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Sunday, February 26, 2017


Lucas Hedges, left, and Casey Affleck both received Oscar nominations
for their roles in Manchester by the Sea. Neither will win. Affleck won Best Actor.
OK, I admit it - if I really thought the Oscars were irrelevant, I wouldn't be writing about them. But, wait, I am more precisely writing about movies, not the Academy Awards, and movies are definitely relevant. So, as the title of this please implies, I do think the Oscars are relatively irrelevant.

This evening, as is my annual habit, I will not watch the awards show on TV - I will go to the theater and watch Oscar-nominated fare instead, and I will crane my neck around the standing and departing patrons to read the credits when they roll. In this way, I refresh my lifelong love of movies and rejoice in the fact that we can still go see them in a dark, public place.

Most would agree, 2016 was a pretty good year for the movies. A look at the nine "Best Picture" nominees shows an unusually broad selection that includes small-story indies, big budget sci-fi, a star vehicle or two, even a foreign film (Lion is foreign, right?). In sharp contrast to last year's controversially white slate of nominees, three of these films feature nearly all-black casts. Less unusually, a shameless paean to Hollywood is also on the slate (and it will sweep the awards tonight). Add note: It did not!

More important, these films are actually quite good (or reputed to be so - I have seen just six of them thus far). What do I mean by good? No doubt I've said it before in this space, but I will repeat the age-old formula for a worthwhile movie: A good story, well told. Yes, that is still the measure. And, while it's always possible that this will include a lot of car chases or senseless violence or CGI, these nine films generally don't rely on spectacle to hold the viewer's attention.

Instead, they feature a lot of really great acting, by (again) a very diverse slate of all ages and types, many of whom received nominations for awards (in addition to a number of outstanding performers in films that themselves did not garner a "Best" slot). The fact that the young and the beautiful will win the major awards (as always) doesn't diminish the positive value of a nomination for the never-fails Jeff Bridges or the ever-enchanting Isabelle Huppert or the otherworldly Ruth Negga (who also happens to be young and beautiful, but she still won't win).

So, nice going, Academy!

Now, here's why I have not seen three of the Best Picture nominees (Note to readers - I forgive you if you hate me for my biases. Then again, if I didn't have them, would I be worth the pixels?):

  1. La La Land - First of all, I hate the title. Second, you may remember 2014's Best Picture Birdman, which was brilliant, worthy, and my own second pick of that year (right, Boyhood got robbed) - and which had one serious shortcoming, which was Emma Stone. She sucked in Birdman, and I am not convinced that she would be worth seeing in La La Land. The press calls her likable - sorry, I find her totally unlikable. La La Land is the Titanic of 2016 - the movie everyone will look back at and say "they nominated that for HOW many Oscars?!?" (BTW, I still have never seen Titanic.)
  2. Hacksaw Ridge - This is probably an excellent picture, and I liked Andrew Garfield a lot in The Social Network (where he plays the first guy that Mark Zuckerberg screwed out of a lot of money). But I couldn't bring myself to go see a film that is, basically, the story of a religious fanatic. Yes, a really nice guy, sincere, selfless, etc. But I couldn't shake the feeling it would get all pious in the end. Atheist angst got the best of me there. 
  3. Fences - Liked the preview, love August Wilson. But do I need to budget my precious movie-going time to what is, essentially, a stage play presented onscreen? Will catch it on DVD once the library picks up a copy. Expect to love it.

As for the rest, it's very easy to point out the best: Manchester by the Sea absolutely kills. You know when smart people tell you a film is too long, or too sad, that it must be a great one. This film is perfect.

Also excellent: Lion, Moonlight, and Hell or High Water. Why? Check the formula ... they all fulfill it. So, why not perfect?
Lion skews ever so slightly commercial, by making all the characters way too pretty to be real, and by purposely playing the emotional notes.
Moonlight is a fascinating film that has the courage to try a difficult approach - dividing the story into three parts with different actors for each. A fantastic effort that falls the tiniest bit short.
And Hell or High Water is a bit too reminiscent of the Coen Brothers to be considered truly original, which is what it seems to want to be. But it is a fun ride.

As for the rest: Arrival is very good - an understated almost-actioner that uses subtlety rather than sensationalism to make its points. But it stretched my credulity rather too far.
Hidden Figures - yep, it fulfills the formula once again - but I felt played by its Hollywood style. Too cute for its own good.

OK, gotta go to the movies! Have a good night.