Friday, April 23, 2021

If We Picked the Oscars 2020

Borrowing a page from Siskel and Ebert from back in the day, we here at Movie Dearest are once again presenting our own version of "If We Picked the Oscars"! These aren't predictions, but what movies, actors, directors, et al that we would vote for if we were members of the Academy. We also chime in with our picks for the "egregiously overlooked" non-nominees in each category as well as what we deem are the "Worst Nominations of the Year".

So without further ado, the envelope please...

The nominees for Best Picture are: The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and The Trial of the Chicago 7
CC: Out of a very strong list of contenders, I will go with the moving Nomadland, which topped my personal top 10 list.
KH: Nomadland is not only the best film of 2020, it will be one of the best films of the 2020s.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Da 5 Bloods, arguably Spike Lee's most entertaining and least preachy movie to date.
KH: Next year the Academy will finally get rid of the annoying variable number of Best Picture nominees and just have a solid ten from then on. Too bad they couldn't have done it this year so there would have been room for the excellent News of the World and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

For their final voting, Academy members are asked to rank the Best Picture nominees from #1 to #8, so here are our rankings:
CC: 1. Nomadland 2. Mank 3. Promising Young Woman 4. The Trial of the Chicago 7 5. Judas and the Black Messiah 6. Sound of Metal and 7. Minari (Regrettably, I haven't yet seen surprise nominee The Father)
KH: 1. Nomadland 2. Promising Young Woman 3. Minari 4. Mank 5. The Father 6. The Trial of the Chicago 7 
7. Judas and the Black Messiah and 8. Sound of Metal

The nominees for Best Actor are: Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Anthony Hopkins in The Father, Gary Oldman in Mank and Steven Yeun in Minari
CC: As I expect most Academy voters will do, I would honor Chadwick Boseman not only for his excellent performance here but his whole body of work during his tragically shortened life/career.
KH: Chadwick Boseman was simply electric as a show-boating musician in his all-too-soon swan song.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.  It seems odd to me that it has been honored in several other categories but the mastermind behind it was not nominated for his singular, satirically perceptive title character.
KH: Two non-American actors caught my attention and should have caught Oscar's as well: Tahar Rahim in The Mauritanian and Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round.

The nominees for Best Actress are: Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman, Frances McDormand in Nomadland and Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman
CC: Andra Day came out of left field in her big screen debut with a stunning incarnation of Lady Day and deservedly steals the crown from her exceptional co-nominees.
KH: In one of the most competitive categories this (or really any) year, I'd be happy with a victory for four of the five nominees (apologies to my namesake), but I will be most pleased if it ends up being my personal favorite performance (male or female) of 2020, Carey Mulligan.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Chloe Grace Moretz's badass turn in Shadow in the Cloud, a gloriously entertaining but underseen action-horror hybrid.
KH: The fierce but loving moms played by Yeri Han in Minari and Nicole Beharie in Miss Juneteenth should be here.

The nominees for Best Supporting Actor are: Sacha Baron Cohen in The Trial of the Chicago 7, Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah, Leslie Odom, Jr. in One Night in Miami, Paul Raci in Sound of Metal and LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah
CC: Daniel Kaluuya's powerful, star-making performance as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
KH: As Abbie Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen was the stand out of Chicago 7. With this and the Borat sequel, he's coming off a great year.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: As many have previously noted, the omission of Delroy Lindo for his unforgettable work in Da 5 Bloods is borderline criminal.
KH: This year's Supporting Actor race is the most egregious example of category fraud in some time (see below), especially since great performances from Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman and the late Brian Dennehy in Driveways got passed over for title characters.

The nominees for Best Supporting Actress are: Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy, Olivia Colman in The Father, Amanda Seyfried in Mank and Youn Yuh-Jung in Minari
CC: I have not been a fan of Amanda Seyfried, so her fun yet touching turn as actress Marion Davies was an award-deserving revelation to me.
KH: It's a close race between two comedic scene-stealers, Maria Bakalova and Youn Yuh-Jung, with my final vote going to the latter for her rascally omma.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Veteran actress Ellen Burstyn gave yet another memorable performance as the fierce mother of a grieving daughter in Pieces of a Woman.
KH: MIA: "old" pro Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian and newcomer Helena Zengel in News of the World.

The nominees for Best Directing are: Lee Isaac Chung for Minari, Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, David Fincher for Mank, Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland
CC: Don't get me wrong: I love Nomadland, Chloe Zhao's previous films, and the likelihood of Zhao becoming only the second woman to win the Best Director Oscar.  However, my vote would go to David Fincher, whose Mank serves as a masterful tribute not only to the rightful author of Citizen Kane but to Fincher's own late, beloved father.  Fincher also has not yet won an Oscar and I think one is well deserved here.
KH: Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, no question.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Spike Lee for Da 5 Bloods, one of his best films to date.
KH: Paul Greengrass, previously nominated for directing the 9/11 drama United 93, should have got nomination #2 here for News of the World.

The nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, The Father, Nomadland, One Night in Miami and The White Tiger
CC: I'm still not sure how the Borat sequel qualifies as adapted.  At any rate, Nomadland gets my vote.
KH: Again: Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, no question.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: First Cow by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, a lovable, gay-ish critical and festival darling that was completely neglected by the Academy.
KH: Speaking of Paul Greengrass, he should have got nomination #3 here as well, for co-writing (with Luke Davis) News of the World.

The nominees for Best Original Screenplay are: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and The Trial of the Chicago 7
CC: Despite a finale that is arguably too pat, Emerald Fennell's script for Promising Young Woman is constantly surprising and undeniably feminist.
KH: There was no more original or thought-provoking film in 2020 than Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Andy Siara's Groundhog Day-esque Palm Springs was one of the smartest, funniest movies of the year and this category is usually where the Academy recognizes such efforts.
KH: Hannah Bos and Paul Thornton for the unsung gem Driveways.

The nominees for Best Cinematography are: Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, News of the World, Nomadland and The Trial of the Chicago 7
CC: While the naturalistic Nomadland has been worthily acclaimed, I was struck even more by the gaslamp-lit images by Dariusz Wolski in the Tom Hanks western News of the World and would vote for it.
KH: I was mesmerized by Erik Messerschmidt's deep dive into the Old Hollywood black and white esthetic in Mank.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: The slavery-suspenser Antebellum has much to recommend it despite an M. Night Shyamalan-like twist, most notably Pedro Luque's deceptively gorgeous cinematography.
KH: Another film with a meticulously recreated period look was the 1950s-set The Vast of Night, courtesy of director of photography Miguel I. Litten-Menz.

The nominees for Best Production Design are: The Father, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, News of the World and Tenet
CC: Mank, a physically flawless valentine to classic Hollywood, hands down.
KH: From motion picture sound stages to Hearst Castle, the Mank team (production designer Donald Graham Bart and set decorator Jan Pascale) immersed us in Tinseltown's classic era.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Say what one will about Disney's adaptation of Artemis Fowl but its more fantastical design elements looked terrific.
KH: The breath-taking visuals of both Soul and Wolfwalkers prove that animation deserves to be invited to this party.

The nominees for Best Costume Design are: Emma, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, Mulan and Pinocchio
CC: The shoes worn by Chadwick Boseman's Levee aren't the only memorable Ann Roth fashion choices seen in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
KH: Alexandra Byrne's gorgeously eclectic fashions for the newest version of Jane Austen's Emma were an Anya Taylor-Joy to behold.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Jenny Beavan's costumes are one of the few commendable aspects of the woeful Dolittle remake.
KH: How did another recent adaptation of a literary classic, Dickens' The Personal History of David Copperfield (with the quirky, creative designs of Suzie Harman and Robert Worley), not make this cut?

The nominees for Best Original Score are: Da 5 Bloods, Mank, Minari, News of the World and Soul
CC: Former rockers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross hit new artistic heights with their jazzy scores for both Mank and Soul, with Soul taking a narrow lead.
KH: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross created two musical scores for Soul, one for the "real world" of New York and one for the otherworldly afterlife. Add in Jon Batiste's transcendent jazz and how could you vote for anything else?
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Hans Zimmer created an alternately potent and lyrical score for Wonder Woman 1984, appropriately imbued with retro 80's musical touches.
KH: Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) has been batting a thousand lately; in addition to his instantly iconic theme for The Mandalorian he turned out the moody melodies of Tenet as well.

The nominees for Best Original Song are: "Fight for You" from Judas and the Black Messiah, "Hear My Voice" from The Trial of the Chicago 7, "Húsavík" from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, "Io Si (Seen)" from The Life Ahead and "Speak Now" from One Night in Miami
CC: "Fight for You" (by H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas) is a rare, enjoyably funkadelic nominee!
KH: In this frigid sea of end credit blandness, it is the mighty "Húsavík" that stands as tall as the Icelandic mountains that "sing through the screams of seagulls". Kudos to the song's composers Savan Kotecha, Max Grahn and Rickard Göransson for putting the "pow" in this power ballad.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Written for Ryan Murphy's dazzling (yet unrecognized) adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom, "Wear Your Crown" deserved to be nominated if for no other reason than Meryl Streep's mid-song rap that pays homage to Michelle Obama!
KH: Where are the show tunes? Actual musicals got the short shrift this year, whether live action ("Square Root of Possible" from Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) or animated ("Rocket to the Moon" from Over the Moon).

The nominees for Best Film Editing are: The Father, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and The Trial of the Chicago 7
CC: I found Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 to be a fairly standard courtroom drama, so its tight editing provides most of the film's tension and excitement.
KH: Frédéric Thoraval helped ratchet up the tension to "11" in Promising Young Woman.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Tenet is a no-brainer for me in this category since Jennifer Lame's editing necessarily supports the film's nominated visual effects.
KH: The editing team of Mark Czyzowski and Sidney Wolinsky contributed greatly to the taut WWII thriller Greyhound.

The nominees for Best Sound are: Greyhound, Mank, News of the World, Soul and Sound of Metal
CC: I haven't seen likely winner Greyhound so I would go with Soul all the way.
KH: A lot has been said about Sound of Metal's use of sound to represent the main character's deafness like it has never been done before. My vote goes to the crew of Greyhound for creating a soundscape that put you on that ship right alongside Tom Hanks' heroic captain.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: The striking sci-fi indie The Vast of Night is utterly dependent on its memorable sound effects and editing.
KH: You may notice that the two sound categories (mixing and editing) have been combined into one this year, which may account for why a musical like The Prom (which relies more on mixing) was left out in the cold.

The nominees for Best Visual Effects are: Love and Monsters, The Midnight Sky, Mulan, The One and Only Ivan and Tenet
CC: I would vote for the startlingly realistic mutated critters in the enjoyable Love and Monsters.
KH: In the spirit of such quirky past nominees in this category such as Little Shop of Horrors and The Nightmare Before Christmas, the bizarre mutant creature creations of Love and Monsters get my vote.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: The CGI animal cast of Dolittle is one of the few other attributes of the remake.
KH: Shame on the voters of this category for not recognizing the truly ground-breaking – not to mention life saving – techniques used to disguise the endangered subjects of the documentary Welcome to Chechnya. The moment where one's true face is revealed was the most emotional use of visual effects I have ever seen on film.

The nominees for Best Makeup and Hairstyling are: Emma, Hillbilly Elegy, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank and Pinocchio
CC: The looks sported in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are period perfect.
KH: While I marveled at the transformation of Viola Davis into Ma Rainey and the copious use of ringlets in Emma, the Pinocchio team not only turned a boy into a wooden puppet but also various cast members into apes, snails and even a fish.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: I enjoyed Judi Dench's owl-like appearance and other actors' avian guises in Artemis Fowl.
KH: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm successfully camouflaged Sacha Baron Cohen in public and gave Maria Bakalova a glam makeover.

The nominees for Best Animated Feature are: Onward, Over the Moon, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, Soul and Wolfwalkers
CC: Soul, despite my more personal fondness for its fellow Disney/Pixar honoree Onward.
KH: I loved Pixar's as-usual top quality CGI in Soul and Aardman's always crazy claymation in the Shaun the Sheep sequel, but it is high time that Cartoon Saloon's traditional hand-drawn artistry gets the gold with the breathtakingly beautiful Wolfwalkers.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: I watched Scoob! upon the recommendation of my 6-year old nephew and thoroughly enjoyed it!
KH: None. In fact, this year I would have been just fine with only the three nominees I mentioned above in this category.

The nominees for Best International Feature Film are: Another Round (Denmark), Better Days (Hong Kong), Collective (Romania), The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia) and Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
CC: Another Round could have turned out offensive but instead is a fairly profound treatise/character study.  The deft handling by Thomas Vinterberg explains why he ended up a surprise nominee for Best Director.
KH: Quo Vadis, Aida? is a devastating, infuriating look at the Srebrenica massacre featuring a haunting performance by Jasna Djuricic. You won't want to sit through it twice, and that is a compliment.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: I Carry You With Me, Mexico's powerful, fact-based docudrama detailing an over-the-border gay love story.
KH: The lovely romance of two older women in France's Two of Us deserved to be recognized.

The nominees for Best Documentary Feature are: Collective, Crip Camp, The Mole Agent, My Octopus Teacher and Time
CC: I loved the beautifully shot and unexpectedly moving My Octopus Teacher.
KH: It's nice to see some "feel good" docs in this category for a change, and the bittersweet wonders of My Octopus Teacher have proven it to be the little nature film that could... win the Oscar, that is.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Welcome to Chechnya, which details the ongoing persecution of LGBTQ citizens of Russia and other conservative Eastern European countries.
KH: Speaking of "feel good", where's the delightful The Truffle Hunters? Or the more traditional-for-this-category Welcome to Chechnya for that matter.

The nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject are: Colette, A Concerto is a Conversation, Do Not Split, Hunger Ward and A Love Song for Latasha
CC: I would vote for the eye-opening, inspiring Hunger Ward.
KH: The short and sweet A Concerto is a Conversation is a lovely, loving look at family and the inspirations they find within themselves.
Egregiously Overlooked:
KH: The Speed Cubers was another inspirational tale of underdogs finding their place in the world.

The nominees for Best Animated Short Film are: Burrow, Genius Loci, If Anything Happens I Love You, Opera and Yes-People
CC: The devastatingly beautiful (or beautifully devastating) If Anything Happens I Love You.  I'm still crying.
KH: I was mesmerized by the audacity and brilliance of Erick Oh's Opera.
Egregiously Overlooked:
CC: Disney's kinda dated but still adorable and hilarious Out, which featured a lead gay character.
KH: It was sad to see that the two LGBTQ-themed shortlist semi-finalists Kapaemahu and Out didn't make it to the finals. #OscarsSoStraight?

The nominees for Best Live Action Short Film are: Feeling Through, The Letter Room, The Present, Two Distant Strangers and White Eye
CC: I liked the effective Groundhog Day meets George Floyd meets Twilight Zone approach taken in Two Distant Strangers.
KH: The two non-American contenders – The Present and White Eye – resonated the most with me, with the edge going to the BAFTA winning The Present for its emotional resonance.
Egregiously Overlooked:
KH: Although I have yet to see it, it was a bit of shock not to see Pedro Almodóvar's The Human Voice (starring Tilda Swinton) left out of the nominations.

And now for our own special category of dishonorable mention, the Worst Nomination of the Year:
CC: The laughable hairstyles in Ron Howard's embarrassingly corn-pone Hillbilly Elegy.

KH: Category fraud has been a consistent issue in the acting races for some time now, but there has never been an example as ridiculously perplexing as this year's Supporting Actor fiasco. Here's the deal: Warner Bros., the studio behind Judas and the Black Messiah, campaigned Daniel Kaluuya (who played the "Black Messiah" of the title) for supporting actor and LaKeith Stanfield (the "Judas") for lead, even though they are both technically the leads of the movie. The theory of how they both ended up in supporting is that some voters switched them (Kaluuya/lead, Stanfield/supporting) when they voted, but that Kaluuya still got more votes for supporting than lead; the rules state that a performance can't be nominated in both categories, so whichever one gets more votes is the one they are nominated in. And then Stanfield also managed enough votes to snag the fifth spot in supporting (which was up for grabs all season). Bottom line: this happened because those involved (the studio, the voters) all played fast and loose with the rules, which are very vague when it comes to the acting categories and who is lead vs. who is supporting. One would hope this embarrassing situation would lead to some changes in the future but, yeah, I'm not holding my breath.

And so the final march to Oscar glory begins. Tune in to the Big Show this Sunday to see who wins, as well as which nominees are rocking the best (and worst) gowns, hottest escorts and most heartfelt acceptance speeches.

By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine, and Kirby Holt, creator, editor and head writer of Movie Dearest.

Monday, April 19, 2021

And the 2020 Dorian Film Awards Go To...

Best Film
Best Director: Chloé Zhao
Most Visually Striking Film

Best Film Performance - Actress: Carey Mulligan
Best Screenplay: Emerald Fennell

Best Film Performance - Actor: Chadwick Boseman
Best LGBTQ Film

Best Film Performance - Supporting Actress: Youn Yuh-Jung
Best Non-English Language Film

Best Film Performance - Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya 

Best Documentary (2 winners)
Best LGBTQ Documentary (2 winners)

Best Documentary (2 winners)
Best LGBTQ Documentary (2 winners)

Best Unsung Film
"We're Wilde About You!" Rising Star of the Year: Radha Blank

Campiest Flick
Singer-songwriter, Producer, Actress, Humanitarian and National Treasure
Wilde Artist of the Year

Writer, Director, Producer and Star of Lingua Franca
GALECA Trailblazer Award

Will & Grace Scene-stealer and Instagram Phenom
Timeless Star

Presented by GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, the 12th Annual Dorian Awards honor the year's best in film. GALECA is comprised of over 200 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally entertainment journalists in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, including myself and Movie Dearest contributor Chris Carpenter.

Watch all the glitz and glamour of the very first televised Dorian Film Award "toast" on Revry TV, the new streaming service that offers "queer TV 24/7". The special includes appearances from Rosanna Arquette, Laverne Cox, Charo, Margaret Cho, Lee Daniels, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Harry Hamlin, Cheyenne Jackson, Rachel McAdams, Cynthia Nixon, Bruce Vilanch and more.

Congratulations to all of this year's winners!

Friday, April 16, 2021

Short Cuts 2021, Part 3: Oscar's Documentary Short Subject Nominees

For the 16th year, ShortsTV presents this year's Academy Award nominated animated, live action and documentary short films now playing in select theaters as well as digitally (watch the trailer here). These special programs are usually the only way for most movie fans to see all of these otherwise illusive short film nominees that can make or break your office Oscar pool. In the last of three parts, Movie Dearest takes a look at this year's five nominees for Best Documentary Short Subjects.

Suppression, whether of race, religion and/or class, is the focus of all of this year's predominately all-American documentary short finalists; even the one "happy" nominee deals with the issue of race in the United States.

And the nominees are...

Colette, Anthony Giacchino & Alice Doyard (USA, 25 minutes), trailer.

Colette Marin-Catherine, a member of the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, visits for the first time the concentration camp where her brother died. It's been some time since we've had a Holocaust-themed contender here, and appreciation for this one will depend on one's take on its outspoken, often acerbic subject.

Oscar Connection: Anthony Giacchino is the brother of film composer Michael Giacchino, who won an Oscar for his score for Pixar's Up.

MD Rating: 6/10

A Concerto Is A Conversation, Ben Proudfoot & Kris Bowers (USA, 14 minutes), trailer.

While preparing for the concert debut of his latest work, composer Kris Bowers sits down with his 91-year-old grandfather to learn more about his family's history. You'll not meet a more congenial storyteller than Horace Bowers, Sr., and this small gem of a film elicits joyful inspiration from the humble journey of his life.

Oscar Connection: Kris Bowers composed the score for Best Picture winner Green Book as well as another film nominated this year, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

MD Rating: 8/10

Do Not Split, Anders Hammer & Charlotte Cook (USA/Norway, 36 minutes), trailer.

Protests erupt on the streets of Hong Kong following the introduction of a controversial extradition bill in 2019. After an unprecedented year for America that saw plenty of its own widely-televised protests, over such issues as systemic racism and police brutality, its hard to get too worked up over this, although China sure is.

Oscar Connection: Charlotte Cook was an executive producer on two previous nominees in this category, A Night in the Garden and In the Absence.

MD Rating: 6/10

Hunger Ward, Skye Fitzgerald & Michael Scheuerman (USA, 40 minutes), trailer.

Inside two health clinics in war-torn Yemen, Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi struggle to save the lives of children literally starving to death. With its images of emaciation and mortality, this is easily the toughest watch this year, but its unblinking eye illuminates the staggering horrors of famine happening in the world right now.

Oscar Connection: Out of all the filmmakers nominated for short films this year in all three categories, Skye Fitzgerald is the only one who has been nominated before, for the 2018 documentary short Lifeboat.

MD Rating: 7/10

A Love Song for Latasha, Sophia Nahli Allison & Janice Duncan (USA, 19 minutes), trailer.

The all-too short life of Latasha Harlins, senselessly murdered in 1991 at age 15 in South Central Los Angeles by a convenience store owner who thought she was shop-lifting, is reflected upon in the memories of those who loved her. An artful, unconventional portrait of a promise unfulfilled, justice unserved, and the subsequent uprising it fueled.

Oscar Connection: A Love Song for Latasha is the seventh Netflix documentary short to be Oscar nominated. 2016's The White Helmets and 2018's Period. End of Sentence won the award.

MD Rating: 7/10

Coming soon: A Movie Dearest annual tradition: "If We Picked the Oscars".

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Short Cuts 2021, Part 2: Oscar's Live Action Short Film Nominees

For the 16th year, ShortsTV presents this year's Academy Award nominated animated, live action and documentary short films, now playing in select theaters as well as digitally (watch the trailer here). These special programs are usually the only way for most movie fans to see all of these otherwise illusive short film nominees that can make or break your office Oscar pool. In the second of three parts, Movie Dearest takes a look at this year's five nominees for Best Live Action Short Film.

Three American shorts face off against a pair from the Middle East, all from filmmakers invited to the Big Night for the first time. The common theme among this year's batch of nominees is conflict, with a diverse collection of protagonists struggling to "do the right thing" in difficult situations.

And the nominees are...

Feeling Through, Doug Roland & Susan Ruzenski (USA, 18 minutes), trailer.

A homeless youth (Steven Prescod), searching for shelter for the night on the streets of New York City, finds unexpected inspiration when he encounters a DeafBlind man (DeafBlind actor Robert Tarango). While it teeters awfully close to the "magical other" trope, this feel-good fable nails it on the strength of its winning lead performances.

Oscar Connection: To date, Marlee Matlin (one of Feeling Through's executive producers) is the only deaf performer to win an Academy Award; she won the Best Actress Oscar for 1986's Children of a Lesser God.

MD Rating: 7/10

The Letter Room, Elvira Lind & Sofia Sondervan (USA, 33 minutes), trailer.

After he is transferred to the mail room, an amiable corrections officer (a mustachioed Oscar Isaac) is drawn into the private lives of two death row prisoners. A promising premise that never quite commits to a tone: gritty prison drama or irreverent comedy? It's the Orange Is the New Black of short films.

Oscar Connection: Oscar Isaac (who is married to The Letter Room's writer/director Elvira Lind) has yet to be nominated for an Oscar himself, but if he ever is and then wins he will only be the second person named "Oscar" to do so. The first and so far only Oscar-winning Oscar is legendary songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II (who actually won two Oscars).

MD Rating: 6/10

The Present, Farah Nabulsi & Ossama Bawardi (Palestine, 23 minutes), trailer.

The simple task of shopping for an anniversary gift for his wife turns into a series of demoralizing frustrations for a Palestinian man (Saleh Bakri) as he navigates the Israeli checkpoints of the occupied West Bank. A powerful, universal story of persevering, of holding fast to one's humanity, in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression.

Oscar Connection: The Present is the only short film this year nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA Award.

MD Rating: 8/10

Two Distant Strangers, Travon Free & Martin Desmond Roe (USA, 32 minutes), trailer.

A young black man (Joey Bada$$) is forced to relive a deadly encounter with a white police officer (Andrew Howard) over and over again. This "Spike Lee's Groundhog Day" couldn't be timelier, but a "gotcha" moment rips it back to harsh reality. Point made, but at the expense of our empathy for the film's hero (not to mention his poor hungry dog).

Oscar Connection: Prolific "tough guy" character actor Andrew Howard (Watchmen, Perry Mason) also appears in another Oscar nominated movie this year, Tenet.

MD Rating: 7/10

White Eye, Tomer Shushan & Shira Hochman (Israel, 20 minutes), trailer.

On the streets of Tel Aviv a man finds his stolen bicycle; the situation intensifies when the presumed thief appears. Unfolding in real time and in one continuous take that amps up the growing sense of inevitable, inescapable dread, this tense mini-drama shows how quickly lives can change, and often for the most senseless of reasons.

Oscar Connection: You may recall another film shot as one continuous take from last year, the Oscar winning 1917.

MD Rating: 8/10

Coming soon: Reviews of the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Reverend's Reviews: Mapplethorpe, Apartheid & Prison Viewed Through a New Lens

Plenty of artists have been the subjects of movies over the years. Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Caravaggio, Diane Arbus and Jean-Michel Basquiat are but a well-known few. Several of them have been LGBTQ. Now, we can add gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to the list. One of the most consequential and controversial artists of the 20th Century, he is being newly represented by the biopic Mapplethorpe, The Director's Cut. A re-worked version of the original 2018 release, it is now available for viewing via Hulu and VOD.

The film marks the narrative feature debut of acclaimed documentarian Ondi Timoner and stars Doctor Who alum Matt Smith in the title role. Mapplethorpe, The Director’s Cut features an all-new soundtrack and offers restored scenes depicting the artist’s childhood love of photography, his embattled relationship with his father, and his lingering yet ambivalent connection to the Catholic Church in which he was raised. It also more deeply explores Mapplethorpe's love affair with rocker Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) and his subsequent, pivotal romance with powerhouse art collector Sam Wagstaff (played by current Tony Award nominee John Benjamin Hickey). We see the development of his precise, erotically-charged photographic style along with his climb toward mainstream recognition. His eventual success was only briefly halted by Mapplethorpe's untimely death from AIDS complications in 1989.

The story behind this new, revised version of Timoner's film is almost as tumultuous as its subject's life. Producer Jamie Wolf saw an early cut of Mapplethorpe and was especially impressed with its reverberant quality, which she felt effortlessly transcended the traditional biopic. Wolf, who is quietly known for her creative hand as a producer (Newtown, City of Gold, The Truffle Hunters), has a particularly strong commitment to enabling a director’s vision. When she learned the original version of Mapplethorpe had been altered for its theatrical release, Wolf recalled an article by Richard Brody in The New Yorker which chronicled Kenneth Lonergan’s long journey to restore the original cut of his 2011 film Margaret, after a version he did not endorse was first distributed.

Wolf and partner Geralyn Dreyfous persuaded the Samuel Goldwyn Company, distributor of the 2018 release, to allow them to follow the Margaret road map and create a director’s cut of Mapplethorpe. Wolf tapped Nathalie Seaver, Executive Vice President at Foothill Productions, to work with her on the project, which was expected to be a three-month endeavor. However, with their meticulous attention to detail – which included adding an original score by Drazen Bosnjak and a new soundtrack assembled by Michael Turner – the film's re-working stretched to over a year. Having seen both versions, I can attest that the new Director's Cut is a significant improvement. Smith's performance is especially impressive.

Director and co-writer Ondi Timoner has built her reputation as a documentarian, accomplishing the unusual feat of garnering two Grand Jury Prizes at the Sundance Film Festival with her film Dig! in 2004 and We Live in Public in 2009. Timoner’s first exposure to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe came when she was 12 years old. “I had a calendar of Mapplethorpe’s flowers,” she says. “I absolutely loved it, but I had no idea that there was this other side to his photography.”

The photographer’s famed floral portraits, especially of the white calla lily, have now rippled across generations. But many of his other images, including full-frontal male nudes, were considered so transgressive that much of his work was covered up at an early exhibition in Boston and could only be viewed by lifting up an obscuring curtain.

As Timoner reveals in the film's press notes: “My goal in making this film was to make an anthem for artists. I make films about difficult visionaries, about people who are unable to turn away from the quest, even when they come up against doubt and ridicule and struggle, as well as the penalties often involved. Robert Mapplethorpe set out to make people bend to his vision, to embrace what they deemed obscene, and worship it as holy. That’s an incredible thing."

Reverend recently had the pleasure of speaking further with the multi-talented Timoner via phone about her new Director's Cut:

: Can you talk about the process of making your film?
OT: I originally optioned the rights to a script by Bruce Goodrich. In exploring (Mapplethorpe's) life, I learned how he comes into his art and that led him into his sexuality. His art was the bridge to this life that he saw as beautiful. No matter how you feel about some of his controversial choices, like knowingly infecting people with AIDS, he lived his life authentically and there is beauty in that.

REV: How was your collaboration with Matt Smith?
OT: He's fantastic, an incredible artist and also a serious intellect. Originally, James Franco was cast but my then-9-year-old son, who was a Doctor Who fan, suggested Matt. (Matt and I) had lots of debates on set about every little thing I'd written. He was so right for the part, jaw-dropping. We shot the whole movie in 19 days and started at the end of Mapplethorpe's life. Matt had to lose weight before we began shooting. He remains a good friend and an ally to this day. My son actually hit it off with Matt and they're still friends.

REV: Did you receive any reaction to the film from Mapplethorpe's brother Edward (who is also a photographer) or other family or friends?
OT: I did. I didn't have any help from Robert's brother while making it, but Matt and I met to tour the Guggenheim Museum one day and coincidentally bumped into Edward. He said he loved the film! Robert's last assistant, Brian English, also saw and loved it.

REV: You are primarily a documentarian but do you plan to make other narrative films?
OT: Yes, I actually have a script I've written about my father's (Eli Timoner) meteoric rise and life called A Stroke of Genius. He founded Air Florida. He passed away recently but I was able to spend his final weeks with him and went through the script page by page with him. He had a stroke when I was 9. It's another movie set primarily in the 1970's, like Mapplethorpe.

REV: That sounds great! What would you say is the most important legacy of Mapplethorpe's work or life?
OT: I think that, hopefully, one can see the poignancy in him living truthfully, to see the price he paid for that but also the value of that. His legacy is the beauty of his work. That will never end. He made photography a collectible art form, and he helped to advance the LGBTQ movement through his art.

32 years after his death, Robert Mapplethorpe's influence undeniably lives on!

It was also 30-some years ago that I learned about apartheid, the shockingly racist policy of South Africa's then-government. Although black activist Stephen Biko was murdered in 1977 while he was unjustly imprisoned, I was largely unaware of his story or the horrific conditions his people were living under until the release of Richard Attenborough's 1987 film Cry Freedom. Thankfully, apartheid was dismantled in the 1990's through a combination of Nelson Mandela's leadership and international pressure.

Untold until now is the equally disturbing story of gay white men who lived under apartheid. Oliver Hermanus's 2019 film Moffie (a word that was the Afrikaans equivalent of faggot) is finally being released in US theaters and on VOD this Friday, April 9th, from IFC Films. It was an official selection at that year's Venice Film Festival and won the Mermaid Award for best LGBTQ entry at the Thessaloniki International Film Fest. Then COVID hit and unfortunately but understandably delayed release plans.

Set in the early 1980's, Moffie depicts the travails of 17-year old Nicholas Van de Swert (played by the very photogenic Kai Luke Brummer). It was national policy at the time that all white boys over the age of 16 had to serve in the South African military for two years. It was assumed that all such boys were heterosexual, but Nicholas is gay so necessarily closeted in light of social mores that treated LGBTQ citizens almost as badly as the country's black citizens.

Nicholas and his fellow recruits have to endure a sadistic sergeant, difficult desert conditions, and a war against neighboring Angola. On the plus side, he falls in love with the similarly closeted Dylan after they spend a night sharing a sleeping bag while on patrol in the desert. Dylan is eventually discharged and sent to a psychiatric facility for "treatment," but Nicholas continues to carry a torch for his special friend.

Adapted from an autobiographical book by Andre Carl van der Merwe, Moffie is a revealing, moving and occasionally sexy exploration of South Africa's treatment of gay men under apartheid. The movie is chock full of sweaty, frequently naked young men but doesn't feel exploitative. Jamie Ramsay's naturalistic, intimate cinematography helps in this regard. So do the sympathetic performances of all the actors involved. While I was wishing for a more upbeat ending to the film after Nicholas and Dylan are reunited, the happiest ending to this or any apartheid-era story is that apartheid no longer exists.

Writer-director Jon Garcia already has a substantial gay following thanks to his three-part, Mormons-in-love saga The Falls. Garcia's latest release Luz (newly available this week on VOD) marks an impressive, more accomplished development in the filmmaker's career. Moving on from same-sex LDS missionaries, Garcia relates the romance that gradually develops between two cellmates in a men's prison.

Mafia driver Ruben (a great, vulnerable performance by Ernesto Reyes) is sentenced after an accident that resulted in the death of his boss' trans girlfriend. The slightly older, more experienced Carlos (Jesse Tayeh) takes Ruben under his wing... and more. After Carlos is unexpectedly released from prison, Ruben has to wait three more years until his own term ends. Once it does, he sets out to find Carlos with conflicted feelings of both retribution and desire. Ruben also seeks his deaf daughter, who has been taken in by mafia boss (and Ruben's cousin) Julio.

While Luz hits some of the same emotional notes as The Falls, the film benefits from a tighter narrative as well as some more graphic sex scenes than its predecessors. Reyes and Tayeh also give more professional performances than Garcia's previous leading men. In addition, Luz has a genuinely happy ending, which is rare among the recent LGBTQ films I've seen. One can become illuminated while streaming Luz.

Reverend's Ratings:
Mapplethorpe, The Director's Cut: B+
Moffie: A-
Luz: B

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.