Like John and Steve, I will be doing something else during the Academy Awards broadcast tonight. Unlike them, however, I would like to put in a good word for a few of the movies that are up for the Best Picture award tonight. For personal reasons you would understand, I set out to see each of the nine Academy Award Best Picture nominees this year. I don’t think I have ever done that before and I doubt I will again, but I am glad I did so this year. It made me see one or two films that I would otherwise have missed and am grateful to have seen. It also made me see one or two films I wish I hadn’t seen, but it was worth it and I will soon forget them anyway.
I enjoy movies but the pickings are slim. I look for movies that are made for adults and that reflect some intelligence in the writing. After that, I would like to be warned if the film makes war on cultural or political decency. I was pleasantly surprised by my Best Picture project. If you do not avoid Hollywood films on principle, I would like to emphasize a few films that I think deserve a look.
Fences: August Wilson was a gifted playwright several of whose works make a permanent contribution to the American theater. I have been lucky to see his plays performed at the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, the company that helped launch Wilson’s career in the theater under the leadership of Lou Bellamy.
Fences was adapted for the screen by Wilson himself and the film was directed by Denzel Washington, who stars as Troy Maxson. James Greenberg tells the story behind the film in “The long, long road to building ‘Fences.’ Wilson insisted on a black director of the film adaptation. Greenberg quotes Wilson: “Until the industry is ready to hire a black to direct De Niro or Redford, blacks should at least be able to direct their own experience.” Wilson’s insistence on a black director foreclosed or at least deferred wider recognition of his talent, the theme that lies in the background of Fences.
A.O. Scott aptly observes in his review of the film that Troy Maxson is “one of the world’s great talkers.” Comparing the film with the original stage production starring James Earl Jones as Troy, John Podhoretz finds the film wanting. But if the choice is between seeing the film or never seeing Fences, see the film. It’s not a close call.
Troy Maxson is an unforgettable character. Troy’s wife is a strong character in her own right; her marriage to Troy is at the center of the story that we see. That surprised me. And Troy leaves behind a son and a daughter who make statements in different ways, each of which caught me by surprise. This is a worthy and moving film.
Hidden Figures: The movie tells the true story of the black women whose mathematical and engineering skills proved instrumental to the early success of the space program. The film is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, who is interviewed here and here, among other places. The true story is amped up, Hollywood style, but how can you not love this film?
The injustice of segregation lies on the surface of this film. It harks back to the era of American history in which we learned that it is wrong to treat people differently based on the color of their skin. Unfortunately, we have “overcome” that particular teaching. Marriage, family, faith, education and intellect anchor this film. This is in every respect an utterly conventional Hollywood film that demonstrates the strength of the conventions used to tell a story that should be known.
Hacksaw Ridge: Directed by Mel Gibson, the film tells the story of Desmond Doss: “In Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, [Doss] saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun.” Doss served as an Army medic displaying courage that was recognized with the Medal of Honor. This too is an utterly conventional Hollywood film, over the top and around the bend, but what a story. Kyle Smith provides a positive assessment in the New York Post. Richard Brody dissents in the New Yorker. It’s a powerful film.
La La Land: A musical that is highly conventional, but the conventions are mostly a matter of history at this point. Written and directed by the audacious Damien Chazelle, the film is worth seeing if you like movie musicals. John Podhoretz is my favorite reviewer and he celebrated it.
Hell or High Water: Hugely enjoyable.
Arrival: A science fiction film starring Amy Adams as a linguist who communicates with the aliens, the film has a surprising prolife twist (as I saw it). Too long and now mostly forgotten.
Manchester By the Sea: Was absorbed while watching but mostly forgotten within a week of seeing it.
Lion: Too long and now forgotten.
Moonlight: I wish I hand’t seen it. I look forward to forgetting it. I’m almost there.
Yesterday’s New York Times featured a map displaying “Where Oscar Best Picture nominees are liked most.” Popularity by region proves in its own way to be an interesting and reliable indicator.