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Oscars Watch 2018: Playing the Fiddle While Rome Burns: Best Picture

Boy, there is a lot of…news out there today. Everything is generally awful and terrible and brutish and nasty.

So, we’re going to go to something that doesn’t matter at all in the hopes of distracting you, me, and everyone else.

That’s right, it’s OSCAR SEASON!!!

Now, I’m gonna preface all this with the reason for the subtitle. To some degree, I’m acknowledging that I’m playing into a lot of the power games that created a lot of the current situation in Hollywood. Weinstein made his name, his money, and his influence off this game.

This is not some grand statement. On the contrary, I’m a F-list blogger with no influence, no reach, and no real ultimate meaning. It’s simply my own personal way of knowing what I’m doing and hoping to wrest some personal control of these narratives from people like that.

I’m looking at the Oscars this year as a post-Moonlight thing. An avenue to now boost smaller and more important movies that may not have gotten the chance. This is a way to celebrate films on a scale that there are few chances to and we deserve to make our own narrative. Yes, there is and always will be needs to be right and there are certain caveats I must always make with these articles. I’m looking to be technically correct, not morally, whether I like it or not.

But there’s narratives to create and I’m going to create them.

So, without further adieu, let’s give last year’s disclaimer:

We’re talking, of course, about the Academy Awards here. The Oscars, if you’re nasty. It may not be for a few months, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it now.

“But Brandon,” you don’t say but I pretend you do, “how can you have a discussion about these movies? Not only have you only seen two, but most of them haven’t even been officially released?”

You sweet summer child.

Fun fact about the Academy Awards: They’re rarely about the actual movies. They’re about how movies are perceived and make the voters feel. As long as the movie has a reasonably strong critical reception (unless you’re Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), the appearance of quality and importance is enough. Plus, thanks to the Festival circuit, we can already see the conversations that are being had around it, so waiting for them to come out isn’t necessary. This is shot-calling, not criticism.

The Awards are also about the quality of the campaign! Did the studio put the movie in front of enough people with a clear enough case?  Does the studio have the connections and the infrastructure to really get their case out there? Being good means nothing if nobody knows it.

And let’s give our categories. Sure Things, Incredibly Likely, Possibly, and No-Go. I also keep the general rule that there has to be something from it out there for me to include it. Reviews or trailers, something to make it possible to keep an eye on things.

The rumors around The Post are enough to make sure I do that.

The big story this year is the lack of any frontrunner and the absolute wealth of possible runners. It’s a year that the Festivals and Studios are producing a lot of very good movies, a lot of stuff that people are really liking even if a good chunk of it is somewhat divisive. But that divisiveness is meaning that there’s nothing universally agreeable.

Remember that by this point last year Moonlight was already out and La La Land was tearing it up over in festival land. The tea leaves were there for those two to read, but nothing is so big right now. Nothing is tearing up festivals the same way something usually does and it’s likely going to come down to the compromise candidate that everyone is reasonably positive about.

Sure Things

Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Call Me By Your Name
Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri
Darkest Hour
Get Out

Dunkirk and Darkest Hour may hold the rare distinction of being the first pair of movies about the same event ever nominated in the same year. There’s a few years with pairs of WW2 movies or pairs of movies set in the same era (1998 had a pair of each) but Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are both set during the Battle of Dunkirk, just from different ends.

Nolan is with the soldiers in a film that is heart-stoppingly realistic and jaw-droppingly shot. Wright takes the fight back to Parliament with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill battling for his place of power and the rallying of his nation. Darkest Hour is classic Oscar material, a chamber piece about a great man, and Dunkirk is functionally a Robert Bresson film by way of Nolan’s tech-wizardry, by no means an Oscar piece. But the sheer scale and skill at play here makes both a lock with Nolan’s Dunkirk more seizing of the imagination than anyone expected.

The Shape of Water is honestly an unexpected success. Del Toro’s recent adoption of his Spanish language style into his English language output yielded the great Crimson Peak but seemed doomed to alienate all but the critical audience. But The Shape of Water is apparently a warm, romantic/sexy story that seems to be connecting with every audience that sees it as an impressive American fairytale. As a longtime fan, I’m thrilled.

Call Me By Your Name was always kind of destined to look like this year’s Moonlight, a story of queer desire and longing with lush and gorgeous filmmaking. But that’s a flattening that doesn’t quite go into Moonlight and apparently doesn’t quite go into Call Me By Your Name with its parental dynamics and the Armie Hammer factor (the most underrated actor working). This film has had its praises sung since January and there seems to be no stopping on this train. And hey, any film with a Sufjan Stevens soundtrack is worthy of an Oscar in my opinion.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri joins Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water in making this year the year of finally recognizing people who’ve done great work and have had no Awards success until now. Martin McDonagh’s foul-mouthed and darkly hilarious films have been an underseen delight for years and Three Billboards seems to be the film that’ll finally get him some attention. His dynamite actors, his profanely brilliant dialogue, and his steady portrayal of place seems to all come to the forefront here and have gotten this movie the attention he’s always deserved.

Get Out is perhaps the film of the year. No film passed into popular refrain quicker, no film became a bigger hit culturally (and few financially), and no film feels more desperately of its moment. No film has felt like it so tapped into the conversation around race, class, and culture so quickly. Peele’s Get Out is a vital and visceral piece of filmmaking that absolutely can and should be in the awards conversation. Best Picture must include movies like this.

Incredibly Likely

Lady Bird
The Florida Project
Phantom Thread
Battle of the Sexes
The Big Sick

A24 is riding hot after winning for Moonlight last year. A young studio turning the little movie that could into the little movie that did. They’re now an official player and they’ve come out 2017 with a few runners now that they’ve got the connections to run an actual field this time around.

Their two best players are Lady Bird and The Florida Project. Lady Bird is the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, a somewhat autobiographical picture about a teen girl in the early 90s. The film is one of the big darlings of the critical set right now and Gerwig is a Hollywood favorite that could definitely get this film the early attention. The Florida Project is from Sean Baker, director of the wonderful Tangerine, about the lives of the poor and displaced in a Florida hotel. Willem Dafoe’s against-type performance and the great leading performance of child actress Brooklynn Prince got this thing the attention, but Baker’s very humanistic eye got this thing the love. I didn’t necessarily fall head-over-heels for it, but this is certainly the kind of movie that deserves the Awards talk.

Phantom Thread has a lot going for it. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson, in the conversation for our best living director. It’s Daniel Day-Lewis, in the conversation for our best living actor. It’s a surprisingly respectable looking period piece about high-fashion and passion in 50’s London, which could help people make a connection with PTA’s increasingly difficult films. The only reason it’s not assured is a late release date and a lot of secrecy around it (combined with a dynamo filmmaker and a difficult potential subject makes me think Silence) and the rumors that this may be a real high-class 50 Shades. This is a surprisingly sex-heavy year, but still not sure how that goes over.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of big-swing crowd pleaser that could absolutely find a way to wriggle in easily, especially with its stars and its performances and its 2016-election parallels that can and will be played up. I don’t really care for this one overall, but it’s easy to understand how this one will move into the race.

The Big Sick is another big-swing crowd pleaser that could make it in for all the reasons that Battle of the Sexes could, minus its direct political relevance and adding the true story behind it. This one I’ll admit that I have much more attachment to, given my admiration for Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, and the sweetness and skill with which this story is told means it should absolutely get a shot at the Oscars.

Possibly

I, Tonya
Mudbound
The Disaster Artist
Logan/Wonder Woman
Molly’s Game

I, Tonya is definitely a late-game and somewhat surprising addition to this race. It really exploded out of TIFF and landed in the lap of young distributor NEON. While it’s going to remain to be seen how NEON gets a handle on Oscar campaigns, a big and flashy movie like this with starpower and star performances certainly holds the chance of giving some hooks in.

Mudbound certainly stacks up as the prime sort of Oscar contender. A film about race in post-war America from Dee Rees, whose film Pariah you should absolutely see, that should end up having some resonance, especially after raves out of Sundance. But Netflix is a biq q-mark. Hollywood is no fan of the upstart challenger and there’s a lot of legitimate issues with the way Netflix promotes and throws up the middle finger to theaters. Will the business side overcome the movie?

The Disaster Artist is my personal pick for this year’s dark horse. A Hollywood tale about the love of filmmaking running a surprisingly smart campaign (that billboard) with apparently a career-best performance out of James Franco. I could see this one doing surprisingly well if A24 plays their cards right.

Every year we have the conversation about when/if one of these big superhero blockbusters is going to make it into the Best Picture race. This year has maybe presented the two best shots at it with Logan and Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is the one that feels of its moment and of its time and its critical success has been a surprise for the otherwise-reviled DC Film universe. Logan is a much darker/weightier film than Wonder Woman which may give it the edge in the “respectability” race, though it certainly wasn’t the smash hit that a superhero film is going to need to be to break in here.

Molly’s Game is just here because with a Best Actress/Supporting Actor/Screenplay line-up possible, it certainly needs to be in the conversation. The Academy loves Sorkin.

No-Go

Wind River
Wonder Wheel
All The Money in the World

Weinstein. Allen. (as of today) Spacey. These names are gonna poison these movies.

mother!/The Killing of A Sacred Deer
Breathe
The Greatest Showman

I adored mother! and am fairly certain I have positive feelings about The Killing of A Sacred Deer, but these are two movies for which the word “divisive” was made. mother! got an F Cinemascore for a reason. I can’t see enough people wanting to vote for these.

Breathe is the kind of tear-jerker that tried for the attention but it pretty much fell flat on its face. No box office, no critical love, nothin’.

The Greatest Showman is trying for a little of that La La Land but my god it looks and sounds embarrassing for everyone involved. I hope I’m wrong, but…

Current Category Guess:

Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Call Me By Your Name
Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Florida Project
Phantom Thread
The Big Sick

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Oscars Watch 2018 (Preview): What To Keep An Eye On This Year

Yes, this is probably too early.

But to be fair, this isn’t really a set of predictions. We don’t even begin to know what’s for sure getting released this year, much less what’s getting pushed and what will be successful outside of the festivals where these things live and even less what the political atmosphere will be surrounding this.

Think of this more as a trend piece. What should you be keeping an eye out for? If you want to keep up on what’s hot in the film world, what should you be grabbing tickets for? Basically, it’s a Fall preview, but only for the “respectable stuff.” You already know about Blade Runner 2049 (which actually does stand a good chance of getting technical nominations), Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Justice League. What else?

This is also by NO means a comprehensive list. This’ll be missing stuff like Wonderstruck, Logan, The Greatest Showman, Molly’s Game, Wonder, Last Flag Flying, Professor Marston & The Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman, A Ghost Story, and all the potential nominees for Foreign/Animated/Documentary.

So, right now, we’ll divide the fall festival films/Oscar hopefuls (insofar as they have a good chance, not all prestige bait necessarily) into three categories: Great Guesses, Don’t Count Them Out, and Count Them Out.

Also, I’m gonna use my standard rule for previews that I’m only gonna talk about movies we actually have seen something from, anywhere from a release to reviews out of a film festival. So sorry Phantom Thread and The Post, you’ll have to wait until later. The films here are the ones that are gonna play big roles. Best Picture is kind of the assumption, but there may be other awards I’m expecting, which I’ll note below.

Great Guesses

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name seems to be the most direct response to last year’s surprise victory in Moonlight. A queer story, though one that seems to revolve much more around its romance, Call Me By Your Name is walking the path that Moonlight really blazed for it, a space that seemed unfriendly to a previously much more conservative Academy.

But even beyond that, Call Me By Your Name has received almost universal raves since its debut at Sundance. Luca Guadagnino (a long time critical favorite) has been called a beautifully written, gorgeously shot, and masterfully acted story that’s specific and universally relatable. With an apparent breakout performance for Armie Hammer as young star Timothee Chalamet and a score from Sufjan Stevens, there’s a lot to get excited about here and a lot for voters to latch onto.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score/Best Original Song

Dunkirk/Darkest Hour

Is there another year we’ve had two films functionally about the same event that have both attracted as much attention as these two have? Two films about the Evacuation of Dunkirk, one on the ground and one back in London making the decisions, both attracting huge Oscar attention. Dunkirk for Nolan’s visceral, “You Are There” filmmaking and sheer towering technical achievement, Darkest Hour as a more traditional chamber prestige drama rotating around its dialogue and the huge, flashy lead performance from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill.

Maybe (Both)?: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score
Maybe (Dunkirk)?: Just name a technical award
Maybe (Darkest Hour)?: Best Actor (Gary Oldman), Best Original Screenplay

The Shape of Water

With its Golden Lion win at Venice Film Festival, The Shape of Water technically becomes the first “Oscar season” picture to put some points on the board. Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War fairy tale of the love between a mute woman and a fish man has been getting gushing love throughout the critical spectrum. So far, the film has been praised for its sensuality and sensitivity as well as performances from lead Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as well as supporting work from Richard Jenkins. That the design and directorial work is also extremely strong should surprise no one.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Original Screenplay, All Technical Awards

Battle of the Sexes

The kind of film that will play like gangbusters for Hollywood and the critical audience (given every piece was “This is the election, but not the election”), it will be no surprise when Battle of the Sexes gets to be a huge crowd-pleaser coasting on that love to plenty of safe nominations. The sitting Best Actress winner apparently turns out another exceptional performance, so it’ll be interesting to see if she can pull it off again.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Actor (Steve Carrell), Best Original Screenplay

Mudbound

Netflix’s attempt to get Oscar prestige has been, at least for me, the most quietly fascinating story in Hollywood. Not content being at this point synonymous with watching things on streaming and not content with being a player in just the TV awards, Netflix has been buying up prestige pics and projects right and left. Dee Rees’ post-WWII story of race and family has attracted a lot of attention and seems well up the Academy’s alley as one of the few Black films this year getting any attention.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jason Mitchell), Best Supporting Actor (Garret Hedlund), Best Supporting Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Original Screenplay

Don’t Count Them Out

The Films of A24

A24, having won last year’s Best Picture in one of the most dramatic Oscar moments ever, shows no intention on slowing down. While none of the three below are sure things, A24 has a really solid marketing and schmoozing department and the attention and love these have been getting mean that you absolutely shouldn’t count any out. Plus, the fact that these are three of the films that are getting very little division in a divisive year should be worth paying attention to.

Greta Gerwig making a story about women by women that apparently features an incredibly strong performance from lead Saiorse Ronan (already an Oscar darling). Melting everyone’s hearts.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Saiorse Ronan)

Director of Tangerine makes a working class comedy with a confident directorial style. Amazing Willem Dafoe, great child performances, tapping into stories about the poor and working class.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe), Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Cinematography

And here’s my “Dark Horse” pick. Almost universally well-reviewed right now, a film about the passion and love of filmmaking from a director and star who can apparently surprise with a story that has a huge amount of appeal to the newly young Academy. A story about Hollywood anchored by a performance digging into the heart of someone that seems larger than life. I think we should prepare for a lot from The Disaster Artist.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actor (James Franco), Best Adapted Screenplay

Get Out

One of this year’s bonafide cultural phenomenons, Get Out is the kind of populist blockbuster hit that also has a serious brain, its ideas quickly passing into the cultural aether. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut tapped a vein that a smart studio could easily turn into legitimate Oscar gold. And, given how great this movie is, it really does deserve it and the recognition that we need more stories like this could be good for the industry.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Supporting Actress (Lil Rel Howery), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay

The Big Sick

Another romantic and bonafide crowd pleaser, the success of The Big Sick seems primed to wedge its way into the Oscar race. Amazon showed off its Oscar prowess with Manchester by The Sea last year and the industry seems to have absolutely fallen for the story of how writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, already cult favorites, fell in love.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay

I, Tonya

itonya_02-useforannouncement

A very recent entry into the consideration category, this one really just comes down to whether it’s released this year or not. Just picked up by NEON, they could choose to hold it for a 2018 release. If they don’t, the true story of one of the most bizarre stories in sports, apparently told with a 4th-wall breaking Coen-esque flair. Plus, Margot Robbie is just about at the point in her career where it’s time for her to win an Oscar and Allison Janney is apparently stealing the show at every turn.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actress (Margot Robbie), Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney), Best Original Screenplay

3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh has never exactly been one for a lot of prestige success, his seriously sweary scripts attract a lot of niche and critical love but are rarely going past recognition for screenplays. But between Frances McDormand’s tornado performance and an incredibly stacked cast in a film that seems to have a little heart alongside its caustic nature might go well for this film.

Maybe?: Best Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell)

Count Them Out

Suburbicon

Boy, George Clooney sure can whiff ’em. Reactions seem to be generally negative on this one, a film too divided between a dark comedy and an attempt at a social issues picture to work at either. If no one likes it, nothing is gonna stick.

mother!

What’s the opposite of a crowd pleaser? Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-horror mother! is getting a lot of great reviews and I’m dying to see it, but even the most positive word has cautioned that this movie will absolutely not be for everyone with one of the most verifiably insane third acts. The kind of movie that promises to “Mess. You. Up.” is gonna have a really difficult time getting its claws into an Academy Award.

Roman J. Israel, Esq

A chance for Denzel to win another award, but early word seems way too divided on this movie, mostly saying that it just doesn’t ever end up coming together, a lot of raw material that doesn’t quite work. Denzel could rise above, but if no one likes the movie, that’ll be hard. Nightcrawler didn’t exactly light up the Academy either.

Downsizing

While early word out of Venice was positive, this mostly seems to be getting slammed once it gets to American shores. A premise that mostly feels wasted and Payne maybe over-extending his reach a little bit. The word about the Vietnamese refugee character really doesn’t seem to help.

The Current War

The honorary winner of the trailer with the SINGLE LOUDEST CAMERA I’VE EVER SEEN, the constant bag of tricks apparently didn’t mean anything for this film. Reviews say that this is the same bland prestige biopic that always stars Benedict Cumberbatch…just with the camera spinning basically everywhere.

The Worst and, more importantly, THE BEST of 2017, so far

So, as I am the grand arbiter of all things film, I’m officially calling the summer movie season at its close. Alas Logan Lucky, The Glass Castle, or Annabelle: Creation, you’re all part of the fall movie season. However will you survive?

And at the close of summer movie season, we’re essentially halfway through the movie year. I know we’re more than halfway through the calendar year, but trust me, that back half is always as packed as it gets. There’ll end up being things that are Oscar nominees that aren’t even on our radar right now. The worst movie of the year is likely still yet to come (though it’s hard to imagine right now).

But since I’m a fiend for lists, let’s make one, shall we? Let’s give a few check-ins and see where we are, starting with the worst (because it gets the attention) before taking a full celebration of the best.

Bottom 5 Films of 2017 So Far

5) The Dark Tower

Idris Elba

Ahh, The Dark Tower. The best franchise that will never quite be. Based on Stephen King’s series of epic fantasy western Lovecraftian meta-novels, some much smarter studio could have had a new Game of Thrones on its hands. Alas, it was in the hands of Sony and they instead produced a fall flat on its face. A mess of bad studio production, The Dark Tower wastes its actors, murders its pacing, and takes all the material and tosses it out the window for a mid-90s adaptation premise. Any film that features Matthew McConaughey saying “I see you’re still impervious to my magicks” with a straight face has an uphill battle. The Dark Tower doesn’t win it.

4) The Circle

image

A bland mess of technophobia, I really just feel bad for the people involved here. The Circle is Black Mirror without the brains or heart, an aesthetic rip-off by a huge number of people who should be able to make some better stamp. Staring a pitch-perfect satire of late capitalism in the face, The Circle is content to shake its fist at social media and ultimately end up going nowhere.

3) Transformers: The Last Knight

transformers

Look, who the living fuck expects anything out of this franchise at this point? The best Transformers has ever been able to aspire to is Bay’s weird hypercompetencies managing to shine through the material. But when they don’t, it’s the same thing that happens every goddamned time: A mess of story with awful design with a runtime that lasts for aeons.

2) Ghost in the Shell

ghost-in-the-shell-2017-trailer-ed

A pile-up of decisions so bad that you’re more baffled that it ever happened than mad that someone chose to do it. That all said, this is a film that was never going to be great and still manages to enrage far above its station. A messy script, terrible direction, and boring setpieces would sink any movie, but a movie that white-washes like this one does deserves all the ire that can be thrown. When your material is so fertile with intellect, you can’t be this fucking stupid in putting it together.

1) The Book of Henry

the-book-of-henry-movie-3

Colin Trevorrow is a rare sort of filmmaker, one who in a past era would have perhaps been run out of town after town after the people found out his snake oil elixirs just weren’t working. The Book of Henry is his raw nerve put on screen. Excessively manipulative, baffling in every plot point put on screen, and a masterpiece of inhuman behavior, seemingly put together by a man who’s never met a human but is fairly certain he knows how they work. Fuck this movie.

The Big Sick is a wonderfully specific story of love and culture

I think the biggest success of any movie is it being able to pierce past your own personal knowledge and hang-ups and lose yourself in the actual world of the movie. This is what a lot of “Based on a True Story” movies miss. Even if the story is significant, the significance of that story has to exist within the movie itself, it needs to unfold the same way if you DO know the story as if you DON’T know the story.

The Big Sick is based on a true story that is known largely to a small contingent of massive comedy nerds. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, husband-and-wife alt-comedy darlings, wrote the movie based on their real life romance, wherein Kumail was a young stand-up who fell in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan), but their relationship falls apart when Kumail can’t tell his strict Muslim parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) about their relationship and break their wishes for him to have an arranged marriage.

That clean culture-clash breakup hits a snag when Emily gets terribly sick and has to be put into a medically-induced coma. Kumail is the only one around who can help her, until her parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, tense and angry at Kumail and the only people who can understand what he’s going through.

I’m coming at this movie from an admittedly different place than much of the audience. I mentioned that this story is mostly known to comedy nerds, and I would certainly count myself among that number. I’ve also spent ample time listening to the podcast and video output of Emily and Kumail, and as with anyone you spend an hour or so a week pumping their talking in your ears, you feel like you get to know them.

So, this is a story and a depiction that’s definitely a little closer to my heart and a story that almost can’t hold any surprises. I give all this context to make clear the effectiveness of this movie. I know these people, I know this story, and I still got almost effortlessly wrapped up in every little turn along the path to the destination I already knew.

It’s not hard to attribute a lot of that to Nanjiani and Gordon’s crackling script. Loaded to the brim with raw dialogue and some great jokes (including probably the best 9/11 joke I’ve ever heard), there’s such a wonderful cultural and emotional specificity, drawing off all of these very real experiences. It feels like a singularly-told story in its nuance, the honest fights being relived as well as the triumphs. It doesn’t fall too deep into any cliche depictions, but it does know its genre well enough to navigate what works.

What it also does it give great characters for its actors to latch onto. Kazan may have the most thankless role here (she’s in a coma for most of this movie’s second act), but she does some wonderful work with what she’s got. Shroff and Kher, playing Kumail’s parents, give a lot of careful work to roles that manage to not just feel like villains, but people with their own culturally-ingrained mindset.

Much very due praise has been given to Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in this movie, and I want to echo it. Each find a deep well of sweetness and compassion, the kind of parents you want to root for even beyond the situation they’ve been put in. Both are going to have a lot of attention come awards season and each absolutely deserves it.

But I want to give a little extra space to talking how good Kumail Nanjiani is as a lead here. He’s such a nontraditional romantic lead in a lot of ways, but he sells all those traditional traits, that charm and that wit and that genuine need to grow. He sells the journey so well at both the dramatic and comedic moments, he feels awkward without ever feeling uncomfortable. Nanjiani is just too good, a lead who you root for but never feels like he’s anything less than the persona he’s created.

Of course, that also owes dues to director Michael Showalter. While he’s certainly no technical wizard, his locked down style benefits a movie about conversation and relationships, holding every moment just long enough and cutting things at just the right time. Some weird editing here and there, but his framing of the story is almost flawless, keeping it from ever spiraling too far past its real, raw roots.

Those raw roots in what are clearly some real pains and feelings. Nanjiani and Gordon’s script digs deep into not just bridging the gap between two different cultural expectations, but more deeply into making decisions that you were never expected to make. It’s most potent moments come from those defiances, of turning your back on the only thing your parents wanted for you, or for having feelings you never though you would.

But let it not sound like this is some ponderous indie drama. The Big Sick is a riotously funny movie and one with a deep well of compassion and sweetness. A crowd-pleaser and the sort of unabashedly romantic story that inoculates against easy cynicism.

Grade: A

 

 

My Most Anticipated of 2017 (That I’ve Actually Heard Anything About)

As we close off the last year in film, it’s time to look forward to the next one. It’s one of the most fun parts of any film year, when all the blockbusters and big prestige dramas lay before us full of possibility, all the Sundance pictures are still in the happy festival haze before the backlash and shocking revelations get started.

Of course, I want to be a responsible critic and manage expectations. That means that I want to limit the films that I’m looking forward to that those that have evidence. In other words, things that have trailers, reviews from festivals, or just some actual news on what the movie could be. It would be also be nice to have a proven track record. In other words, actual evidence from past successes or previous films in the series

In other words, sorry to Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League who are only up in the header image. Bait and switch, I know. But between no news, being too early for news, or being directed by Zack Snyder in Warner Bros.’ DCEU, there’s no reason to get excited just yet. But don’t despair! Here’s a few things you can be excited for!

Baby Driver

baby-driver-5_1200_758_81_s

Thinnest cling to the premise of the article, I know. But Baby Driver comes to us from Edgar Wright, one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood who’s earned enough trust to jump out on whatever ledge he asks. Besides, we’ve seen what the film looks like and we know what it’s about! Baby Driver is a crime picture starring Ansel Elgort as a mute getaway driver who gets caught up in a robbery that goes wrong.

Did I mention that Elgort plays a character who drives to music and that therefore the entire movie will have its action sequences set to a ever-rotating soundtrack? Because if you’ve ever seen any other Edgar Wright movie, you will know that merging soundtrack with action is one of his specialties, and that if he’s given a chance to set a whole movie on that idea? You should be buying tickets now.

The Big Sick

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One of the first darlings of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this one comes from the husband-and-wife comedy team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, LA comedy scene darlings now turned screenwriters. The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter and based on the true story of how the two of them met and got married, it stars Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail and Zoe Kazan as Emily.

Kumail is a struggling comic who gets heckled by Emily at one of his shows. The two quickly fall for each other, but run up against a roadblock when Kumail refuses to stand up to his traditional Muslim family, which leads to their break-up. Emily, however, falls ill and Kumail is the only one in the area who can take care of her and must deal with his parents, her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), and his own need to grow up.

Sundance du jour from the sound of it, but the reviews have pointed towards a romantic comedy that is filled with specificity (thanks to its real life draw) and knowledge of its genre with able acting and filmmaking.

Blade Runner 2049

The sequel that we never should have been excited for, Blade Runner 2049 quickly got us (okay, me) on its side with perhaps one of the only teams that could do any justice to the classic original. Director Denis Villeneuve, hot off the Oscar-nominated Arrival! Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins! A cast that includes Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Bautista! Also Jared Leto is there. The recipe looks to be for success.

The trailer only seems to show that it’s coming together. Barely anything revealed, but it showed a world that clearly picks up off the visually distinctive original, a lot of progress, and an intriguing mystery to come. It could be still on the pile of bad ideas, but this one looks like it has the muscle to lift itself out.

The Fate of the Furious

Speaking of muscle.

This is not an ironic thing. I really do earnestly love these movies. It’s a big budget action franchise that knows it can’t and shouldn’t take itself seriously, and instead leans into the talents of its cast and into ever increasingly pushing the size and scope of what it’s covering. The Fate of the Furious looks to absolutely pick up on that, dropping a story epic in scale, pitting an apparently traitorous Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) now working with an evil tech terrorist (Charlize Theron) against his former friends, now seemingly led by Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). It’s a movie that’s going to have a full blown Arctic car chase with a submarine getting involved. How do you not love that?

Get Out

Key & Peele was long one of the most exciting shows in comedy, and much of that came with the eponymous duo’s surprising knowledge of genre tropes and the filmmaking required to indulge them. So when Jordan Peele splits off to finally make a genre picture, you should stand up and take notice.

This was Sundance’s surprise midnight screening this year, and reactions out of there are suitably impressed with Peele’s confident first-time direction as well as the movie’s nuanced take on racial issues, aimed more at the subtle ways that the seemingly well-meaning perpetuate racism and the daily existence of Black men.

A Ghost Story

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A small film made almost entirely in secret, no one knew quite what to expect when David Lowery showed up at Sundance with a film starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck filmed in a little over two weeks after his gorgeous big-budget Pete’s Dragon. Excitement began to percolate with A24 picked it up before its debut.

Word out of Sundance is that it does not disappoint. A gorgeous and entirely unique film with some serious shit on its mind about love, death, and time (THAT’S RIGHT. TAKE SOME NOTES COLLATERAL BEAUTY YOU MONSTER). Lowery is one of our most exciting filmmakers and I’m thrilled to see him refuse to rest on his laurels.

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick was one of the best action films of 2014 and the 21st century so far. That’s pretty much all you should need to get excited for John Wick: Chapter 2. More of Keanu Reeves’ enigmatic assassin, more of the impressive worldbuilding the first one pulled off, and hopefully more mindblowingly well-done setpieces. John Wick: Chapter 2 really needs nothing more than its previous sequel and the promise of expansion as he’s beset on all sides by assassins looking to kill him all around the world.

Logan

I know, it’s weird for me that I’m looking that much forward to an X-Men movie too. But Logan‘s feverish and melancholy broken-down Western vibe is majorly working for me, as well as the promise of an actual look at the legacy that this long-lived franchise has managed to create, specifically with Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Xavier. There have been some preliminary screenings of the first 40 minutes of this film that received absolute raves, so if this one can maintain that momentum as well as the surprising heart of its predecessor The Wolverine, Logan might be something actually great coming out of X-Men.

Mudbound

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If you aren’t familiar with the name Dee Rees, then you’re seriously missing out. Her 2011 debut Pariah is a sweet and fascinatingly nuanced coming-of-age queer tale with an extraordinary amount of directorial confidence and I’ve been dying for a big screen follow-up from her. Mudbound is that follow-up, a generational tale of race in the aftermath of World War 2 with a cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund and so many more. Early Sundance reviews name this as another favorite of the festival, a surprisingly epic film with that same directorial confidence and precision that she showed in Pariah. It’s great to see talent rewarded and I can only hope Dee Rees has a long career to come.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This is the one I will most likely eat crow on, but I really don’t care. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet is a return by Luc Besson to the gonzo Sci-fi that characterized his best film, The Fifth Element. Valerian clearly holds nothing back, there’s so much creativity on display in its scope and its design. The fact that Besson always seems willing to go balls to the wall story-wise gives us the chance that Valerian might be able to actually be the sort of thing that goes over-the-top and earns being that truly insane visually. Plus, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne being the leads might mean this thing could be up for the Oscar for “Most Eyebrows in a Movie.”