Separating Oscars Contenders from the Pretenders
A hands-down top five movie I've seen this year, Widows succeeds on many fronts. For starters, it has assembled quite frankly the best movie cast I've seen in...maybe ever? Each role is perfectly cast for its part, and each character is fully realized within the film, whether it's the bad ass leading women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo), or the supporting men: Liam Neeson as Davis' deceased husband, Collin Farrell as a crooked politician, Robert Duvall as Farrell's father, Brian Tyree Henry (from the FX hit show Atlanta) as his political opponent, and holy crap Daniel Kaluuya (of Get Out fame) performance as Henry's enforcer is unbelievable. If Kaluuya isn't nominated for Best Supporting Actor, we riot.
If that sounds like A LOT of characters, that's because it is. This is a story captured from a multitude of different angles, which is why it's no surprise that the first half-hour or so of the movie feels a little clunky. There are just a lot of chess pieces to introduce and get set up on the board, and it takes some time before the viewer can feel comfortable with the rules of the game. As you know from the trailer and the movie's title, a heist-gone-wrong leads to the death of a crew of thieves, and now their wives and girlfriends have to perform a heist to pay off the bad guys.
And while that hook is enough for a perfectly fine genre heist movie, director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) doesn't stop there. He keeps adding in layers and subplots that give context and nuance to the story without bogging it down in details. It's like prestige drama pixie dust sprinkled on top of an already good movie, and by the time the big plot twist hits you square in the face like a two-by-four about halfway through the narrative, you're totally immersed in this world McQueen has created out of the seedy underbelly of modern Chicago.
It's needlessly stylish in its cinematography, and obsessively considered in its design. Unlike the Oceans movies and other wink-wink heist dramas, this caper is far more grounded and more real, appropriate for a job being pulled by desperate amateurs. We don't ever get the "here's how we're going to do it!" scene, which admittedly is a crowd-pleaser, but that uncertainty keeps us on our toes through the entire third act. Anything could happen.
I have no gauge on the awards chances for this movie. On one hand, the Academy has been recognized McQueen as an excellent filmmaker. On the other, genre movies (comedy, horror, heist, sports etc.) generally don't get the respect they deserve. Davis will undoubtably get nominated, and Kaluuya definitely should, but beyond that is pure speculation. My guess is that it sneaks in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, but never contends for the win. If it were up to me, it would be near the front of the conversation.
The stakes are remarkably low in this movie. It's a relationship drama set in the high court of England, where a love triangle swings the tide of local politics. Nothing...really happens of any consequence, at least not that the viewer can see, trapped inside the palace walls.
But I don't want to sell the movie as a stuffy period drama. It may very well be the hardest I've laughed in a theater all year, and the humor is so sharp and natural to the characters that it makes the viewer laugh without taking them out of the moment. The drama, while petty, is legitimately captivating. The whole experience of watching it unfold is highly entertaining.
While it's probably not consequential enough to grab a nomination on its own merit, the movie primarily serves as an acting showcase for Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, and they put on an absolute masterclass as attendants to the Queen waging a catfight for influence on her majesty, played by Olivia Coleman. Coleman is set to be nominated in the Best Actress category, and there's a chance Stone and Weisz both make into the Best Supporting Actress race. In my mind, the statue is Stone's' to lose. Her performance was absolutely spectacular.
I can understand why Yorgos Lanthimos is not everyone's cup of tea. His films are weird. In the case of The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer, REALLY REALLY weird. But he's brilliant, his work is incredibly precise, and this might be his most accessible film yet. Take advantage and make some time to watch it, whether it be in theaters or later on-demand.
After a career of making dumb comedies, Peter Farrelly is trying to entire the prestige drama game with this true story of concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley, an educated African-American man touring the deep south in the 1960s with an uneducated Italian man. And considering his movie currently sits third in the latest Best Picture odds, he could be looking at nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, in addition to almost certain acting noms for stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
But for me, the movie fell a little flat.
I guess it's no surprise that the director of Dumb and Dumber and the Three Stooges reboot created something that can only be described as facile. Considering the complexity of the subject matter, the neatness of the whole thing felt phony to me. The movie never reaches higher than the lower hanging fruit, painting over the cracks with copious amounts of sentimentality.
Don't get me wrong, the movie is perfectly charming. That is, if you don't stop to think about how the underlying messages it is built on are fairly reductive. A white guy slowly learns that he's a racist and that's bad, but only as soon as the black guy also learns that racist people can be nice too? And the white guy acts too black and the black guy acts too white, and that's not okay so both have to come to the realization that they need to align more with the stereotypes of their race?? And the institutional racism that created this problem is really just caused a few bad apples??? (Sorry, rant over).
The Academy tends to love movies like this: popcorn flicks disguised as prestige fare. In fact, an almost identical concept, Driving Miss Daisy, won 4 Oscars including Best Picture in 1989. While I don't really think it's worthy of such awards, it's impossible not to have a good time going to see this picture. It's painted with the softest airbrush possible.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
I'm unabashedly in the bag for the Coen Brothers, my favorite filmmakers, and in my mind each of their 17 directorial efforts is a masterpiece in its own way. The latest was originally supposed to be a six-part Netflix series, disparate stories of the old west along the lines of what they did with True Grit, No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple. For whatever reason the brothers pivoted into one two-hour movie, divided into six unrelated short films starring the likes of James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits and Zoe Kazan, spotlighting everything from the saloon to the gold mines to the Oregon trail.
The signature Coens themes are present, all the eccentric characters and offbeat humor and futile struggle and death. Lots and lots of death. By the time the credits roll on the movie, all of the romantic mythology you might have in your head about the old west has been stripped away and you realize you're glad you weren't alive back then (because you wouldn't be alive for long). The brevity of life, and what we do with it, is the thread that connects all of the stories.
This "short film" format has one very distinct advantage: it doesn't have to explain itself. Each scene can focus on a set up and a payoff, charged up for maximum impact and then dropped like a massive cliffhanger that will never be resolved. Don't be fooled by the goofy trailer, there are legitimately emotional moments in this movie, and the lack of closure makes them really stick with you long after you're done watching. The great part about this movie being on Netflix is that you can watch it in pieces or all at once, and return to an individual bitesized story at any time (you'll want to).
Unfortunately, it would be nearly unprecedented for the Academy Awards to acknowledge an anthology film like this one. There was very little buzz for this movie among casual movie fans, and conversation about it has completely died off only a few short weeks after its release. So I'm not expecting any trophies, or even any nominations, I'm just happy I can flip on the TV and watch some Coen Brothers any time I want.
I guess I'm not totally shocked that Netflix could've possibly thought this movie could be an Oscars contender when they provided a $120 million production budget for a period piece drama starring Chris Pine. After all, it is a spiritual successor, if not an outright sequel, to Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a movie that won 5 Oscars. But wow, after seeing the movie I can't imagine anyone at the company having any illusions of being nominated for anything in this effort.
This movie was received so poorly at the Toronto International Film Festival that director David Mackenzie had to go back to the drawing board and cut out a full 20 minutes from his original version. What finally ended up on Netflix can only politely be described as "difficult to follow," and I recommend either a PhD in medieval Scotland or a laptop nearby opened to Robert the Bruce's Wikipedia page to be able to comprehend the plot as it unfolds on the screen. The acting performances are good but not exceptional, the fight scenes are entertaining but not memorable, and the Scottish accents are downright hilarious at times. The whole project would've been better served as a less aspirational multi-part limited series that could be binge-watched on the platform, rather than striving to be an "epic."