeing Manchester-by-the-Sea, we commented on the Irish-Catholic overlay to this movie.  In reflection, part of the tragedy of the story is the loss of exceptionalism felt by the white male.  That the prerogatives of the white male exists can easily be seen in Lee’s ordeal at the Manchester police station.  This line of thinking is developed more fully in A.O. Scott’s review of the movie for the New York Times, and this element helps make the movie relevant in this day and age.

Manchester-by-the-Sea is a tragic story, but a movie well worth seeing.

So now with the fourth movie under our belt, here’s my (always changing) ranking:

1A.  Hidden Figures

1B.  Manchester-by-the-Sea

3.  Moonlight

4.  La La Land

We are hoping to catch a couple more before Candice heads out of town…and I’ll be left to my own devices to watch what’s left.

In any event, this is shaping up to be a great group of Best Picture nominees.

More to come…

DJB

Quest for the Best Picture (2016), Part 2

Film ReelAfter this weekend, Candice and I are one-third of the way towards our annual goal of viewing all the “Best Picture” Oscar nominees.  We’ve seen three very different films, but all terrific in their own way.

Last weekend we saw Hidden Figures, a wonderful movie with an inspiring story just right for our times.  On Friday we again walked up to AFI Silver Theater, this time to see Moonlight.

This coming of age film was both difficult and yet ultimately very satisfying. I was initially uncomfortable, because I was disoriented by the context.  The story of a young, gay, African American male learning about who he is through the bullying, teasing, and uncertainty was one I could understand. However, the setting – amidst the poverty, racism, and drug culture of Miami – was not familiar.  Once I sorted that out in my mind, I saw the strong qualities of this movie on multiple levels.

The acting is superb, beginning with Mahershala Ali as Juan, the drug dealer who befriends the main character, Chiron, and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother Paula. It was also nice to be introduced to Janelle Monáe in the first two films we saw the week, in Moonlight as Teresa and as Mary in Hidden Figures.

Moonlight is a well-crafted film on several levels, and is worth a view.

On Sunday, we decided to go in a different direction and took in La La Land at the nearby Bethesda Row Cinemas.  This film has much to recommend it.  The music is infectious.  The acting – especially Emma Stone – is superb.  The opening musical sequence is incredible – and worth the price of admission.  Do I think it is the year’s best movie?  No.  Do I think it is worth your time?  Absolutely.

So my first ranking looks like this:

  1.  Hidden Figures
  2. Moonlight
  3. La La Land

Two and three are actually interchangeable, and they might change as I see more.  But I think the time is just right, and perhaps even critical, for Hidden Figures.

We have some more to see, so check back!

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