Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 7

So here is a quick little thought regarding the seventh episode of the FX series Taboo that pretty much perfectly exemplifies my feelings on the show overall: I watched it maybe 5 days ago, felt very little desire to write some thoughts on it immediately, and by now I already am having trouble remembering exactly what happened during the episode. I remember thinking it was good for all the same reasons I normally appreciated it, incredible set design, an authentic aesthetic overall and great performances. However, the plotting of this episode, what happened from point A to B and B to C and so on, I am piecing back together in my head now with very little enthusiasm.

I remember the mystery and intrigue around the murder of Winter, and I am left with questions like, is someone framing James (Tom Hardy) or is he being accused by Helga just for the sake of an additional threat for James to deal with and obviously the enhanced drama of more to deal with? This seventh episode did answer a lot of questions too, ones that had lingered since the first few minutes of the first episode, but I didn't really care as much as I hoped to discover the answers and therein lies the problem: Taboo just never grabbed me. Even at its best, it has been one of those shows that delights some of my senses but leaves me heart cold and my head less invested than I expected.

Only the finale left to go, airing on Tuesday night in the U.S. Let's see if it ends on a high note.

Episode Grade: B-

Friday, February 24, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Director

While I am a fan of all five of the films that are recognized in the Best Director category at the Oscars (four of them are in my top ten of the year), I only agree with two of the five nominees being chosen specifically for their achievements in direction. These are my picks for the five filmmakers who crafted incredible art in 2016.

Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon

Refn is a visual storyteller, his films sparkling with different colors and textures and The Neon Demon is certainly no exception with an appropriate title as the film just oozes style, the characters living in a vivid neon nightmare. Refn polarizes audiences because he doesn't deliver traditional narratives, choosing to feed audiences a steady dose of violence, perversion and disturbing imagery in hopes of making a connection knowing full well that 50 percent of the people watching could potentially boo in the end. I am usually cheering.

Robert Eggers, The Witch

I know some people who were upset that The Witch wasn't recognized by the Academy in any way, but did anyone honestly expect it to be? Don't get me wrong, in my world it is deserving of numerous nominations, but perhaps my years of paying close attention to what does and doesn't get nominated has taught me when to expect a great film to be ignored because of a combination of release date, genre, and lack of playing the political games necessary to get voters to take a second look. The Witch isn't an Oscar film, but so what? It's a brilliant slice of horror cinema and one that will surely make the stock of Robert Eggers rise, as this cold, terrifying picture unnerves and haunts throughout.

Pablo Larraín, Jackie

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made his English language debut in 2016 with the biopic Jackie, an incredible movie that works so well because every aspect melds harmoniously together seemingly with ease, including an Oscar nominated performance from Natalie Portman, the Oscar nominated costume design and an Oscar nominated musical score from Mica Levi, but Larraín was left out of the director mix and without his perfect grasp on how to handle the material, Jackie wouldn't be the masterful film it is.

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Nominated for 8 Oscars, Moonlight has only made roughly 18 million at the box office since it was released back in November. That's insane. It's a gorgeous, meaningful, emotional, important film and the heart of the whole thing is the man who adapted the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, writer/director Barry Jenkins. His vision for telling the story of Chiron in three chapters, from childhood to adulthood, is remarkable and needs to be seen by far more people. He is my runner up for this award only because his competition made one of my favorite films in years, but in a normal year I would absolutely be rooting for Jenkins to walk away with the trophy at the Oscars.

the winner is...

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

After his incredible film Whiplash, I wondered if Damien Chazelle could ever top such a great film made at such a young age. He already did it with his follow up La La Land, a gorgeous, joyous, treasure of a motion picture, the kind of film that fills me with joy from start to finish, even when the story unfolding on the screen includes a bit of heartbreak and regret. It's the best film of the year, it's the best direction of the year, it's got the best music featured in any film in years, it's a damn delight and I can't wait to see Chazelle win the Oscar.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Actor

The final performance based category is Best Actor, and I will share four of the five nominees as the Academy...technically. Oddly, two of them will be from different films than those they received recognition at the Oscars for because, frankly, those weren't their best performances of 2016, which is a big compliment because they were great in those movies too.

Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys

La La Land is going through the weird, completely ridiculous and total waste of time and energy known as the Oscar front runner backlash right now. So many think pieces about why it is actually a bad film and it's exhausting, and not just because it happens to be my favorite film of the year. Even when I don't care for an Oscar front runner, people need to relax. Film appreciation is subjective and just because you didn't like a movie doesn't mean everyone has to agree with you, and also, the Oscars and fun and kinda important, but not really that important. When one looks back upon a film they love, do they google how many Oscars it won 30 years ago? Probably not because it doesn't matter. Most of what are now considered the greatest pictures every released made little to no impact at the Oscars because it is short-term recognition. Time will tell on all of the films.

That being said, despite my overwhelming La La Land love, it wasn't even my favorite Gosling performance of the year. If you want to see his incredible comedic timing and the charisma to lead a film in action, check out The Nice Guys. My second favorite film with Gosling in it from last year, but his best individual performance.

Andrew Garfield, Silence

Hacksaw Ridge is a good film and Garfield is great in it, but the Academy overlooked his best performance and really the entire other film he was in for the most part. Silence is incredible despite the lack of award recognition (remember what I said above? Mark my words: a decade from now Silence will be studied and discussed and considered remarkable and Hacksaw Ridge will probably be a distant memory). Andrew Garfield lead the way in this very challenging Scorsese film, and it is one of the best performances of the year.

Mark Duplass, Blue Jay

If you have any interest in admiring a completely under the radar film with terrific performances, look up Blue Jay right now on Netflix and give it a watch. It's a short movie and a great one about a man and woman randomly reuniting after 25 years, there time as high school sweethearts long in the rear view mirror, and it is compelling, emotional, funny and beautiful and Mark Duplass gives one hell of a lead performance. A scene late in the film (which I won't give away) allowed Duplass to break my heart and it was then that I realized how perfect he had been the whole way.

Denzel Washington, Fences

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Denzel won the SAG award for Best Actor and the whole race shifted. Calling it a race up until that point doesn't even feel fair, it wasn't a race. Casey Affleck had won EVERYTHING for Manchester by the Sea and his win was a shoe in, to the point that Affleck himself couldn't hide his shocked reaction when a different name was announced that night, and it is that one win for Denzel that lends me to believe he will win the Oscar as well since the Actors voted on him and they represent a pretty meaty piece of the Academy as well. It's a mighty great choice and I will not question it obviously, given that I am naming him a nominee here as his performance in Fences is elite Denzel level, the type of work that makes him a legend.

and the winner is...

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

My winner is still Affleck, despite the seeming sway towards Denzel by the Academy. The subtle nuance he brings to Manchester by the Sea is breathtaking, which can also basically describe the entire film because it is so powerful without ever feeling like it is trying to be powerful. It just feels real, and the combination of Lonergan's direction and words with performances like Casey Affleck are why. It takes real, remarkable talent to devastate an audience without actively pulling at the heartstrings, and this is Affleck's greatest moment to date.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Actress

Without a doubt the most difficult category for me to bring down to only 5 nominees, this years Best Actress category is crowded and incredible. This is the only category that compels me to discuss some honorable mentions real quick, those being the up-and coming soon to be superstar Anya Taylor-Joy who was incredible making her feature film debut in The Witch and has since been great in films like Barry and Split, Mary Elizabeth Winstead for her terrific work in 10 Cloverfield Lane, child actor Royalty Hightower for her remarkable debut in The Fits and Ruth Negga for her elegant, subtle and beautiful work in Loving. I'm sure there are even more I am not thinking of, and if I weren't trying to match the format of the Academy Awards here I could expand the category to 10 nominees with ease.

Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen

Featuring a great script and a perfect supporting performance from Woody Harrelson (whom I already nominated for Best Supporting Actor), a memorable, authentic teen comedy needs a memorable, authentic lead performance: enter Hailee Steinfeld, probably mostly known these days for her blossoming music career but everyone needs to turn their attention to just how awesome she is on camera. This is old news of course, given her Oscar nominated performance in True Grit when she was only 14 years old, but it's great to see she not only can be the lead of a film but completely knocks it out of the park too.

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

It has been established that Paul Verhoeven is basically a misunderstood genius, but when it comes to a film like Elle I believe any praise thrown his way needs to also be tossed in equal measure towards Isabelle Huppert who is astonishing in the lead role. You can't sell his brand of ambiguous, deeply thematic material without performances that fit the tone he, as a director, is looking for, and Huppert was the perfect choice to lead this highly sexual, violent and controversial picture.

Amy Adams, Arrival

I still can't believe that Arrival is nominated for 8 Oscars, which is a substantial amount, and yet the lead performance from Amy Adams is not one of them. I can't make sense of it. The film just doesn't work as well as it does (and it works really, really well) without her incredible, graceful performance, and given that the Academy obviously appreciates the hell out of the film, how did she fall short? Well, to make up for it, I am here to nominate her for my completely meaningless award, so congratulations Amy!

Emma Stone, La La Land

One of the hardest things I have had to admit this award season is that Emma Stone is going to win the Oscar and yet I don't agree. I will be thrilled to see her up there, the star of my favorite film of 2016 and she is beautiful, charming, and funny, an outstanding actress giving the performance of a lifetime...and yet I would personally give it to someone else. Emma would be my runner-up and by no means do I think the Academy is really make any sort of substantial mistake when she wins (and she will), and I hope La La Land racks up the trophies because the film is simply magical. I love Emma Stone, so don't misinterpret this. But...

the winner is...

Natalie Portman, Jackie

My single favorite performance from all of 2016, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy is a stunning thing to behold. She has it all down, the look, the vocal patterns, the mannerisms. Everything. The collaboration of Portman and director Pablo Larraín proves to be a match made in heaven, and with the camera pulled in close Jackie presents its lead in a claustrophobic manner and there is no where for Portman to hide and she nails every single damn scene. It's devastating, gorgeous, must see stuff.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Supporting Actor

Moving on to the next category, that being Best Supporting Actor, and I will be recognizing two actors from the same film that never appear on screen together, one of which will likely be receiving the Oscar (and rightfully so) and the other not nominated but his time in the film continues to stick with me.

Ashton Sanders, Moonlight

Here is the first of the two actors from the same film, this being the one that was not recognized with a nomination and unfortunately that isn't really a surprise. I'm sure many would question what makes this one performance more special than the others, as it is one of three actors to portray the main character Chiron throughout Moonlight, and it is important to note that I do not mean to slight Alex R. Hibbert or Trevante Rhodes in the least. Every performance in this film is remarkable, truly every one, but for whatever reason the second act of the film really hit me hard and it is when Chiron is a teenager and being bullied at school, and Ashton Sanders plays it perfectly, sometimes while barely saying a word. 

Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

It is basically impossible to recognize Casey Affleck without also pouring the same praises onto Lucas Hedges, and vice-versa. They each have their own individual brilliant moments in the film, but it's the chemistry they share together and the comedy and heart their relationship provides that make the film work so well, on a far different level than just another "tear-jerker". Manchester by the Sea is devastating but it will also make you smile and laugh quite a lot, and much of that is due to Hedges with a terrific performance as the nephew left behind by a mother living a very different life and a father who has just passed away. 

Woody Harrelson, The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen didn't shatter any box office records, but this film will find its audience and it should. It needs to. A tremendous teenage comedy that doesn't feel forced like so many do, like you can tell it is an adult writing what he or she believes teenagers are rather than having any real authenticity, the lead performance from Hailee Steinfeld was the most recognized piece of the film (and she is absolutely wonderful), but the scenes she shares with Woody Harrelson playing her teacher provide some of the most memorable moments from the whole movie. Harrelson doesn't really show any shocking range from the type of performance we already knew he was capable of, but he doesn't have to. What he brings to The Edge of Seventeen is sheer perfection and essential to making me love the movie as much as I do.

John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

I recall back when 10 Cloverfield Lane was released last March, there were some articles buzzing about the Oscar prospects for John Goodman and I was immediately a pessimist no matter how much he deserved it. A perfect, terrifying performance, without a doubt, but one that would be overshadowed later in the year when all of the award season releases started hitting theaters, and sure enough that's exactly what happened. The good news is, fans of the film will never forget what Goodman delivered in 10 Cloverfield Lane. I sure won't.

the winner is...

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

If you are yet to see Moonlight but have taken notice of all the awards and praise Mahershala Ali has received for his performance thus far, you may be shocked to find out just how little he actually appears in the film, as he is only in the first of the three acts. Don't be distracted by how much time he is there, but rather focus on just how there he is during that first formative and powerful part of Chiron's life. It's actually far more impressive that he does so much without being a presence throughout and without a showy, over-the-top "Oscar moment" to point to, but that's the compliment I can pay to the entire picture. It's just so real and honest and moving, and Mahershala is completely brilliant and worthy of the Oscar he will win.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Supporting Actress

With the Oscars approaching, award season is coming to a close. This also means it is time for me to announce who I would have nominated in 5 major categories and who I feel deserves to win in each.

Starting off with Best Supporting Actress, here are the nominees:

Viola Davis, Fences

She may not win in my world, but she is going to win the Oscar and it is a totally appropriate and worthy choice. Viola Davis gave an emotional, powerful, brilliant performance in Fences, a film based on a stage play so it utilized minimalist set pieces and allowed the actors to shine. They did, and Viola Davis gave one of the better performances of 2016.

Imogen Poots, Green Room

There was never a chance that Green Room would receive a single Oscar nomination, even with the critical acclaim it received. A genre film released in April about a punk rock band being stuck inside a Nazi club and having to fight for their survival doesn't exactly scream award season. That being said, it is a film executed with precision and confidence and the performances and style meld together into something awesome. The actors that leave an indelible impression on the audience once the film ends are Imogen Poots and the late Anton Yelchin, and Poots is fierce and perfectly cast here. I saw over 175 films released during 2016 and if I look back at the year in cinema off the top of my head, what Imogen Poots did in Green Room will always be part of what I think of.

Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Moonlight is a film that showcases masterful performances from top to bottom, and the supporting work throughout is remarkable. Naomie Harris is one of those pieces that without her, the film just doesn't fit. Playing the drug addicted mother of the main character Chiron, Harris adds an essential amount of uncomfortable into the narrative of the film, a character that will be easily disliked and yet also demands empathy because of the nuance she brings to the role. There have been a whole lot of drug addicted parent characters throughout the years in cinema, but Harris elevates it to something else entirely. 

Mackenzie Davis, Always Shine

Always Shine is one of those films I am going to spend some energy promoting to people in the near future, because it deserves all the attention it gets and it hasn't received nearly enough. A delicious little thriller directed by Sophia Takal and the stellar performance that brings the tension to it all comes from Mackenzie Davis. A psychological thriller demands an unnerving presence to send chills down your spin in order to work, and the pain her character Anna feels throughout as she watches her best friend's acting career take off while her life is stuck in neutral is crucial and spellbinding. 

the winner is...

Molly Shannon, Other People

Until I watched Other People, I would see Molly Shannon on television screen and the first thing I would think of, obviously, was Saturday Night Live. I had no idea she had a performance like this in her, with so much heart and soul and pain and honesty poured into a character that is dying of cancer, surrounded by her family while she is trying to make the best of what time she has left. It's a beautiful performance that may have received Oscar recognition had it not come from an under the radar indie feature, but it's a good one that is streaming on Netflix now. Watch it and see just how great Shannon is for yourself.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 6

Anyone who has been keeping up with my thoughts on each episode of the FX series Taboo knows that my expectations were high and have been consistently disappointed by a very well made show that just wasn't doing anything to keep me glued to the screen.

Finally, fucking finally I got an episode I had been hoping for all along, and it's about damn time considering it was the sixth of only eight total. Taboo is clearly beginning to ramp up and race towards its conclusion and while the early portions of this most recent episode felt like much the same, when it started to hit its stride, I was hooked.

War has been declared between the East India Company and James Delaney (Tom Hardy), and this excellently directed and tense episode finally managed to make the stakes of the story feel substantial. We get some murder, incest, explosions and haunting visions of a rather terrifying deceased mother, and all of it adds up to something I actually enjoyed watching quite a bit. Now I can actually look forward to next week when the penultimate episode airs, rather than the previous weeks of begrudgingly reminding myself that even as the story has slogged along, at least there has been a lot of good to see stylistically and with a really intricate production that successfully transports the audience to the era it is trying to represent.

Please let this not be an anomaly. If Taboo can end strong, I will remember the series overall fondly even if it did overall disappoint. I would even be excited for another season, should that happen.

Episode Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 10"

I have no idea if Pope Pius XIII will ever grace my television again, as there is no guarantee of a season two let alone a guarantee of Jude Law's return even if it does happen, but what we got here for these ten episode was pure excellence. The Young Pope turned out to be intense, bizarre, fascinating and consistently beautiful, both in technical terms with top notch sets, costumes, and camerawork and also in regards to its often times poetic and profound narrative. I have no idea what to expect and no real substantive expectations before the series began, but now I can say it was a pleasure to enjoy these ten hours of storytelling.

It's funny, I am a huge fan of binge watching shows released in one lump sum on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and yet here just with HBO deciding to release two episodes a week rather than the usual one, I feel like The Young Pope came and went too quickly. Only 5 weeks ago the journey began, one that initially felt like a silly premise primed to find its audience merely through shock factor and blasphemy, and now I am sitting here thinking how much I hope to see more in the future. If it doesn't return though, Paolo Sorrentino created a brilliant limited series with an ambiguous ending that I am still unpacking right now.

The winning episode of the season proved to be the eighth but from top to bottom, start to finish The Young Pope was a hell of a watch. Even at its worst it was still good television.

Episode Grade: A-

Season One Grade: A-

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 9"

You know a show is outstanding when an episode like the penultimate entry of the first season of The Young Pope is considered a "step down" from the previous one. Other shows would kill to make just one installment this good, and it isn't even its best.

The episode kicks off with a lengthy and, par for the course for this show, beautifully written conversation/debate between the Pope and Spencer over what their official position on abortion should be. After this scene much of the episode surrounds the circumstances of Gutierrez as he is succumbing to alcoholism and dealing with a mess, both literally and figuratively. We still get plenty of the Pope here, of course, but let me tell you, the Gutierrez stuff is so elegantly handled and interesting, so an entire episode focused solely on him and his plight would have been just fine by me, granted the one subplot in this episode involving Gutierrez that focuses on the bed ridden, morbidly obese woman who owns the hotel he is staying in didn't really do much for me. I get what they are going for thematically, that Gutierrez and her are completely different people yet in a way are similar because both are currently trapped by their circumstances, but this was probably the only thing holding back this episode from matching the greatness of number eight.

With only one episode to go, which I will likely be watching tonight, the first season of The Young Pope has been quite an achievement. A great ending would likely cement it as a top ten show of the year entry, which is hard to promise in mid-February but I feel pretty confident with this one.

Episode Grade: A-

Monday, February 13, 2017

The 50 Finest Films of 2016 - #10 - #1

We have arrived at top 10, my favorite films from 2016. After seeing 176 of them in all from last year, these are the ones that have stuck with me and will stick with me the most, the ones that I either already have or will certainly buy and add to my collection so I can revisit them numerous times.

10. Silence

Despite how much I love the film, I am not nearly as surprised that Silence was ignored by the Academy as others are. That isn't to say it didn't deserve recognition, holy shit it did in numerous categories, but it's a challenging, long, painful story to witness unfold and I tend to lean towards believing the average Oscar voter shying away from such movies. I have read too many of those anonymous award voter stories where the person admits to not even watching films like Silence to be an optimist and believe this Scorsese epic got a fair shake. It's a beautiful, horrifying, incredibly made picture though, and down the road it will get the recognition it deserves.

9. Arrival

Based on the short story titled "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, the Denis Villeneuve directed Arrival is a stunning film lead by a lead performance from Amy Adams that is, remarkably, not nominated for an Oscar. Without her Arrival just doesn't work the way it does, a science fiction story with deep, emotional themes and messages spilling out over the edges, a movie with a focus on language and communication that makes you think and earn the profound payoff rather than spoon feed it to audiences. 

8. Jackie

I knew the performance would be there. I walked into Jackie expecting something special from Natalie Portman in the lead role as Jackie Kennedy, but what I didn't know and was pleasantly surprised to find out was just how fantastic the entire film would be. Filmed beautiful and yet painfully through a claustrophobic lens by director Pablo Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine and scored with a haunting brilliance by composer Mica Levi, Jackie is 90 plus minutes of searing images and a pitch perfect example of not just acting, but flat out embodying a character.

7. Green Room

Way back in April of last year, I learned that a theater near me would be screening Green Room on its release day and I got to thinking: how can I leave work early to see it as soon as possible? A little lie to leave early and next thing I know I am sitting in a cinema ready to enjoy Jeremy Saulnier's follow up effort after the amazing Blue Ruin. I had high expectations but I still had no idea that I would be witnessing such a brutal, gloriously realized genre film that would end up in my top 10 of the year. A cold, sharp as a blade thriller that packs a huge punch, Green Room also feels more appropriate months after its release than it did that day. I mean after all, it includes a live performance of the song "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" by the Dead Kennedys. 

6. The Neon Demon

You either love the work of Nicolas Winding Refn or you don't. Considering Drive is one of my favorite films ever made and I feel alone on an island fighting the good fight for his film Only God Forgives, it should come as no surprise that I fall on the "love" side of the coin, and The Neon Demon is another stylish, sexy winner from the Danish filmmaker. A take down of the modeling industry and the way it pulls young women in offering a glamorous lifestyle only to churn them up and spit them out soon after, The Neon Demon isn't for everyone and many will be turned off by its violence and just how strange things get as it goes, but lord this film is for me. 

5. Manchester by the Sea

It's not enough to simply say that Manchester by the Sea is an emotional movie, it needs to be said that the reason it is extraordinary is how it earns that emotional response so naturally and honestly without even the slightest hint of manipulation. It's a devastating piece of cinema because it feels so real, with an incredible Oscar worthy performance from Casey Affleck and outstanding supporting work from everyone including Michelle Williams and newcomer Lucas Hedges. Out on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow and premiering on Amazon Prime soon, make sure to check out Manchester by the Sea so you can understand why it is getting the awards attention and recognition it deserves.

4. The Witch

Speaking of awards attention and recognition that is deserved, The Witch received none from the Academy but I am not the least bit surprised. I mean, it's a low budget horror film that was released last February, which isn't exactly the type of thing that will keep buzz going for a year until the Oscars. Even I am totally shocked that such a movie released at that time of the year would land as my number 4 of the year, but The Witch never left me all year long. Hell, I even revisited it twice at home and my appreciation only grew. It is EXACTLY what I am looking for from the genre, with director Robert Eggers knowing how to build tension and terror that absolutely cuts through you without turning it into a gore fest merely for shock factor. Great ensemble performances from the whole family but it's the lead work from Anya Taylor-Joy that floored me, and it has been refreshing to see her in other solid films since as well. 

3. Moonlight

A masterpiece that not nearly enough people have seen based on box office numbers, Moonlight is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring journey, a three-act story about a boy who becomes a man but is unable to find himself completely as he struggles with his homosexuality living in a world that won't accept it. Director Barry Jenkins has said that he didn't truly know the extent of what he had created until they were finished filming and were in the editing room, and I believe it because nothing about Moonlight feels like predetermined Oscar bait hoping to be admired. It dawns on you how astonishing and nuanced and gorgeous the whole experience is as you are watching and the sum of all the parts put together equals a perfect whole. Also, give Mahershala Ali the Oscar for Supporting Actor, a performance that makes up a small amount of screen time but much like his impact on Chiron, everything after his character last fills the screen doesn't meld quite as harmoniously without what he delivered during that first, powerful act. 

2. O.J.: Made in America

Initially when I said this, it felt like hyperbole, but it has been like 8 months since I watched O.J.: Made in America and nothing has changed, so I feel quite confident in saying it again: this is the greatest documentary I have ever seen. Nothing has ever been so deeply comprehensive, informative and fascinating as the long look at not only the life of O.J. Simpson but also the world that surrounded him and set him up to easily get away with murder. Directed by Ezra Edelman, this originally aired as a 5 night television special from ESPN studios, but once it became quite clear that they had something so masterful on their hands they decided to air it in theaters in order to qualify for the Oscars. While I may not advise taking this on as one 7.5 hour film, as I watched it over two nights because let's face it, finding that much time with a family and a full time job is damn near impossible, I do advise you watch this beauty in whatever time frame you feel comfortable. This is going to win the Oscar for Best Documentary and it should. It's incredible.

1. La La Land

There was never any doubt that La La Land would end up at the top of my list after my first viewing. Then I went back with my wife and daughter and saw it two more times after that. It's just magical theater and the one movie from the year that hit me with that "it" factor when something romantic clicks in my mind and I fall in love with everything about what I had just seen. The music, the style, the direction, the screenplay, the moves, the production design, the performances. Just the pure, perfectly realized vision of director Damien Chazelle who created a modern musical that is both nostalgic and yet completely new, starting with an opening scene that is one for the ages, a long take song and dance sequence that occurs on a jam packed Los Angeles freeway that is so expertly choreographed and executed that after three viewings I am still in awe. The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is superb, both beautiful people who fit into this story sublimely. I cannot get enough of La La Land.

The Small Screen: Legion "Chapter 1"

I am debating whether the eighth episode of The Young Pope or "Chapter 1" of Legion is the best single episode of television to air in 2017 thus far, and I watched them both on the same day. It was a pretty good day.

Legion is off to a remarkable, unnerving, brilliant start with a 90 minute premiere that feels like Marvel Studios hired someone who decided to make a superhero show with a style inspired by Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, and that someone is Noah Hawley who also created the Fargo series for FX, which sadly I have never watched but I absolutely want to catch up on now. Hawley tapped into something truly wonderful here, and if the level of quality displayed during our introduction to Legion can continue for seven more weeks, it will without a doubt be one of the greatest pieces of entertainment of the year.

Starring Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza and Katie Aselton, watch Legion. I don't care if you typically like material inspired by comic books, just please give the series a chance. I read that the ratings for this premiere were not nearly as extraordinary as the show itself, and if Legion isn't allowed to live on long enough to reach its full potential it would be a real shame.

Episode Grade: A

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 8"

I have been calling for the masterpiece that I knew would be coming from the excellent HBO series The Young Pope, and it may have arrived. I am still deciding if the eighth episode is worthy of that strong of a word, because I still do think the show is capable of even better, but my goodness what a terrific hour of television this was. It is certainly the best of the season thus far.

Paolo Sorrentino is quite the storyteller and it is clear that when he focuses on character and emotional depth, The Young Pope absolutely soars. The camera and the narrative really focus closely on Lenny (Jude Law) in this one, with the episode basically unfolding as two separate acts, the first being focused on his internal reflection as he deals with a crisis of faith and whether or not he believes in God, which is a hell of a conflict for the Pope to be facing, and the second act being his trip to Africa which is what helps him rise above his thoughts and find the Lord's voice once again.

Sorrentino manages to make this show a work of art at times, with multiple scenes throughout this eighth episode feeling appropriately like a religious experience given the setting of the series and the characters it follows. Absolutely sublime camera work and a script that is always so nuanced and fascinating, if you weren't sure whether or not to give The Young Pope a chance, by god do it. At its worst it's good, and at its best it's one of the best things on television which is a heavy thing to say considering how crowded and great the TV landscape is right now.

Episode Grade: A

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 5

I don't know why I am so surprised by my reaction to the FX series Taboo, it happens all the time with movies. Great performances, expertly crafted mise-en-scène and yet I am left cold by the overall narrative despite appreciating the big picture. It's all there in Taboo and yet there I am, off somewhere else mentally during heavy dialogue driven sequences because whether it is the fault of the screenplay or not I am not sure, but I'm just not invested into what they are saying like I should be.

The fifth episode is another solid, well made installment into the series with some gripping, riveting scenes surrounded by others that did so little for me, and it's a shame. I'm sure many others probably love Taboo, and I wish I did too.

This episode begins with the duel that was promised at the end of the fourth episode, and that was admittedly a terrific cliffhanger ending to excite me for what was to come here. Granted, it is pretty safe to say that I knew Tom Hardy wasn't going to die and I don't think that is much of a spoiler to reveal that he didn't, given that it was only the halfway point of the season and he is not only the star of Taboo, he basically is the show despite some really good, important supporting work alongside him. The scene of the duel didn't disappoint, and you could see the pieces fall into place when it is announced that they would go until first blood, not death, with no second shots allowed by either party, yet what happens here does end up being a surprise that I shall not ruin if you are behind on the series.

Delaney (Hardy) continues moving forward with his plot to bring down the East India Company and I continue to hope for a truly memorable episode out of the last three left to go, especially considering those may be the actual completion of the entire story, seeing as how Taboo is labeled as a "limited series" and I am not aware of any announcements of a second season. Regardless of my disconnect with it, I will obviously see Taboo through to the end and hope for the best.

Episode Grade: B-

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 7"

I don't really have an eloquent or clever way to start off my thoughts on the seventh episode of The Young Pope or the show itself. I just want to say, this show is terrific. I fell behind this past week, what with life getting in the way and all, but it truly was a pleasure catching up tonight and I am going to move right on to the eighth episode as soon as I finish this quick write up, and I do mean quick because after that ending I need to know what happens next.

- At times during this show, the camera work is so artfully composed and framed, it's impossible not to admire it.

- Between that camera work, the brilliant screenplay and the performances, it's really quite amazing how The Young Pope has managed to subvert expectations based on what seemed like a silly premise on paper. I mean, besides the occasionally scene that can feel a little tonally out of place, and those moments are quite rare, there is nothing silly about this show.

- Initially I thought that the concept of this show and the way it looks deep at the ugly heart of the church and its key members would be considered blasphemy from those viewers who would be offended, but the more I watch the more I realize it isn't a criticism of religion, it's a commentary about the way power and status matter more than faith in the Lord himself and how wrong that is. One of the biggest questions at this point of the show is whether the Pope even believes in God, which is a remarkable thing to ponder even if it is just a fictional show. Whether he believes or not, he certainly likes to wield his power and use it to push his beliefs.

Episode Grade: A-

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The 50 Finest Films of 2016 - #20 - #11

The list moves on, my 20 favorite films of 2016 are on the way. Within the next ten there is another documentary, a couple extremely under the radar gems and a massive blockbuster. Also, a film with an ending that made me cry. A lot.

20. Hell or High Water

Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is a western crime thriller featuring terrific performances and some interesting political messaging in regards to income inequality and the portion of the country that feels left behind. Nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture, the movie tells the story of two brothers who are forced to turn to desperate methods in order to obtain enough money to save their family's ranch. It's not an inventive or unique film, but I am quite alright with visiting somewhere I have been before if it is this well made and entertaining. 

19. The Fits

The Fits is a hard film to sell on people based on premise alone, so you will just have to take my word for it that it's an outstanding movie. The story follows an 11 year old girl named Toni (an amazing performance from Royalty Hightower) who becomes fixated on a girls dance group practicing at the gym she trains in, so she joins them. Soon after various members of the group are hit with freak medical spells, from fainting to epileptic fits. The ending of this film is absolutely stunning, pretty much perfect cinema. An incredible finish to a great film.

18. Elle

No one knows how to craft provocative, guaranteed to be misunderstood satire like Paul Verhoeven, the man behinds films like Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Showgirls. To be fair, I can't point the figure at audiences not "getting" Verhoeven without pointing the thumb first, as I recall not giving nearly enough credit to any of his work until I got older and started to comprehend the nuance of his messages. Literally while I watched Elle I thought to myself, uh oh, and not because the movie was poor obviously given where I have ranked it. I just knew this was going to be the type of film that got people talking and for some, it wouldn't be pretty. Elle is about power and gender roles in regards to sexual intercourse, and some of the scenes can be disturbing to watch, but you definitely will be thinking about it after it ends.

17. The Nice Guys

Many are inclined to argue that the best Ryan Gosling performance of 2016 didn't even come from the film that nominated him for an Oscar, La La Land. As a HUGE fan of La La Land (you might even be able to guess what spot it will finish in on my list), I actually...agree. I love what he brings to the Damien Chazelle musical, I love his chemistry with Emma Stone, and I love that he is the lead of that film, but his work in The Nice Guys is even better, and to be quite honest I had no idea just how gifted of a comedic performer he could be until I saw this. Co-written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi and directed by Black, The Nice Guys is so smart and so funny and Gosling and Crowe work together perfectly.

16. A Monster Calls

Having read the novel by Patrick Ness that was adapted into this film prior to seeing it, I knew what to expect and what to expect is a stream of tears pouring from your eyes towards the end. The film, also written by Ness, did not disappoint. Directed by J.A. Bayona, A Monster Calls is a visual and emotional wonder that hits you right where it hurts, yet it is so satisfying as you stand up and leave the theater because it is equals parts devastating and therapeutic. Lead by a great child performance from Lewis MacDougall and co-starring Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Theory of Everything) and Sigourney Weaver, along with terrific vocal work from Liam Neeson, make sure to have a box of tissues with you when you watch A Monster Calls, but watch it nonetheless. 

15. Sing Street

It is clear that director John Carney has found his thematic niche when it comes to the type of film he makes, and that's okay when you make them as well as he did Sing Street, a romantic, fun movie full of heart and charm, telling the story of a boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) growing up in Dublin during the 80's, surrounded by his family falling apart and forced to attend a school he hates. One day he spots a beautiful girl sitting across the street and he approaches her and tells her he is in a band as a way to impress her. Unfortunately, it isn't true so he starts one, writing songs with a friend and shooting music videos so he can cast the girl in them. The amateur actors in the film are tremendous, the music is so catchy and the relationship between Conor and his older brother (Jack Reynor) is funny and moving. Sing Street is awesome.

14. Always Shine

A cold thriller that will cut you if you let it, Always Shine is a film about two aspiring actress best friends whose careers are clearly headed down a different path at the moment, and it is straining their relationship. Starring Mackenzie Davis (watch the Black Mirror episode "San Junipero" if you haven't already) and Caitlin FitzGerald, this is a film about the culture of the entertainment industry and the way it forces women to bitterly compete just to get their foot in the door. Directed by Sophia Takal, this movie is chilling and one scene in particular completely unnerved me, and given the fact that the only way the movie could be finished was to hope a Kickstarter campaign could finance it, I'm so glad the funds came through and sign me up to contribute to Takal's next work.

13. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Being an enormous fan of the Star Wars franchise for as far back as I can remember, I was thrilled that the first ever spin-off film ended up being as great as it is. Rogue One is exciting, well-conceived and well-realized, a terrific concept as to how the universe could be expanded upon by telling stories that may not be essential to the Skywalker saga but allow audiences to see that the galaxy far, far away is a lot bigger and more populated than the 7 previous episodes could illustrate. Even after three viewings I still feel this was an additional 15 or so minutes of character and relationship building away from being truly top notch, but everything else works wonders and the second half of the movie is magnificent entertainment.

12. Weiner

I can watch and fall in love with all different styles of documentaries, but I have always been drawn in by the fly on the wall approach more so than the stream of talking head interviews explaining something that previously happened way of going about it. Obviously the fly on the wall style can only be utilized when the subjects are being captured in the present rather than the past, and the best example of this in 2016 was Weiner, a film that allows us to watch an extremely troubled man attempt to rebound from his mistakes and make a run at becoming the next Mayor of New York, only to have a new scandal unfold right before our eyes and destroy any chance he had. It's fascinating to watch it all unfold and see the real pain inflicted on those around him by his actions, but it's also quite a funny film a lot of the time too. It's all so real and it's an outstanding watch.

11. 10 Cloverfield Lane

It's difficult not to call 10 Cloverfield Lane the biggest and best surprise of the year since it was quite literally a surprise, and a great one at that. The film was announced with a trailer only about 2 months prior to its release, which is unheard of these days with the cinema landscape being made up of marketing campaigns that last years with strategically times trailers, images and clips. Not so much a sequel of the original Cloverfield but rather a new story told in the same world, the performances of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman are outstanding and award worthy, and it is a blast to watch the mystery unfold and wonder if the monster is truly lurking up above, or is it trapped down where they are all along? The ending will alienate some but after a second viewing I realized it works perfectly.