2018 Oscar Picks

Ah, the Oscars. That magical night where we admire the gorgeous gowns, reward the incredible performances and hard work of everyone involved in making movies, and maybe accidentally give an award to a guy who maybe sexually harassed some women (cough cough, Casey Affleck). Last week the Academy Award nominations were announced and I instantly made my own decisions about which movies deserved which awards. Here are my Oscar picks (at least for the big categories. I’m sorry to say I didn’t watch any of the nominees for Best Foreign Language or Best Short Film. Sorry!)

Best Picture: Get Out

Admittedly this was a tough decision, because 2017 may have been a garbage time for politics but it was a great time for movies. I was torn between this and Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and The Post, but in the end writer-director Jordan Peeles fantastic horror film is a clear winner. Artistically, it was stunning, especially considering this is Peele’s first work as a director. But perhaps more importantly, it turned out to be exactly the kind of social commentary about race that the US needed right now, reminding well-meaning liberals that, as it turns out, saying you would vote for a third term for Obama does not excuse you from racism.

Best Director: Jordan Peele, Get Out OR Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird

I’m torn! Between two debut directors! Who both did an incredible job! Sorry, I’m just so overwhelmed that two of the best movies of the year were made by NEW directors! I seriously can’t decide between these two. Peele did an incredible, amazing job on Get Out (as previously stated) by pushing his audience to be more thoughtful about race (especially his white, liberal audience members) but Gerwigs work on Lady Bird was also marvelous. She got to the heart of the kind of coming-of-age story that is so rarely given to teenage girls, and did it with kindness, sensitivity, and honesty.

Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in Get Out

Unlike some of the other actors up for awards, this is Daniel Kaluuya’s first major film role. Indeed, most of us only ever saw him in that one episode of Black Mirror (Fifteen Million Merits, which in all fairness was a great episode.) This was a bit of a toss-up between Kaluuya and Daniel Day-Lewis, who was up for his performance in Phantom Thread. However, I’m giving this one to Kaluuya, because while Day-Lewis has had decades to perfect his craft, Kaluuya pulled out a stunning performance from a still-young career, perfectly capturing both the big moments and the smaller, more careful touches. In particular, the scene where Chris interacts with a bunch of rich white people trying to show off how “down” they are with black people is a great vehicle for Kaluuya’s talents.

Best Actress: Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape of Water

You know that saying about how Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels? Sally Hawkins did everything other actors did this year, but with no dialogue and acting against a CGI fish-man. And still, she pulled out one of the most beautiful, delicate performances I’ve ever seen, breathing so much life into her character that I’m just awe-struck. That’s not to say I wasn’t impressed by Margot Robbie in I, Tonya or Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, but Hawkins just did such an amazing job that I have to give this one to her. She made that movie. It’s quite hard to convince an audience to stay on board when you’re trying to sell them the love story between a woman and a fish-man, and I don’t think it could have been done without her.

Best Supporting Actor: Richard Jenkins as Giles in The Shape of Water

Oh, speaking of stunning performances in The Shape of Water that helped me buy the whole inter-species love story, can we talk about Richard Jenkins here? Seriously, that man did so well that this category wasn’t even a contest for me. Jenkins’s performance as Elisa’s neighbor, a closeted illustrator who helps her care for the fish-man, is heart-wrenching and tender, showing such a full range of emotion and depth as he navigated between his wants and his realities, and as he tried to be kind and practical. In particular, his failed flirtations with a pie-salesman are so heartbreaking I almost cried. I will give a special shout-out though to Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty in All The Money in The World, if only because he managed to do a pretty good job under extremely short notice, and because his performance proves that you can recast someone from a project if they turn out to be a predator.

Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya

I liked the performances of Laurie Metclaf in Lady Bird and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water, but I don’t think either of them compare to Allison Janney’s turn as one of the worst stage mothers in history. Janney’s performance captures a cruelty and an anger that capture the movie’s themes of abuse and poverty perfectly. LaVona’s twisting cruelty toward her daughter is hard to watch, especially because Janney does such a good job with the material. Her voice, her violence, her chain-smoking, her expressions of near-regret before deciding to not apologize to Tonya, every detail is done to perfection.

Best Original Screenplay: Jordan Peele, Get Out

Did you think I was done heaping praise onto Jordan Peele and Get Out? Nope! I have a lot more to heap on! The script was absolutely terrific. From the racist logic behind the “Coagula” procedure to Rod’s iconic ending line (“I’m TS-Motherfuckin’-A. We handle shit. Consider this situation fuckin’ handled.) to that whole scene at the party where everyone wants to tell the black guy why being black is just so hip right now, everything was pitch-perfect, especially considering that most of Peele’s work before was in the realm of comedy. He did a fantastic job.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game (based on the book of the same name by Molly Bloom)

Look, it’s Aaron Sorkin. It’s pretty hard to compete with one of the most talented screenwriters of our time, and I do not think I’m exaggerating. I do think Sorkin was helped by having some absolute bang-up performances from his two leads, Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, who spit out sharp-fire lines in that classic Sorkin style. He took an already exciting story (poker! Money! Celebrities! Russian mobsters!) and even made the less exciting parts (courtrooms! Legal terms!) and made them just as heart-racing and tense as the rest of the film. And almost every line uttered by Chastain’s character, Molly Bloom, was perfection.

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Film Review: A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove tells the story of a curmudgeon with a death wish. Ove (Rolf Lassgård) isn’t being cute when he says, while gearing up to tell the story of how he met the love his life, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), “If what they say is true, that fate is the sum total of our own stupidity, then I think what altered my fate was a result of the stupidity of my neighbors.” The unhappy man has an unhealthy amount of suspicion toward the intelligence and moral fiber of those around him— he is not the most likable man in his Swedish townhouse neighborhood.

Fired from his job six months after Sonja’s death, Ove tries to commit suicide but his course is continually altered by the irregular interventions of everyday occurrences — or other people’s stupidity — usually in the form of Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a new neighbor. Just as Ove is about to hang himself, Parvaneh’s family needs help with the car, a ladder, a manual for the ladder, and brings over food to show thanks. And so begins the force majeure that is the series of neighborhood daily chores — fixing a radiator, feeding the cat, babysitting, learning how to drive, food — and their physical and emotional byproducts that spill in all their colors over into Ove’s ordered life of routines and rules.

Initially, the movie may seem like just another take on the all too familiar story of an older man being saved by a younger woman. And indeed following the tropes of such narratives, the film is interjected with flashbacks to Ove’s sad childhood and to his happy marriage that ends when his wife, Sonja, dies of cancer. However, unlike many such films, the flashbacks succeed in engaging the viewers’ emotions: the manipulation, if it were that, works. What’s more, the flashbacks do not explain Ove so much as expand on his already interesting character.

The movie is constructed around Ove begrudgingly accepting his role in the community — the morning rounds, stickler for rules and order guy with a pack of parking tickets ready to be issued at a car parked out of line, who also knows how to fix radiators, read children’s books in the voice of a bear, enjoys crooners, and knows how a car works. He is, at his best, quaintly charming.

Bahar Pars as Parvaneh and Rolf Lassgård as Ove in ‘A Man Called Ove’

As it is with such character-driven films, the success of the movie lies largely on Lassgard’s and Pars’s impeccable performances as head-butting, equally stubborn in their ways patriarch and matriarch. A scene, near the end of the film, where the two walk down the neighborhood, laughing at some minor incident, is truly beautiful. And like a quick, sudden pause in the ongoing din and rhythm of the characters’ lives, it is precious because it does not last.

A Man Called Ove, directed by Hannes Holm (Adam & Eva) and starring Rolf Lassgård (The Hunters) and Bahar Pars (Rinkebysvenska), begins its Canadian theatrical release with an exclusive engagement with Varsity Theatre on February 17th. In January, it was officially nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Makeup & Hairstyling

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La Lupa — Anna Magnani at TIFF

Anna Magnani in Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945)

Anna Magnani, during her near five decades long career, often played women caught in and defeated by a whirlwind of events outside her control. Watching her, even when a film begins in media res, one can easily fathom the bitterly fought over life of her characters. As such, it is not easy to watch Magnani’s performance without feeling a sense of injustice toward the world at large. Though this may in no small parts be due to the subject matter of Italian neorealism — the documentation of life in postwar Italy — and the nature of melodrama, the true genius of the uncontested Italian diva’s performances is how sincerely the said injustice is felt by a viewer. La Lupa does not call upon our empathy; the often impervious and irreverent characters of Magnani’s career defy comparison or easy comprehension. She evokes, rather, sincere compassion, revealing beneath her explosive emotions layers upon layers of pathos. In the male- and church- dominated society of postwar Italy, Magnani, with her portrayals of moral outrage, strength, and self-determination, look toward strong feminist characters found in today’s cinema.

Admired by critics and directors alike, Magnani won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1955 for her first English-speaking role as Serafina in Daniel Mann’s The Rose Tattoo. She went on to work with Sidney Lumet and Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind (1959), an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus DescendingDespite such success in the U.S., it has been notably difficult to watch Magnani’s works in North America, which makes TIFF’s retrospective of many of the actress’s films, Volcano: Anna Magnani — which runs from January 27th to March 11th — a much needed opportunity to witness her talent and voracious range.

Magnani in Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Mamma Roma’ (1962)

Magnani is perhaps best known for her breakthrough role in Rossellini’s neorealist classic, Rome, Open City. There she plays Pina, a devout Catholic and a member of the Italian resistance in the tail end of the Second World War. And in no other scene is the heralding of a great actress as clear as it is in Pina’s death mid-way through the film. Pina chases her fiancé captured by the Nazis and, as we watch from the point of view of the truck, is shot dead. Magnani’s eruptive energy, even as Pina lies dead, vivifies the gray landscape of Rossellini’s Rome and reshapes the nature of the pathos of the film; political and national crises become human ones with real victims.

In The Passionate Thief (1960), a comedy by Mario Monicelli, Magnani plays Tortorella, an actress who, middle aged, is still looking for her breakthrough role under the bright lights of Cinecittà. The film centers on Tortorella, her long-time friend, actor, and occasional con-man, “Infortunio” Pennazzuto (Totò), and a pickpocket on the job, Lello (Ben Gazzarra), on New Year’s Eve in various parties and street corners of Rome. The trio, each with different goals that are often at odds, roam the ancient city in this fast-paced comedy. Magnani’s Tortorella, unsatisfied with her life as a struggling actress only marginally and therefore more desperately in contact with glamour, wants to have fun. But the rich and the self-assured reject her while her companions share neither her sense of romanticism nor her moral fortitude.

Magnani and Totò in Mario Monicelli’s ‘The Passionate Thief’ (1960)

Although the comedy and the dramatic irony of the film — Tortorella is not aware that her friend and Lello are trying to steal from the rich at parties — is mostly carried by Totò’s garrulous and fumbling Pennazzuto, the pathos of the film is harnessed on Magnani’s performance. The sometimes ditzy and often rude and opportunistic Tortorella is by no mean dislikable because Magnani succeeds, without overtly dramatizing it, in portraying the character’s inner depth. There is much sadness in Tortorella that makes her persistent determination to have fun not only understandable but also courageous. Monicelli’s nuanced meditation on the economic and morale effects of the war and the generational rift in the postwar era truly shines in Tortorella’s consciously and fumblingly naive character.

Magnani and Ettore Garofolo in ‘Mamma Roma’

Paulo Pasolini’s Rome in Mamma Roma (1962) is a city brimming with pimps, prostitutes, thieves, motherless children, and merciless authorities. There is no relief from the surroundings. In many long shots, the horizon is stuffy with the apartments that were built during Mussolini’s reign as a proletariat dream project but now house the very hopelessness they once sought to relieve. And in this barren landscape, Magnani, in one of her last major roles, as Mamma Roma, a ex-prostitute from the countryside, attempts to start a new life with her once estranged son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). Her dream: to give Ettore a better life. All evidences to the contrary, Mamma fervently believes in her own ability to provide and Ettore’s innate entitlement to a better life. When Ettore steals records from the house to buy a gold chain for Bruna, a village prostitute, Mamma goes to the priest to ask for a job for her son. When the priest suggests restarting Ettore’s schooling, Mamma, with the help of her prostitute friend and her pimp, blackmails a local restauranteur to hiring her son. When Ettore seems to be in love with Bruna, Mamma asks, as a favor, her prostitute friend to sleep with him so that he will forget his ‘first’.

The drama of the film lies in Mamma’s — and in turn the audience’s — growing suspicion that her and her son’s failures are not so much due to the socio-economic confines of the times or the restraints of living in a ghetto but rather due to the moral consequences of her past. The question of who Ettore’s father is a subplot in the film. But outside of it, and even more importantly, Pasolini posits us to explore the relationship between lineage, economic stature, and morality.

Mamma certainly does and the fear of her having disadvantaged her son terrifies her. And Ettore’s suspicion that he has, somehow, been reduced to his teenage ennui because of his mother and the confounding existential and moral implications of his life lead him to ever more daring criminal activities. Ettore, after a failed stint attempted while delirious with fever, is put in prison and is tied down, arms spread to the sides, to his bed. Mamma, desolate, alone, attempts to commit suicide through a window but is stopped by her neighbors. As she looks out of her window toward a duomo beyond the apartment complexes, Magnani’s sunken eyes sing dreadful and desolate dirges.

Perhaps passion can be defined as a willingness and the persistency with which to turn a blind eye to obstacles that, to others, seem obvious in order to achieve a set of goals. And in a religious context, passion is associated not only with Christ’s suffering but also suffering — religious suffering, suffering religiously — in general. Pasolini’s notorious Mamma Roma can perhaps be described as a motion picture and late Italian neorealist rendition of the Pietàwith Magnani as the loving and bereft postwar Madonna. At every turn, Magnani captures the persistence and the suffering of a mother’s passion.

Magnani and Tina Apicella in Luchino Visconti’s ‘Bellissima’ (1951)

Many of the characters played by Magnani’s, seen in the span of two hours, often seem excessive and dangerously veering toward neurotic of the unbearable kind (for instance, Maddalena Cecconi in Luchino Visctoni’s 1951 Bellissima, is a classic helicopter mother and a cinematic precursor to Richard Hoover of Little Miss Sunshine). However, though the span of the film may only be two hours, the energy and sincerity with which she plays said characters are such that they seem reasonable, familiar. Reasonable and familiar in the context of reality and personal history, for the Magnani-effect is to make fictional characters have intricate layers of history that seem accessible through the actress.

Often, neorealist auteurs hired non-actors to play in their films in order to achieve a sense of ‘real’. Just as they insisted on shooting on location, nonprofessional actors assured a kind of authenticity of narrative flow, acting, etc. In Magnani, a renowned actress, they must have found the sweet equilibrium of talent and uninhibited rawness.

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