The End?

Before the Oscar nominations were announced in January, I had seen the following films that would go on to be contenders:

Since then, I’ve watched these nominees:

That leaves me three movies short, and the Oscars are this Sunday.

If I can work out the timing tomorrow, I will drive two hours to spend a day in Cleveland watching foreign film nominees The Insult and A Fantastic Woman. The final nominee in that category, Loveless, is unfortunately out of my reach. The Oscars may not mean anything in the grand scope of things, but this is completely unacceptable.

Everyone knows that an Oscar nomination can increase the revenue of a film by a significant percentage. Studios know this, distributors know this, theater owners know this, promoters know this. It bears out in numbers every single year, and not just for the Best Picture contenders. So why aren’t more people making an effort to get those movies out to the public?

In 2004, I traveled with a dear friend to L.A., just to be in the general vicinity of the awards when they were held on February 29 — a likely once in a lifetime occurrence itself — the same year, in fact just days after, my own 29th birthday. We used our very limited resources and connections to attend every film event we could in the time we were there, which included a symposium with all that year’s directors of the foreign film nominees, an Academy-sponsored event. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is located on Wilshire and holds many exhibitions and events throughout the year that are open to the public, either for free or for a very low cost. I HIGHLY recommend them to any film lover who’s ever in the Los Angeles area.) One of the directors on panel said quite plainly that the Oscars could make or break their film; a win would mean a guaranteed distribution deal, while losing would mean almost no one would ever see it. But that was 2004. Now there are dozens of ways to see films, and a lot more avenues for filmmakers to get their movies seen, and yet somebody, somewhere is still dropping the ball.

I live in the 15th largest city in America, but not within 400 miles of a venue playing one of the proclaimed best movies of the year. Two others are over 100 miles away. One of those will be playing here soon, but not until after the Oscars. I’ll probably still try to see it, but if it’s not the winner in its category, the urgency to see it will plummet. Dramatically. Not just for me, but for millions of people across the country and around the world.

I’m not the only one who tries to see all the nominated movies each year, not by a long shot. I’m not even the one who came up with the term Oscar Death Race, but rather heard it from someone else over a decade ago in reference to a third person who was doing it. I know of lots of people in New York and L.A., and some in D.C. or Chicago, who make the effort every year, and to be honest it’s a lot easier for them because of the accessibility of the films, but The Wall Street Journal just profiled someone from Ohio who’s been going at it for ten or more years. He travels far and wide to see the movies on his list, spending a huge amount of time and money to do so. I myself was going to use airline points to fly to the coast and see a couple of the elusive ones but I couldn’t make the timing work. But those resources aren’t available to everyone, and movie buffs (or “extremists,” as the article calls us, but don’t get me started on all its ridiculous assertions) don’t just live in New York and L.A. Imagine the number of people who would come out if the films were playing in their backyards.

I’m not saying every podunk town across America should use one of its precious available screens on a transgender love story from Chile (I mean, they should, but that’s not what I’m saying), but certainly the top 25 cities in the country could. Or even the top 25 plus the largest city in each state that doesn’t have one in the top 25. That’s only 59 screens. Think of how many more people would be reached, with minimal effort and promotion. Or reach millions more than that by making the films available to rent or buy on iTunes/Amazon/Google or VOD at least a week before the awards. They’re already screening in certain cities, they’re already making discs or setting up streaming sites for voters to watch the films. Why not let everyone? I swear, I feel like I’m standing at a giant box office screaming, “PLEASE LET ME PAY YOU TO SEE THIS MOVIE,” and nobody’s listening.

Before the winners are announced, every nominee has a cachet of potential energy, and people who like to see them all want to do it before that potential is either realized or fizzles out. They want to make their own calls, they want to win their Oscar pools, they want to argue over the the “wrong” one winning, they want to cheer for their favorite. Once the awards take place, though, all that energy goes away. The winners are enshrined in history and guaranteed to make millions more dollars in revenue for their filmmakers, in this and future ventures. The losers fade away and hope for another shot, but their movies don’t deserve that. They deserve to be seen. And they should be available across the country, so the largest possible number of people can see them. For the love of all that is holy, don’t make me miss my goal again next year.

 

*When I first posted this, I erroneously credited the Oscar “extremist” profile to the Washington Post. It is obviously the Wall Street Journal. I was very tired this morning.

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Oscar Death Race: The Last Men in Aleppo

Nominations: 1 (Documentary Feature)

Seen Thursday, March 1, 9am, iTunes

LMiA

Last year, the winner for Best Documentary Short was The White Helmets, which followed the group of the same name as they rescued victims from bombings in the Syrian city of Aleppo. This film does the same thing, but at a feature film length.

The extra time this movie has, it puts to excellent use exploring the simple humanity of these men, their bond, and their families. It’s a more personal view of their impossible lives, and every tiny moment of pleasure they’re able to achieve (be it through smoking while tending goal in an impromptu soccer game, restoring fish to a tiny fountain that remains standing, or singing songs together — sometimes silly, sometimes sincere — makes it all the more harrowing to see them pulling dead babies out of rubble.

A couple of other things struck me about this film, in contrast to last year’s, were the pointlessness of the attacks and the easy, fully integrated relationship these men have with their faith. To the former, it’s made quite clear that the bombings are not strategic, not productive, and not meant to do anything, really, but kill the innocent civilians unwilling or incapable of leaving their homes. It’s just a punishing barrage that has leveled or dissected almost every building in sight, and it never stops, not even during a supposed cease-fire. As for the latter, and this is something I definitely hope my Evangelical Christian family and friends will make note of, the men in this movie are constantly talking about God. Not in the scary way Muslims are so often portrayed in Western cinema, shouting of Allah while detonating a bomb or some such, but in a way VERY reminiscent of behavior I’ve observed my whole life: that of Christians who acknowledge God and His plan everyday. They thank God people are still alive, they talk of how God wants the little boys they save to grow into brave and gallant men, they make pronouncements like “God isn’t finished with you yet,” when someone has a close call. They’re faith is fully a part of who they are, woven into the very fabric of their being, and it’s beautiful and pure in a way that is utterly indistinguishable from good and faithful Christians or good and faithful Jews, or good and faithful anyone.

There are tragic ends here, as there must be, and I’ll probably always wonder of the fates of those who were left behind. I don’t know if the previous year’s win for The White Helmets is indicative of the Academy’s preference for these stories or if honoring this entry will be seen as redundant, but I’m glad I watched it nonetheless.

Oscar Frontloading: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Nominations: 7 (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (2), Film Editing, Original Score, Best Original Screenplay)

3Billboards

For some reason, when I went to see this back in the fall at a sneak preview, I had it in my head that this movie was based on a true story. It was not. That makes a difference because real people don’t always do things that make narrative sense. Real stories are often messy and disjointed and unsatisfying in one way or another. I’m therefore more willing to give a true story more leeway than an original one, to not hold it to the same standards of storytelling. That’s not to say it doesn’t still need to be presented narratively, but only that I’ll likely overlook unresolved threads or random tangents if they don’t take away from the bigger picture and overall effectiveness of the film.

So, that being the case, I walked out of Three Billboards unsatisfied but not unhappy with the film. And then I got home and Googled it, and my outlook utterly changed.

Three Billboards is a work of utter fiction, from the name of the town to everything that happens inside it, born from the mind of screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh, a British playwright who expanded into films with the short Six Shooter, followed by features In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. He’s a talented guy, but he’s perhaps not exactly qualified to discuss the very complex, tangled issue of race in America.

Then again, Three Billboards doesn’t address race in America, not really. It throws out racial slurs like they’re beads at Mardi Gras, and it makes allusions to a character’s racist past, but it doesn’t confront these issues at all. They’re merely a backdrop, a prop intended to shock and discomfit the audience without any reconciliation. The people of color in the film are props as well, barely more than background noise, serving no purpose except to underline the fact that racial tensions exist but are never to be reckoned with.

Another issue the film presents is violence towards women. Frances McDormand plays a woman, herself a victim of domestic violence, whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered months ago. She wants justice for her daughter, and seeks to shame the local sheriff for his failure to provide it. In the course of her doing so, however, she is assaulted and threatened by numerous men, none of whom will face consequences. In fact, it’s her who will be punished. In this way, the film does a slightly better job at getting to the heart of the many catch-22s of being a woman, but this is also where it falls into its deepest narrative holes.

And that’s the heart of the matter, really. What makes Three Billboards such a disappointment is that it’s a poorly constructed story, incredibly so. Threads are picked up only to be dropped unceremoniously. The primary antagonist is given a redemption arc without earning it in the slightest. The primary protagonist is a not great person who is almost universally hated by the townspeople. The central question is unanswered, as are all secondary questions. The movie goes absolutely nowhere, with no rhyme nor reason. It’s a sloppy mess with only its actors, doing their very best with what they have to work with, to redeem it.

Oscar Death Race: Live Action Shorts

Seen en masse on Wednesday, February 28, 1:20pm, Gateway Film Center

DeKalb Elementary: This crop of shorts is a strong one, and DeKalb Elementary is a great start out of the gate with the tense story it tells based on real events. I’m not sure if the outcome here, when compared and contrasted to the events in Parkland, Florida two weeks ago, will make late voters (final ballots were due in yesterday by 5PM PST) more or less inclined to put this one up top, but it’s a powerful film regardless. When the end came, I was crying along with the character on screen.

The Silent Child: More of an overtly “message” film than the others — it features an end title card advocating for more educational support for deaf children across the globe — the relationship that builds between Libby and Jo is warm and heartfelt and all the more devastating when compared with Libby’s relationship with Sue. This one had me in tears too, and while I think it’s the weakest entrant of the five, it’s still incredibly strong.

My Nephew Emmett: The second of three in this five-film lineup to be based on a true story, My Nephew Emmett relives the final day of Emmett Till’s life in 1955, from the perspective of his uncle Moses, who would later tell his story on film and directly lead to the Civil Rights Movement. As one would imagine, it’s a tragic tale, but the dire anticipation in Moses’s face as he waits painstakingly for the shoe to drop once he hears of Emmett whistling at a white woman in town brings the whole bigger picture into sharp relief. Because the murder of Emmett Till isn’t just about the death of one black boy, it’s about the fear of every black man and woman and child in the South and beyond. It’s growing up knowing the “rules,” and being forced to follow them no matter the circumstances. It’s having to beg someone to steal literally all of your money in the hopes of them not taking a member of your family, or asking to be sacrificed yourself so someone else can live. It’s an impossible life, ultimately. An unsustainable existence. And this film exposes that fact clearly.

The Eleven O’Clock: The one comedy of the bunch, this one might get votes just because it’s a blessed relief from all the intense, terrible emotions brought up by the others. It also happens to be a really great piece of comedy, though. The script is tight and clever, the dialogue hilarious, and the answer to the central question just vague enough to keep you doubtful until the end. As much as comedy is usually undervalued by the Academy, in the short films it feels like a great place to recognize the work that goes into them.

Watu Wote (All of Us): For me, this was the strongest film in this group. Once again, we have a film based on actual events, and they transfer into a cinematic experience seamlessly. If I had a vote, it would go to this film, which tells a story of Muslim extremism from a different perspective than most — from that of peaceful Muslims protecting the Christians in their midst from murderous radicals. It’s a perspective that I think is needed, one that is often ignored in our media and culture, and the film makes a great impact in telling the story. We are all one, we are all together, we are all we have.

Oscar Frontloading: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Nominations: 4 (Best Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects)

StarWarsTLJ

Contrary to that ridiculous statement that went viral a while back, I, a mere girl, also grew up on Star Wars. It was the first movie I ever saw, at age 2 or 3, and according to my mom I was terrified of the Jawas. I’ve seen the original trilogy literally dozens of times, I hate the remastered versions, I thought The Force Awakens was a fantastic return to form, Rogue One was the prequel we needed, and the less we say about the other prequels the better (no disrespect to Natalie Portman). You’d better believe I was there the day this came out.

It was awesome.

I’m aware, of course, of all the backlash against the movie, and how angry people are at it for … [checks notes] advancing its character arcs past what they were in Return of the Jedi. Okay.

I loved the complexities of this movie, the struggles the characters wrestle with, and the unexpected heroes that emerge. I’m more than willing to believe that events transpired in the blank space between episodes VI and VII to explain the abilities and mindsets and decisions of this one, and that they’ll be revealed to us as viewers if and when they become vital to the storytelling.

I’m a Star Wars girl, I’ve always been a Star Wars girl, and I’m happy to be on the journey the filmmakers are giving me, happy to see where the story goes from here.

Oscar Death Race: Animated Shorts

Seen en masse on Tuesday, February 27, 6:50pm, Gateway Film Center

Dear Basketball: I’m not really sure how this qualifies as anything more than a vanity project. It’s Kobe Bryant producing and narrating his thank you letter to his sport. There is no story, no conflict, no tension or resolution, just a highly gifted athlete at the end of his career taking a victory lap. Which, is fine, I guess. It does, however, feel a little awkward to be celebrating a man who emerged from his own high-profile rape accusation virtually unscathed, particularly at this moment in time. But I guess if you’re a Lakers fan, it’s a piece that probably makes your heart swell. And the animation is nice.

Negative Space: What a perfect short film. The animation is creative and engrossing, while the subject matter is delightful and touching and compact, like a neatly packed suitcase. I absolutely loved it.

Lou: I’d actually seen this long before the nominations came out but forgot about it, probably because I saw it in front of Cars 3. Which was not as bad as Cars 2, if you’re keeping score. Anyway, this is prototypical Pixar — super charming and funny — even going so far as to revisit tried and true Pixar themes of living toys and pushing back against bullies. It’s not the BEST Pixar short film I’ve ever seen (Piper), but it’s not the worst either (Lava), and I think it would be really easy for voters to go with it as the obvious choice here. But I really hope they don’t because Negative Space is sublime.

Revolting Rhymes: I thought this was really cute and really fun and kind of dark, which makes sense since it’s based on a Roald Dahl work. But while I liked it, and didn’t think its length (which probably adds up to longer than the other four nominees combined) was problematic, per se, I definitely think there are at least two better options in this lineup.

Garden Party: The animation on this is stunningly realistic. It’s unnerving how real it all looks, really. So much so that I cringed a time or two. If this was really a student film, give that kid an A+. I mean, wow. There’s not much of a story here, or there’s only the inference of one in the background, and no dialogue whatsoever since its only inhabitants are frogs and bugs, but there’s some impressive work being done, and I wouldn’t be upset if that was recognized.

Oscar Frontloading: The Shape of Water

Nominations: 13 (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Production Design, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Best Original Screenplay)

SoW

I admit my opinion on this movie has improved since I saw it mid-December, but only inasmuch as I appreciate del Toro’s talent and accomplishments here. He has a clear vision and projects it confidently throughout the script and within each striking visual. It’s probably the reason, I believe, this one’s the favorite for the night. It’s hard to deny what this film is or how much work went into it.

That level of ostentation doesn’t bother me, really, though I do prefer the perfect, pristine simplicity of  some of the other nominees, but it’s safe to say this film isn’t really up my alley.

What many people see as intoxicating ambiance, I found incongruent. The film is set in 1950s or ’60s Red Scare America, but the score is decidedly French in tone — in fact, it is distractingly reminiscent of Amélie, especially when coupled with the saturation of green hues in every scene. Maybe it’s meant to be an homage, but it felt like cribbing.

There is also an unseemly amount of gore in this fairy tale, which is not unusual to fairy tales necessarily, but which did not sit well with me in this one. And Michael Shannon’s scenery-chewing misogyny, while so effective in most of his roles, really rubbed me the wrong way here.

I do love the sentiment of the story, though, of finding someone who sees you as whole, and I know how authentic it is to del Toro’s personal belief that we’re all monsters seeking acceptance. The film connects on those levels, absolutely, which will likely be enough for many to overlook the ways it doesn’t.

 

Oscar Frontloading: The Post

Nominations: 2 (Best Picture, Best Actress)

Post

Two nominations for this one, but two of the biggest. I think it’s easy for people to look at The Post as a standard Oscar Bait entry, with a filler nod for Meryl Streep because of course she gets one. But The Post is actually really good at what it does and the message it stands for, and while that might not be new or innovative or even exciting compared with some of the other contenders, at this point in time it might still really be needed.

The importance of a free press in a democratic society is incalculable. It disseminates truth and holds our leaders accountable. It gives the power to the people above and beyond the voting booth. It can inform policy and bring about change. It resides at the foundation of the American ideal, and the moment in time that The Post reenacts for us was a moment when that ideal was tested.  If we discover the government has been lying to its people, costing them their lives, aren’t we obligated to expose them? That’s the central question here, then and now. The Post is relaying the story of our past, but also telling of our present, and it’s damn effective at both.

Plus, oh my GOD do I want Meryl’s caftan. I might just send pictures of it to my mother and ask her to make it for me.

Oscar Frontloading: Logan

Nominations: 1 (Best Adapted Screenplay)

Logan

I am an unabashed lover of X-men movies, and of Marvel movies in general. Logan isn’t like any of those, yet I love it the most.

Logan is dark and violent, and it lives in a desolate place that is emphasized by Hugh Jackman’s title character’s rough and haggard exterior as well as the dry and dusty landscape. It’s an R rated film, and with that rating comes the freedom to be violent and profane beyond what is normally allowed of such a franchise but which has always been lurking beneath the surface of a Wolverine story. In that way, Logan feels more true to the reality of who its subject is than any of the others. He’s not, and has never been, a gruff but lovable scamp; he’s always been an angry, disillusioned killer fighting against his own self as much as he fights everyone else. And out of nowhere, it’s the existence of Laura who releases him from that struggle by helping him accept it. They’ve killed many people, the two of them, but to her, they were bad people. It’s like a light turning on, and you can feel the shift in his perspective.

The movie is great, but it’s still a “superhero” movie, and yet, somehow it grabs a solid nomination — not for technical achievement, but for writing: the bones of the film. What’s even more astounding is that this is a nomination of a script adapted from a comic book. It’s acknowledging the work of graphic novelists and comic writers as artists and storytellers capable of greatness, and that feels like a significant shift. Perhaps it’s due to an influx of younger voters, or maybe it’s even bigger than that, but it opens up so many new possibilities for film, and that’s really exciting.

Oscar Frontloading: Lady Bird

Nominations: 5 (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay)

LadyBird

Lady Bird is perfect. My heart swelled the whole time I watched it (as soon as it came to my city, in December), and my heart swells just as much every time I think of it now. Greta Gerwig, in her screenplay and her direction, has distilled a near flawless depiction of a teenage girl’s transition into womanhood. She captures the dichotomy of confidence and insecurity, of burgeoning sexuality and utter awkwardness. And most beautifully of all, she captures the frustrating existence of a girl’s relationship with her mother — so tangled up with love and annoyance, with dependence and the push for freedom. It took me right back, and I felt that I was seen, that my stepdaughter was seen, and that all my friends were seen. It’s just perfect.

In addition to being an exceptional representation OF women, Lady Bird is also an exceptional feat FOR women. Every single Oscar nomination it received (all of them major category nods), goes to a woman. The only men recognized are the two who share production credit with Evelyn O’Neill in the Best Picture race. I’m far from an Oscar historian, but this is a big deal. It’s at once acknowledgment and validation that women can do the jobs behind the camera that so often — even now, in 2018 — people assert men are better at. Coupled with the all-female nominations for Mudbound, it’s hard not to feel a seismic shift in the way movies are viewed and appreciated, or at least the potential for one. It’s also further proof that women can carry movies, and that movies can be about women’s stories, and still achieve success. (To be sure, this fact has been proven over and over again, yet when pressed many studios will still consider films about women to be “niche” projects.)

I’m so in love with this movie, so impressed with the performances of Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and so amazed by the work of Greta Gerwig, who has quickly become one of my absolute favorite 21st century filmmakers, that I just want to hug everyone involved. See it with your ladies, ladies.