Norm’s $35 Oscar Movie Roundup

Long time readers might know that I am a movie buff.  My first two jobs were at movie theaters. In high school, I’d take old movies out from the library, and I’d do things like go to see a movie by myself, then sneak into a second one immediately after. The things that have slowed my movie viewing these past few years is a lack of time and the cost. Enter the Oscar film festival pass!

For $35, you got a pass to see every Best Picture-nominated movie over ten days. There’s nine Best Picture nominees this year, so that’s less than $4 a movie! That’s an incredible deal, especially since these are all supposed to be great movies. And the stars aligned, dear readers. Over Presidents Day weekend, I had scheduled two extra vacation days which I was going to otherwise lose, and Marge was going to be out of town on a trip to Las Vegas. So with all the time in the world, yes, I saw every last movie. Here’s my rankings.

9. Hidden Figures
About three black women working at NASA in the Mercury program. Honestly, this one was too much of a crowd-pleaser for my liking. Just not my thing. You pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get. People actually applauded at the end of this one. The actors were great, but the film suffers from A Beautiful Mind-ism/Good Will Hunting-ism. That’s where we’re supposed to be in awe of a character’s knowledge because of how many numbers and complicated words they know or can put on a blackboard. So many scenes where one of the women will be writing a huge equation you don’t understand, and it’s inevitably followed by some snarky remark from a white guy or some reaction shot. I prefer a movie with smart characters that simplify it enough so that you can follow along over the two hours (see #3) instead of closing you off.
Also, if you do like the film, make sure you don’t read about the historical inaccuracies, unless you like to be disappointed. The best scenes and major conflicts didn’t really happen.
Key Scene: When John Glenn’s capsule is coming back from orbit, and cars are pulled over to the side of the road to watch the sky. Did that really happen? Could people really see anything? I don’t know.
Key Quote: “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”

8. Hacksaw Ridge
This is the story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. And, ooh sorry guys, I thought this was a little corny. At least the first half was. The issue at the center, that a man who refuses to hold a gun still wants to contribute to the war effort, was what made for an interesting story, but also made it an “issues movie” where characters exist to stand in for philosophical points of view rather than act as normal people. So a lot of the characters fell flat for me.
And maybe times have changed, but as the various privates, sergeants, and colonels try to get Doss discharged, I was banging my head against the wall thinking “What’s so wrong with a guy who just wants to be a medic on the battlefield!?” The second half of the movie is basically the incredibly intense re-taking of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa, and does a more than adequate job showing how admirably Doss served. You’s swear it was a superhuman effort if you didn’t know it was true.
Key Scene: When Doss decides to stay on the ridge after everyone else has retreated for an aerial bombardment. What a nutcase.
Key Quote: “Have you ever looked into a goat’s eyes?” “No, sir.” “Good. That would be unnatural.”

7. La La Land
With all the buzz, I was looking forward to this one, and… I just don’t think it’s very good. It’d heard it was earnest, and that’s fine, but it’s also not fun. The musical numbers are actually kind of sparse, but worst of all, I didn’t care about the characters. Emma Stone’s Mia is supposed to be a struggling actress, and I really didn’t buy it.. I didn’t understand how Ryan Gosling went from a pretentious jazz snob to joyfully picking up a paycheck as the keyboard player in a terrible mainstream band. And it is constantly referencing older, better musicals in the hopes that some of the charm will rub off. I really felt like I was watching  the theater’s pre-roll commercials sometimes. The characters are hollow. Mia’s ambition as an actress is only to be famous. The plot was dull. I did enjoy seeing the different musical performances within the film (the jazz band, the 80’s cover band, Ryan Gosling doing Christmas songs, the terrible John Legend band).
The only great part is the last ten minutes. That’s when the music and dancing really shines and the story actually takes an interesting turn. In fact I think the whole movie might exist just to get to those last ten minutes.
Key Scene: The last ten minutes.
Key Quote: “Hoagie Carmichael sat on that stool.”
Audience fun fact: There was a confused old man in my row. When La La Land starts, there is a production company credit that starts as a square black & white screen with the ends of the words cut off. The old man yelled “Hey jackass, make the screen bi…” Then just as he was yelling the company’s credit opened up to reveal a widescreen color logo. Then! The movie opens up on a gridlocked highway. We go from car to car hearing snippets of their car radios. Now the old man thinks he’s hearing cell phone ringers and pipes up, “Hey jackass, turn off your cell phone!” He actually said it twice before figuring out it was the movie making the sounds. Luckily he was silent for the rest of the movie.

6. Fences
This was adapted from a play and you can tell. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re looking for action, go elsewhere. Most of this movie takes place at one house. Denzel Washington is a former negro leagues baseball player named Troy. By the way he tells it, he’s one of the best players ever and was denied a shot at going pro because he’s black, although he exaggerates. Now he’s a garbage man, takes pride in that, has a good wife and children (by a few women) but is constantly complaining, often with good reason. Denzel and Viola Davis are basically running a masterclass in acting here. There’s a lot of incredible acting here, and some clever, subtle camerawork. But yeah, very talky. One of Troy’s sons plays in a jazz band, and I was hoping, “Oh, maybe we get to see them play!” But no, Troy has to work in the morning, which is half a bad excuse because Troy doesn’t want to be reminded of how much better his kids are doing than he is, and half a convenient way to get out of staging jazz performance in a play. It gets a tad too dramatic in the last quarter, not to give anything away, but people who’ve seen it will know what I mean.
Key scene: The initial scene when Troy gets off work and he’s shooting the shit with his best friend Bono and his wife Rose. He’s got a bottle of gin, as usual, and gets more and more, uh.. convivial as the scene goes on.
Key quote: “You got anything in there to top those pig’s feet, Rose?”

5. Hell or High Water
Mucklemouthed sheriff Jeff Bridges is just days from retirement! Then a pair of brothers decide to rob a bunch of banks to pay off a reverse mortgage or something on their dead mother’s house. All Bridges wants to do is lightly racially insult his Native American/Mexican deputy and get ready for the quiet life. Okay, it’s really not as hackneyed as that. But I wonder why every police chief in a movie has to be a week away from retiring.
The movie basically cuts between the brothers robbing one bank after another, and the police, trying to track their next move. Life in west Texas is changing! Cattle ranching is hard! Them banks took all our money! The issues it brings up are a little on the nose.  Then a robbery goes awry and the bank customers form some kind of impromptu militia to chase the robbers down in a sequence that must be a Texan’s wet dream. But the story itself is like clockwork, and does not go the way you expect. Very tidy, and great characterizations. The movie is succinctly told without an extraneous scene. It didn’t really wow me with originality, but there’s not much to complain about here.
Key scene: When one of the brothers forces a bank exec to fax a payoff letter in front of him, and he gets all nervous and sweaty at the fax machine.
Key quote: “Those conceal carry permits really complicate a robbery!”

4. Lion
Interesting film, based on a true story. Young Saroo and his older brother Guddu live in a remote village in India. Guddu takes the train to look for work, and against his better judgement brings Saroo along. Guddu leaves Saroo to nap at the train platform for a few minutes, and my first thought was literally “India seems like the kind of place where a kid could wind up a few miles from home and literally never be heard from again.” I didn’t know anything about this movie before seeing it, but that’s exactly what happens.

If you’re looking to be convinced that India is a hellscape, look no further than the next thirty minutes. Saroo desperately tries to survive and find his way home, but is almost sold into sex trafficking, escapes and then ends up some kind of orphan prison.
The movie jumps ahead to Saroo’s adult life, one of relative privilege after being adopted by Australian parents. But he’s tortured by the thought of his real family still searching for him, and becomes obsessed with finding his home village, which is not easy as he barely remember the name of it. As an avid user of Google Maps and Streetview, I was enthralled when Google Earth became a pivotal tool in this movie. The movie could function as a straight up commercial for Google Earth, actually. And year, I’ll admit, I cried a bit at the end. If you don’t, you have no soul.
Key scene: When Saroo’s basically wallpapered his house with maps of India covered in highlights and pushpins, and he’s just clicking around on Google Earth.
Key quote: No quotes. The most memorable sound was the entire audience sobbing and blowing their noses at the end.

3. Arrival
The one would be right up my alley: A brainy sci-fi flick that has its feet firmly planted on Earth. Aliens show up in huge spaceships shaped like half-used bars of soap and it’s basically up to Amy Adams to figure out how to communicate with them, so we can figure out their motives.  The aliens’ language looks like stains from coffee mugs. Weirdly, this is mainly a movie about language, about the actual mechanics of the written word, about how language influences thought, and about just how dangerous poor communication is. I was on the edge of my seat! No, really! I like this movie for being unapologetically nerdy.
Not to give anything away, but the ending reminded me of Interstellar. Where the whole alien encounter is some weird MacGuffin for the main character to revisit their past. Ugh. But there is a nice switcheroo here which made this ending way more interesting than Interstellar’s.
Key scene: Basically any time they’re interacting with the aliens, these weird octopus-looking things. I couldn’t get enough of that.
Key quote: “Abbott is death process.”

2. Moonlight
Now this is a great movie. I went into this one knowing nothing except its reputation as basically an art house flick. I was expecting it to be nothing but washes of color, faces, music and almost no dialogue. There’s a little bit of that flavor, but not so much to deserve the reputation. This is an incredibly acted drama that follows one black kid through three stages of his life. The portrait it paints of this one character is the stuff of legend. I loved how each actor really inhabited the role. Over time you can see how past experiences can influence and change a person until they’re barely recognizable. The kid starts out quiet and bullied, grows into a twitchy, nervous teenager questioning his sexuality, and ends up as a muscled-up tough guy, still quiet and definitely lacking in confidence. It feels really lived in.
Key Scene: When Chiron’s old high school crush tries to impress him with his cooking at the diner where he works.
Key Quote: “What kind of dude goes around giving other dudes nicknames?”

1. Manchester By The Sea
Talk about movies showing how the past can change a person… Casey Affleck plays Lee, a very emotionally cut off janitor at a apartment complex. His brother dies, and now he’s the guardian of his brother’s son Patrick. Affleck is great in this.  Very silent, but prone to violent outbursts. In flashbacks, we see Lee’s an extrovert, and we slowly find out why and how he’s changed over the years. Basically, it’s a movie about grief, which is not a great way to sell a movie, so forget I said that. It’s actually really funny, a lot of times in a dark or understated way. (Check the opening scene) Matthew Broderick bizarrely stops in for exactly one scene. I’m glad Affleck won the Oscar, but I also think Lucas Hedges, who plays Patrick, should’ve won best Supporting Actor. That kid shows some versatility.
I am a sucker for geographically familiar movies, and being that this mostly takes place in Massachusetts in winter, it feels very familiar to me. Lee is using a shovel to scrape repeatedly at icy snow at one point. We’ve all been there. It’s definitely not the most showy movie, but the performances and setting all combined to make me really care about the characters.
Key scene: When Lee’s uncle is yelling across a crowded room to his wife that Lee needs something to eat, she can’t hear him, he decides never mind, she still can’t hear him, then he can’t hear her… There’s a lot of uncomfortable scenes like this.
Key quote: “You can’t talk about adult shit for thirty minutes? How about those interest rates? Hey, I lost my AAA card!”

 What was your favorite movie this past year?

5 Comments

  1. Wow! Thanks for your wonderful reviews. I have to admit that I’m far too cheap to pay to go to the movies, so I generally just wait for things to come out on Netflix. In truth, I haven’t been to a movie theater in nearly 20 years! So I haven’t seen any of the films that were nominated, but I’m now really looking forward to several of these.

    • Norm

      March 3, 2017 at 6:36 am

      20 years! That’s worse than in the mid-90s when my cousin told me the last movie he saw in a theater was Ghost Dad. I was sad for him then and still remember that. I don’t go to the theater as often as I used to, but I do get discounted tickets through my union. Not as good as going for free when I worked at one.

      • I thought Manchester by the Sea was okay when I saw it, nothing to write home about. But, over the next few days, I found myself thinking about it and running through some of the scenes in my mind. It obviously had an impact, and I’m looking forward to watching it again. Not too many movies have that effect on me.

        • Norm

          March 12, 2017 at 10:22 pm

          I thought the same thing, oh that was pretty good. Then after seeing some of the other Oscar movies I realized, oh that was actually a great movie. The kid who played the nephew was especially good, and I think maybe should’ve won the Oscar.

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