Is It Me? 2017 Film Award Favorites—International/Foreign Language—Prologue

The year got off to a slow start even in the international scene, though things erupted with a bang! so to speak, with the release of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper in early March. I’m speaking of the blackout ending, of course, perhaps the most satisfying moment of the year. The film is a reunion of the stylish French filmmaker—who tied for Best Director at Cannes in 2016 for it—and Kristen Stewart, following Clouds of Sils Maria, and, as such, marks the difficulties in delineating what precisely is a foreign-international or English-language production. I put Assayas’ film in the former category because, although just one of several international filmmakers who’s reached out to American and English-speaking stars, he’s so indelibly linked to the French film industry and …Shopper was, typically for him, internationally financed. Though marred somewhat by a lurid melodramatic murder subplot that reminds one of his international intrigue thrillers from the previous decade, Demonlover and Boarding Gate, who can resist a good ghost story, especially one involving twin siblings? Bang!

Speaking of …Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche arrived the following month alongside personal fave Fabrice Luchini in the deliberately outrageous Ma Loute—drably renamed Slack Bay here—from another film stylist, Bruno Dumont. The colorful, absurdist hijinks along the scenic seashore barely mask an unsavory undercurrent to the disgusting, dissolute display by the one percent, and sure enough, the stark subversion of class distinction and privilege breaks through but never totally obscures the fun, which includes satiric scenes of classic cinematic eroticism involving the young lower-class lovers (Brandon Lavieville, Raph). Dumont does a nice job mixing and juxtaposing the all-star and totally unproven cast to great effect, also getting great mileage with the always popular satire of the French police throughout. Cahiers du cinéma named the film the fifth best of the year, which, lo, is right where I have it.

In addition to The Zookeeper’s Wife, the Holocaust remains the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. Celebrated Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher brought together two excellent young actresses, Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar, to play modern sisters literally slapped from complacency into looking into their father’s (Doran Tavory, the steely invasive Israel defense minister in Lemon Tree) murky past in Past Life. This is a genre favorite, and you just know what they’ll find—or do you? Arriving in November and blowing most all of the competition away, Hungarian filmmaker Ferenc Török’s beautifully done 1945 summons an astonishing, in-your-face act of redemption as if from a predawn séance through the solemn and dignified arrival of two Jewish outsiders (Iván Angelusz, Marcell Nagy) into a small, postwar, Russian-occupied Hungarian village of self-interested, eccentric conspirators. Shot in B&W with slow tracking shots and odd angles and like a 1940s Henri-Georges Clouzot French noir or a midcentury western, every gesture and movement in this expertly crafted piece of expressionism counts. Drenched in irony and symbolism, the film comes full circle with the strangers exit with billowing smoke from the locomotive evoking scenes of the final journey from a nation that under Germany in years just previous took the lead in outsourcing its peoples to Auschwitz.

More a post–WWI romance than an examination of the origins of the next European conflagration, another intruder’s (an excellent Pierre Niney, A Perfect Man, Yves Saint Laurent) murky identity nonetheless plays a large part in his acceptance or no at the hands of a German couple and their daughter (Paula Beer) grieving their lost son and brother and more amid rising nationalist tension in François Ozon’s period mood piece Frantz. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment) has dedicated much of his feature film professional career wrestling with his country’s notorious past and arrived with another such depiction, 13 Minutes, involving the compelling reenactment of a nearly successful assassination on the Fürher early on by an inspired musician-turned resistance fighter (Christian Friedell, Amour FouThe White Ribbon) unnerved by his country’s takeover by a wave of Nazism, intolerance, and industrial militarism. Hirschbiegel takes a typically direct and professional approach to the daring November 1939 event, which, after all, if successful, could’ve prevented the deaths of some 55 million people, including some 6 million European Jews, reminding one that if all is fatalism, there is still much left to chaos and chance. Still, there are moments of idyll in the plot’s progression, and in Georg Elser’s sometimes unhinged derangement one is reminded of Sean Penn’s Samuel Bicke in the underappreciated 2004 film The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Nixon may not have been quite as prolific as Adolf Hitler, but he and war-crimes cohort Heinz Alfred Kissinger did pave the way for the torture and disappearance of more than 40,000 Chileans under Augusto Pinochet and in what the Vietnamese call the American War, estimates of 1965-74 deaths—Nixon assumed the presidency in ‘68—range from University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emeritus Guenter Lewy’s prescaled 1.35 million to The BMJ’s 1.7 million—with The BMJ’s 3.1 million to 3.4 to more than 4 million from the Socialist Republic itself for the entire affair. Too bad, really, but, as you know, heroism is not always defined by success. Just look at the movies.

One would like to think such holocausts—hydrogen cyanide–saturated labor camp showers and the suffusive aerial strafing of an entire nation with napalm—were over, or that these people didn’t die all in vain. Besides Past Life, another Israeli film, Foxtrot, arrived here late that I was fortunate to see presented by its director, Samuel Maoz (Lebanon), at AFI Fest in Hollywood in November. Sweeping several Awards of the Israeli Film Academy—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor—winner of the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at Venice, and the National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Language Film, the avant-garde, often absurdist, Kubrickesque antiwar film contains perhaps the most indelible image of the year: that of an occupied car being completely buried under, and bulldozed over, the land adjacent to an Israeli checkpoint. A war veteran—who isn’t in Israel?—Moaz presents a repressed architect, husband, and father (Lior Ashkenazi, Norman, Yitzhak Rabin in 7 Days in Entebbe) crumbling under the weight of his responsibilities amid the aftereffects of a tragedy involving his son (Yonaton Shiray, A Tale of Love and Darkness), whose checkpoint posting with his peers accounts for the Kubrickesque. American armchair conservatives, none of whom appeared to be in attendance amid the modest faithful at the afternoon screening, may be surprised—or maybe they just don’t care—at the toll the Palestinian occupation is taking on the psyches of those wearing, and who have worn, the boots on the ground. All this, and the film didn’t even make my top ten.

Neither did Loveless, another celebrated film from Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (Leviathan), a solid, creative effort artistically shot by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and well-acted by principals Aleksey Rozin, Maryana Spivak, and Matvey Novikov, who’s gone early but gets in a few appropriately surly and sullen scenes. The film shines a light on the frightful circumstances of Russian runaways and deliciously skewers the aspiring bourgeoisie, who appear to have lost themselves in their smartphones—who hasn’t?—with Spivak’s Zhenya’s shockingly brusque attitude toward her on-the-outs husband and neglected son tempered by self-centered selfies and such, as if when she looks upon the glass of her phone it is as if she were Narcissus looking into a gleaming pool. Karl Marx would certainly be spinning in his grave upon a viewing—who knew an opiate of the masses would be so cool and sensational?—but then again, they’ve been used by the voiceless from Iran to Egypt to recent protests by American schoolchildren to light the fires of revolution.

Standout actress Bérénice Bejo is equally severe—how could she be otherwise?—in After Love, a French-Belgian production you probably didn’t see but perhaps may’ve liked to. I saw the film at AFI Fest the previous November. It was in Santa Monica for a week in August, a cruel inequity for a more vibrant depiction of a deeply estranged couple with children present that recalls the power of Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s certainly one of the best of its kind in the subgenre since, and one I think Americans would appreciate. After Love flows with the rhythms of life so typical of French films; it becomes a study in domestic repair when the estranged couple must endure the finality of their uncomfortable relations together due to the husband’s (terrific French triple-threat Cédric Khan) ill fortune. Bejo’s luminous forbidding gaze softens a bit—the witch of all domestic witches, and yet who wouldn’t want to be under her spell?—and as if the drama wasn’t enough, the couple’s warmer moments with their children deliver a reward that the lost Russians of Loveless just can’t.

Speaking of Russia, and its former occupation of Hungary, two films arrived that took place in adjacent former satellite states Czechoslovakia and Poland; one was, IMO, the international film of the year. In Jan Hrebejk’s (Divided We Fall) The Teacher, which takes place in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s pre–Velvet Revolution, the petty favoritism and manipulative, unscrupulous self-interest of “Comrade Teacher” Mária Drazdechová (a nice Zuzana Mauréry) serve as a glass reflection of the punitive, corrupt socialist state at large. The story is framed by an administrative meeting called to give semideluded, played-upon parents a voice in the teacher’s potential transfer, as if she were an abusive priest, once the jig is up: the return of favors for the children of parents who reward her and scoldings and downwardly adjusted grades for those whose don’t. The meeting plays out like a heated episode of season one of HBO’s Big Little Lies; though the emergence of an abusive father (sleeping giant Martin Havelka, who needs to be discovered by Aki Kaurismäki) of a delinquent son (Oliver Oswald) into her romantic sphere is surprising. The film, despite its sometimes intense exchanges, plays in a light, ironic sheen overall, and while mediocrity is indeed rewarded in such totalitarian societies—nevermind the organized bullying of noncompliant actors—it’s been known to in democracies as well.

The film is a jewel to Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, and it’s one Polish avant-garde constructivist artist Wladystaw Stremiński might’ve appreciated as well. Stremiński is the subject of the iconic Andrej Wajda’s (Walesa, Tatarak, Katyn) stirring, invigorating swan song, Afterimage, which depicts a similar society post–­WWII in more drastic and desperate tones. The film begins with a pastoral scene of Stremiński (the drastically underappreciated Boguslaw Linda—his only recognition outside Poland for the film was a fifth-place Best Actor finish at the Seattle International Film Festival—in a performance for a lifetime) and his loyal, dedicated art students that might not have been out of place in The Sound of Music and ends in utter horror. Stremiński’s penetrating and popular lectures on vision theory at the State Higher School of the Visual Arts in Lodz are just beginning to stir the free-thinking youth when Minister of Culture and Art Wlodzimierz Sokorski (Szymon Bobrowski) stomps in to put a damper on them. Stremiński’s objections to demands that the visual arts school service communist ideology eventually cost him his teaching position; his party papers soon follow, exiling him from virtually everything, to the point where he cant even purchase paints at the party-owned co-op. The proud artist, whose own works are purged from the modern and contemporary Museum of Art in Lodz and his person erased from history, advises his concerned, outraged students that the “wind of history” will soon pass, but he miscalculates the storm that’s enveloping him. His plight is in part self-inflicted, and not just because he dared take a stand, which can mean personal ruin in just about any society at any time. A multiple amputee who lives on a steady diet of work, cigarettes, and the absence of sunlight, he rejects his estranged daughter’s (Bronislawa Zamachowska) entreaties to assist, and otherwise treats the runaway a little shabbily. For the consumed painter, it’s indeed pride before the fall; after fighting for food stamps, he soon rejects those as well. Wajda lets the audience decide for themselves about the man, whose quiet, dignified reserve and relaxed, assured cadence and demeanor can’t bear the weight of history. Whatever you decide, his devastating descent seems tailor-made for anti-communist Americans, though it, and the film itself, a gripping tearjerker, is one for the ages. The Academy missed a final chance to honor Wajda, who won an Honorary Oscar for five decades of extraordinary film direction in 2000—his first film, A Generation, about Polish youth coming of age during the German socialist occupation, came out in 1955. He perished at 90 just a month prior to Afterimage’s premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. You couldn’t write a more perfect script, but I understand A Fantastic Woman was all the rage, and old white European men are passé.

Speaking of Russia and film, it’s hard not to get around Andrei Tarkovsky these days. Criterion is in the midst of remastering his work for both theatrical and home-video release, and the May limited release—I saw it the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles—of Stalker, his absolutely mesmerizing 1979 dystopian sci-fi masterwork, was, IMO, the film event of the year. The new 2K digital restoration further crystallizes its entrancing aural and visual delights: an industrial symphony of dripping water on pans, creaking wood floors, broken glass, positively transfixing extended slow-pan close-ups of cast-aside religious relics and iconography submerged under shimmering water. Masterful scene setup and shots, sound design, atmospherics—it’s arthouse cinema to the nth degree. The terra firma sci-fi—ruined cars, strewn streets, poisoned water, industrial decay, a woman’s (Alisa Freyndlikh) breakdown, its hopeless, radioactive apocalypse a premonition of Chernobyl—evoke Lars von Trier’s early The Element of Crime, which would come five years later. The Stalker (Alexsandr Kaydanovskiy) at the center lives life on the edge, toiling for himself and his family, a distressed common soul with a wolf-like connection to a stray dog he’ll adopt, a proletarian model to the loquacious idleness of Pisatel, the writer (Anatolly Solonitsyn), and the Professor (Nikolay Grinko) waist-deep in the mud of their own absurdity. The film is quite dialogue-drenched in the metaphysical and existential, with its hopeless search for meaning amid ruin, and Pisatel can be a real turnoff, but its rewards are too stunning to ignore. If the climax collapses into utter uselessness, as if into a black hole, the finale is riveting, its final image a searing indictment not only of the bourgeoise intelligentsia, but of the military and bureaucracy of a government of a stifling society devoid of spirituality and mysticism that thoughtlessly leaves its children and next generations to suffer the oppressive consequences. It dawned on me what a loss it is to lose Tarkovsky at such a relatively young age—he was 54 when he perished in exile from lung cancer, likely attributable to damage he sustained filming Stalkerin a poisoned industrial setting on a drawn-out shoot. If critics fawned over Loveless, it just can’t touch a film like Stalker, and this is the legacy we miss.

I typically don’t fret with animated films when doing a top ten—I don’t see many anyway and they’re not truly feature films, but two absolutely phenomenal such films arrived from foreign shores that just could not be ignored. Loving Vincent, from writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, who should receive free lifetime memberships to the Louvre, is an innovative creative gift to fans of Vincent van Gogh—who are basically all of us. Animation is achieved, appropriately enough, through painterly effect—painted frame after painted frame after painted frame in the artist’s swirling, effusive, color-burst late-period style suffused over the actors’ scenes and into the backgrounds. If that’s not enough, the well-researched screenplay is a much-appreciated examination of the artist’s final days in Auvers, dramatically depicting one of the most unbearably wretched sagas in the annals of art history, which has seen many. If it isn’t bad enough we lost Tarkovsky too early, losing van Gogh in his prime, especially in this sordid fashion, is deeply depressing. Of course. back then, the Impressionism star whose more renowned paintings fetch nine figures was a nobody, really, an outcast of not only the Parisian art scene but of humanity itself, and this film is an ode to a sympathetic man who deserved better. The pathetically ordinary, but still extra…, plot commences when a postmaster’s (Chris O’Dowd, The Cloverfield Paradox, Molly’s Game) son, Armand Roulin (a nice Douglas Booth, The Dirt, Mary Shelley) reluctantly agrees to deliver a dead letter from Vincent to brother Theo, only to find himself sucked into the artist’s confounding demise himself to the point of attachment. The animation features an excellent supportive cast of English actors, including Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette, Poldark) as hotel proprietress Adeline Ravoux, personal fave Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones, Ripper Street) as Dr. Gachet, and Helen McCrory (Their FinestPenny Dreadful) as Gachet’s bitter housekeeper Louise Chevalier; it-girl Saoirse Ronan also appears as Gachet’s unsympathetic daughter, Marguerite. It’s a colorful case Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would’ve enjoyed, and you should too. The Breadwinner, meanwhile, from Irish animation filmmaker Nora Twomey (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) is a true animation, and one of the most artistically aspirational films you’ll see. Written by writer-director Anita Doran (The End of Silence) from the children’s book by Canadian author/activist Deborah Ellis, the screenplay is a paean to the Afghan storytelling tradition, with 11-year-old heroine Parvana (Saraa Chaudry) not only rising up to rescue her Taliban-abducted father (Ali Badshah) from under the cloak of oppression, but also undergoing a mythical journey of her own. The film itself is a dynamic expression of Afghan culture, and the film’s audio-visual artistry a nice recompense for a people who have endured and experienced too much. It too has an excellent cast, from veteran television guest-star Laara Sadiq as Parvana’s mother, Fatana; Shaista Latif as her sister, Soraya; Kawa Ada as market benefactor/protector Razaq; Soma Chhaya as co-conspirator Shauzia; and Noorin Gulamgaus as Taliban bad-boy Idrees. Considering this country and culture has inextricably been linked to our own for the past three decades or so, with our military presence there going well into its second, this is a film every American should see, and take their children to see; the least we can do for this besieged nation is to see a 95-minute cartoon celebrating its culture and people. I unfortunately missed an afternoon family outing to see Coco, but it must have been something else to beat these two films to an Animated Feature Film Academy Award. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this, in 2017, is what I beheld.

(This post continues below with my 2017 international/foreign language film award favorites.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

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Is It Me? 2017 Film Award Favorites—International/Foreign Language—Awards

International/Foreign Language Film Awards

(Winners in bold.)

 Film of the Year

 Personal Shopper

Slack Bay

Afterimage

1945

In the Fade

Filmmaker of the Year (Writer-Director)

Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper)

Bruno Dumont (Slack Bay)

Avi Nesher (Past Life)

Ferenc Török (1945)

Fatih Akin (In the Fade)

Stand-Alone Director of the Year

Andrej Wajda (Afterimage)

Best Screenplay

Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper)

Bruno Dumont (Slack Bay)

Andrzej Mularczyk (Afterimage)

Fanny Burdino, Mazarine Pingeot, Joachim Lafosse (After Love)

Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman (Loving Vincent)

Best Adapted Screenplay

François Ozon, Phillippe Piazzo (Frantz)

Avi Nesher (Past Life)

Ferenc Török, Gábor T. Szántó (1945)

Anita Doran (The Breadwinner)

Fatih Akin (In the Fade)

 

Male Performance of the Year 

Pierre Niney (Frantz)

Fabrice Luchini (Slack Bay)

Boguslaw Linda (Afterimage)

Cédric Khan (After Love)

Lior Ashkenazi (Foxtrot) 

Female Performance of the Year

Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper)

Juliette Binoche (Slack Bay)

Joy Rieger (Past Life)

Bérénice Bejo (After Love)

Diane Kruger (In the Fade)

The Two Catherines Onscreen Chemistry Award

Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve (The Midwife) 

Male Supporting Performance

Thierry Lavieville (Slack Bay)

Martin Havelka (The Teacher)

Iván Angelusz (1945)

Norman Acar (In the Fade)

Johannes Krisch (In the Fade) 

Female Supporting Performance

Zofia Wichlacz (Afterimage)

Evgenia Dodina (Past Life)

Nelly Tagar (Past Life)

Sarah Adler (Foxtrot)

Dóra Sztarenki (1945)

 

Best Cinematography

Guillaume Deffontaines (Slack Bay)

Jean-Francois Hensgens (After Love)

Elemér Ragályl (1945)

Mikhail Krichman (Loveless)

Rainer Klausmann (In the Fade)

Production Design

Michel Barthélémy (Frantz)

Riton Dupire-Clément (Slack Bay)

Benedikt Herforth, Thomas Stammer (13 Minutes)

Juraj Fabry (The Teacher)

László Rajk (1945)

Costume Design

Pascaline Chavanne (Frantz)

Alexandra Charles (Slack Bay)

Katarzyna Lewinska (Afterimage)

Dorota Roqueplo (Loving Vincent)

Sosa Juristovszky (1945)

Best Music

Uncredited (Personal Shopper)

Philippe Rombi (Frantz)

Andrzej Panufnik (Afterimage)

Tibor Szemzö (1945)

Jeff and Mychael Dana (The Breadwinner) 

Best Original Song

The Crown Sleeps—Music by Qais Essar, lyrics by Joshua Hill; performed by Qais Essar featuring Elaha Soroor and Felicity Williams (The Breadwinner)

Runner-up: I Know Places—Composed by Rick Nowels & Björn Yttling, performed by Lykke Li (In the Fade)

Breakthrough Actor

Brandon Lavieville (Slack Bay) 

Breakthrough Actress

Raph (Slack Bay)

Best Ensemble

Frantz

Slack Bay

Loving Vincent

1945

The Breadwinner

 

Special Citations for Creative Filmmaking

Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman (Loving Vincent)

Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner)

Special Citation for Filmmaking Merit

Oliver Hirschbiegel (Director, 13 Minutes)

Repertory Screening of the Year

Stalker (1979)—New 2K Digital Restoration, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles, May 19-June 1

Top Ten International/Foreign Language Films of the Year (in order)

Afterimage; 1945; In the Fade; Personal Shopper; Slack Bay;

The Breadwinner; Loving Vincent; After Love; Past Life; Frantz

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Me Too: 2017 Film Award Favorites—Domestic/English Language—Prologue

Just when you were totally burnt on 2017 end-of-year film awards, here comes another. I typically time this annual rite to coincide with the Oscars—while also allowing myself time to catch up on all the late-season releases—of which I drastically diverge. This year, instead of being a preview, then, it’s more a post-view, or postmortem; no 11th hour here, we are beyond midnight, sweeping up the dark, deserted celluloid streets as if broken glass by a lone, resolute janitor. The year began slowly, with even foreign fare being atypically underwhelming, but the second half was strong, and I ended with solid top ten lists for both domestic (this time) and foreign (next time) releases.

In terms of the Oscars, this year was no different. Besides the typical snubs—no Will Smith #oscarssowhite uproar this time—the biggest shock IMO was Daniel Kaluuya’s ascension to the summit of acting accomplishment. The young man was, indeed, solid in Get Out and certainly has a promising career—he’s already distinguished himself this year in The Black Panther, a showcase of Black acting talent—but his presence among the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis—an actor in his own category—and Gary Oldman—was a blow to the senses. Not only did it come at the expense of a career-defining, precision performance by Liam Neeson in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, but the young Brit had to run through a gauntlet of individual accomplishment by many of the best actors we have today who were also in contention: Charlie Zunnan (The Lost City of Z), Brad Pitt (War Machine), Colin Farrell (The Beguiled), Jeremy Renner (Wind River), Hugh Bonneville (Viceroy’s House), Javier Bardem (mother!), Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049), Kenneth Branagh (Murder On the Orient Express), Christian Bale (The Promise, Hostiles), and Tom Hanks (The Post), as well as fellow 28-year-old compatriot Nicholas Hoult (Rebel In the Rye). Now, what unites these fine actors besides prodigious talent is that, with the possible exception of Spaniard Bardem, they are all porcelain Eurocentric, in other words, passé. No, in a year in which Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a disappointment and The Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman appeared as a young Thurgood Marshall, it was the throwback satiric horror-thriller Get Out, in which writer-director-producer Jordan Peele largely updated Blaxploitation archetypes for a post-Obama nation awash in extrajudicial killings, the mass incarceration of Black peoples, Black voter suppression, and backlash against silent and dignified anthem protests, that captured audiences. Problem is, while the film was undeniably entertaining, well-acted, and wryly subversive, IMO it was not even the most rewarding among its genre, which I believe belonged to M. Night Shyamalan’s even more transformative Split that featured the flat-out most brilliant acting performance of the year by James McAvoy, who was nowhere to be seen come nomination time.

With Kaluyaa’s pick, the Academy achieved a 20% diversity rate among its nominations in the four acting categories in a year in which the profession become more alighted to issues of gender exploitation. That bested my paltry 15%, which was nonetheless better than our sitting president’s 6% in appointing federal judges, though that number is skewed by ideology—it’s difficult to find judges who will suppress people of color who are also persons of color, after all, though not impossible. But before you believe me forcibly retired like those old caucasian former Academy guys, my percentage could’ve improved had I not missed Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Crown Heights, which was in theatres for maybe a week or two; or not put off Mudbound for so long that it remains unseen—yes, you may have me stoned or drawn and quartered for that, please do. I did get in scene-stealing supporting actor Idris Elba, again dissed by the Academy, who asserted some of the most stirring monologues on justice or lack thereof in Molly’s Game since Tom Wilkinson in The Conspirator. I also tried to attend an October Beverly Hills special screening of Tariq Nasheed’s (Hidden Colors) 1804: the Hidden History of Haiti, only to be rebuffed by a phalanx of predominately Black theatregoers who had beat me to the punch by buying tickets in advance and who eyed me warily as I espied gaining admittance to the sold-out event. Who knew there’d be an audience?

Speaking of diversity and Molly’s Game, and in a year in which Tom Hanks was not nominated for his solid impersonation of old-school Washington Post newsman Ben Bradlee, the Academy appeared to mail it in on a few. The popular Octavia Spencer, bless her heart, who had been nominated twice—winning once— in the supporting actress category, was nominated again for the excellent The Shape of Water. The Montgomery, Alabama, native could’ve performed blindfolded in the role—she was not challenged at all—and I fear she’s too often being cast as the supportive, inspiring best friend. Bless the next filmmaker who casts her in a role she can get into fourth or fifth gear with in order to show off her true dramatic skills—and receive a truly deserved nomination with. Meanwhile, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who puts the “A” into the A-list, assumed the director’s chair in the rather disappointing Molly’s Game because he couldn’t find a director he was satisfied with to visually translate his work. Turns out, the screenplay was the problem the whole time; he was nominated nonetheless. Sorkin’s teaming with Jessica Chastain was so inspired following their turns in, and on, Miss Sloane and Steve Jobs, respectively, I hadn’t been anticipating at all that I would be let down. I had penciled in Chastain for a Performance of the Year award before I’d even sat down to view it. Would I give it to her—for a third consecutive year—with a star turn in the early The Zookeeper’s Wife?

My own nominations in the category were perhaps skewed because I missed Kate Blanchett assuming a number of different disguises in the very limited release, Manifesto, and Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel, the first Woody Allen film I’ve missed theatrically since Everyone Says I Love You two decades ago. The wonderful Gal Gadot was so acclaimed she did everything but receive a nomination for Wonder Woman, but I preferred the kickass Charlize Theron in the creative spy-thriller Atomic Blonde and reserved a spot for her. While Wonder Woman was bogged down by a neverending climactic digital duel between the heroine and nemesis Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), so dark and atrocious it seemed to nullify all the uplifting female empowerment that came before it, Atomic Blonde featured some of the most breathless real-time fight sequences ever filmed and in which Theron excelled. Both films subverted genres by portraying heroines, but let’s not forget, Wonder Woman may not have been even the most rewarding film about the liberated character herself. That would belong to, IMO, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, an interior drama portraying scandalous psychology professor William Marston’s (a solid Luke Evans) impassioned efforts to bypass censors to get a slyly subversive comic-book creature into the homes of proper postwar Americans. In a year celebrating women, their contributions, slights, and their miseries, then, it was a seminaked pseudodominatrix from the fantastical mind of a depraved male psychologist who alit the spirits of women throughout.

Fine actress Saoirse Ronan was nominated in the lead actress category for the everpresent Lady Bird, but that celebrated film may not have even been the most rewarding among coming-of-age sagas nor even establishing the best performance by a more mature young actress inhabiting the role of a teenager experiencing troubles with her mother. That would belong, IMO, to In Search of Fellini and diminutive 30-year-old Canadian actress Ksenia Solo, a near dead ringer for Ronan. Due to its title, which rings like a B&W documentary narrated by the late Marcello Mastroianni, American audiences may’ve thought the domestic production was a foreign one, or that, like the heroine’s mother (Maria Bello) and aunt (Mary Lynn Rajskub), were turned off by the maestro’s music. This was not the case for Solo’s naïve Lucy, who rides Fellini’s muse through dirt and daydream all the way to Rome, where she discovers that the sweetest smile arrives only through darkness, disappointment, and despair. Her character’s magical journey in an equally magical film is seemingly a perfect metaphor for the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and all they encompass, not to give away any spoilers or anything.

In a year in which opportunities for female filmmakers were again bemoaned, Lady Bird writer-director Greta Gerwig was anointed Queen of Hollywood, but what about British filmmaker Gurinder Chada, who turned her own grandmother’s stories of being present at the opulent official residence during the breakup of the Subcontinent into one of the year’s most underappreciated films, Viceroy’s House, and who has taken much vitriol for her interpretation? In a year in which former British PM Winston Churchill was central to at least three feature films, two of which received the Academy’s attention, either remotely or front and center—with Oldman winning an Oscar for portraying him front and center—IMO this was the one to see to get a more precise view of the fellow’s truer nature. Who do you think destroyed India, after all—Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims?

Allison Janney took home the best supporting actress Oscar for her screeching turn as an abusive sports mother in the fine I, Tonya. While she was impressive, matching wits with a very good Margot Robbie, whose figure-skating skills were nearly as impressive as Theron’s sustained martial-arts bravura, I gauged the performance as too one-noted and over-the-top and ultimately excised her from my own nominations list. Would Leslie Manville, who would’ve owned Phantom Thread if she were not opposite Day-Lewis, with a sharply stern and less expressive performance I judged to be superior?

Oscar-caliber films are often thought to penetrate the time in which they are made. Several Best Picture nominees looked to the past to accomplish that, including Academy nominee The Post. The Steven Spielberg–helmed, John Williams–scored Oscar aspirant hit its target directly, but in a more sentimental way than Mark Felt, which was scrappier, grittier, tenser—in part due to its pulsing neonoir Daniel Pemberton (All the Money in the World, Molly’s Game) score—and, IMO, superior. …Felt actually picks up where The Post leaves off, from the Iraq-like suppression of compromising Vietnam War documents to presidential-level hijinks at Democratic National Committee headquarters, an event The Post actually alludes to as if hinting at a sequel. Both, however, are, of course, not-so-subtle digs at the current White House, which recalls the Nixon occupation in so many ways.

Another film dissed by the Academy was Hostiles. EW’s Chris Nashawaty, who’s no slouch, called it, “the best western since Unforgiven,” a quote that easily comes into one’s own mind after viewing it, though I would say Dead Man instead of Unforgiven. Unforgiven earned nine Oscar nominations, taking home four statuettes, including one for Best Picture, so what gives? Hostiles, based on a manuscript by Oscar-winning screenwriter Donald Stewart (Missing), also looked to the past, namely the Indian Wars of the late 19th century, and by performing open surgery on the very heart and soul of those troubling times it not only punctuates the western, but transforms the genre entirely, arriving somehow as a metaphor for our own troubled, divisive times. From genocide to reconciliation, it’s no wonder Nashawaty also described it as “brutal and beautiful.”

Those words can also describe another film that flirts with Best Picture qualities: Blade Runner 2049. The much-anticipated film didn’t actually disappoint, not in terms of casting, dialog, performances, scenarios, production design, visual effects, etc., but it was weighted down by a way-too-sentimental take on the aged character of Decker (Harrison Ford) that created tonal imbalance at a crucial time, though the film recovered via a nice extended shoreline fight sequence and a stunning, devastating finale. The film surprised me by sweeping through my awards list, and rising up the ranks of the top ten. Would it reach the top? Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and this, in 2017, is what I beheld.

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© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours