So here’s the thing,
There was a lot of hand-wringing halfway through last year about the low quality of 2016’s movies. In hindsight, much of that commentary was coming out right in the middle of summer blockbuster season, and those films had an absolutely brutal year. After 2015, which at least offered a few summer films that aspired to be something more (the most obvious being Mad Max: Fury Road), it was depressing to see Hollywood revert back to its usual lazy blockbuster filmmaking; hell, even the new Jason Bourne film let us down, and that film should have been as close to a quality guarantee as you could get. And then we get to the end of the year, and we clear out all the noise of all the junk food movies, and stop and consider the quality of all the other movies that were released this year, you begin to realise that this was actually a pretty great movie year. That’s true particularly of this year’s Oscar picks. While none of them are perfect, they’re all really wonderful, engaging, interesting films. And there’s a significant number of also-ran films that I adored that were never nominated but could easily stand next to these titles; I’m happy to be writing about these films, but I also wish I could be writing about Silence, Jackie, Moana, Paterson, Nocturnal Animals, Love and Friendship, or Certain Women. And that’s before we get to the films that were great but would never be nominated, like The Neon Demon, The Nice Guys, Don’t Breathe, Green Room, or 10 Cloverfield Lane. Hell, even some of the late-year-release blockbusters like Doctor Strange or Rogue One were wonderful, showing the spark and inventiveness that the summer films lacked. Basically, there were a lot of genuinely great films this year that I was delighted to see. Of which these films are nine.
[Comments after the jump on La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hell or High Water, Lion, and Hidden Figures]
I fell for the film right from the start, when it opened with an incredible, beautiful sequence making a big, bold declaration that this is taking inspiration from the classic musicals. The movie is presented in the ultra-wide Cinemascope ratio used in a number of 1950s musicals, and it was shot on film with deep, rich, bold colours that have the distinctive Technicolor look; the one thing that marked it as a more modern work was that the sequence was set among cars stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway off-ramp, with the camera weaving its way through all the stopped vehicles as it observed a massive cast of extras dancing and singing. It was an utterly delightful sequence, and I could feel myself falling in love with the world. From there we meet our two protagonists, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone and a jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling, as the two repeatedly cross each other’s paths until they inevitably come together, struggling to hold onto each other as their career highs and lows strain the relationship.
One of the fascinating things about La La Land is that it has some significant flaws that everyone acknowledges; the main point of difference seems to be whether those problems are significant enough to detract from embracing the film, or whether the film as a whole just works despite those issues. One of the main problems people will point to with the film is the fact that Gosling and Stone don’t have the voices for this type of film; they have very nice, pleasant voices (they’re not Russell Crowe by any means), but they don’t have the singing power that would have been required in a 1950s musical. Fair point, but I genuinely never noticed until people talk about it. The problem is that when I think about what a more traditional singing voice would do to the film, I don’t like the thought of it. We don’t live in an era where a musical could realistically use a Marni Nixon to provide a better voice for the actors, so you would to cast someone different in the role, someone cast primarily for their singing, and I simply cannot think of anyone whose singing would overcome the loss of these specific performances. Emma Stone’s voice may be a little thin, but there’s a wealth of passion and emotion and vulnerability underlying the performance that comes out in her singing. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is a wonderful song and an incredible sequence, and it was all because of the connection between the performance and the performer. Similarly Gosling’s voice is not overly emotional, but that slight flatness works for a character who is supposed to be closed off and distant and often actively unsympathetic. To damn the film for not having Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews ignores just how wonderful these performers really are and how they function in the film as a whole.
Another significant criticism of the film is the fact that, for a supposed musical, there’s really not all that many songs. And again, that’s a valid point; by my count there are only five big songs (not counting the one jazz-fusion number that is actually being performed in the world of the film), of which four appear in the first half of the film. How can this be a musical if it only has one song in the second half? But here’s the thing: I think Damien Chazelle is being very deliberate in his song use. The very first song is about people who came to LA with hopes and dreams of greatness and who are holding onto those dreams through the problems of being one person in a big city. And that sets the context for the role the songs play in the film; the songs are used to highlight the highs and the dreams of the characters – maybe someone will be at that party to discover me; maybe I’ll fall in love with this person. And so the heady thrill of the early story is punctuated by some really wonderful songs, until the dream ends and reality sets in and the characters realise their careers aren’t going where they want and they’re in a relationship together and it’s tough and hard work. The musical really only returns at the end of the film, with one song and one dance sequence, at a point where the fantasy really returns to the story, but at that point it’s changed, because the fantasy carries the consequences and emotional weight of everything that came in the middle.
One of my favourite moments in the film came at the very end [and I’ll avoid plot spoilers on this, because I want to preserve the delight of the sequence]. One thing that Gene Kelly in particular liked to do was have a big ending impressionistic dance sequence, just a massive piece of spectacle that doesn’t drive the plot and that just exists for the sake of existing. Think of the Broadway Melody at the end of Singin’ in the Rain (which presents an unrelated sequence being described to a movie studio executive), or the ending of An American in Paris (where the dance sequence is an extended daydream danced to the titular Gershwin piece). And in and of themselves, they’re very good pieces; brilliantly performed, wonderful music, visually interesting. But they’re my least favourite parts of these films, because right when the film reaches its emotional peak, they take away from the focus of the film and force us to watch a technically impressive but emotionally irrelevant sequence. So what surprised me was that La La Land, clearly inspired by those films, did that exact thing; at a key point, it halted the actual story for an extended epilogue sequence, maybe over five minutes long, that held no connection to the actual events of the film at that time. But it absolutely worked for me, because it was exploring an emotional space that the film needed to exist in, revisiting scenes from earlier in the film, and using the sequence as a way of exploring the differences between what is and what might have been. The end result was a sequence that just utterly enthralled me; in fact, it was possibly my favourite part of the film, which is odd, given how little I care for the sequences that inspired it.
[EDIT: Well, I really got the next paragraph wrong. I was so certain, and I still think my logic is solid. (Sigh.) I hate being wrong.]
The most surprising thing about these Oscars, given that La La Land is largely expected to clean up most of the awards it’s eligible for, is that the movie is unlikely to win the Best Song award despite being a musical made up of original songs. I really like “City of Stars”, and I love “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, but realistically any votes for La La Land to win in the category will be split. And they’re already facing a major barrier in “How Far I’ll Go”, a very strong song from Moana that was co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. And, given how popular Miranda is in the wake of Hamilton, it’s almost certain that the Academy will look to complete his EGOT. Fortunately, La La Land has a strong chance to winning the Original Score category, so at least it should win something musically; for it to fall short in both categories might be a bit embarrassing.
I know a lot of people who didn’t like La La Land. I simply can’t understand that. The film made me feel giddy and joyous and excited. I love the singing, I love the dancing, I love how they presented so many of the musical numbers as a single shot to highlight the performances. It’s energetic and fun, and even when things are tough it’s still thrilling and moving. It completely transported me. Is it the best film of the year? No; Manchester by the Sea is. But as a piece of pure celebratory cinema, I have difficulty thinking of anything I enjoyed more this year.
There is a lot to really like about the movie. The performances in the film are incredible. Everyone has been talking about Mahershala Ali as an inevitable Supporting Actor winner, and with good reason. He’s an actor I’ve admired for over ten years at this point, and it’s exciting to see him in the past few years finally getting some of the recognition he deserves. His performance as Juan is beautiful; we can see the traces of determination and toughness that he has to maintain his drug-dealing career, but the character is nevertheless soft and sympathetic and loving towards this youth who needs support. (He also gets the best scene in the movie, a beautiful sequence where he takes Chiron to the ocean and teaches him how to swim.) It’s such a strong performance that the character feels ever-present in the movie; even when he’s not on-screen you feel the impact that the character has had running through the film. But much of the impact of the Juan character is also due to the performance of Janelle Monae as Juan’s girlfriend Teresa. I’d never heard of her until a couple of weeks earlier, when she was my favourite part of Hidden Figures, and so I was excited when she appeared on-screen here. There’s a lived-in comfort between the two that felt real and natural that I loved watching. In one scene Chiron asks Juan what a particularly challenging word means, and Juan starts to give a hesitant, careful explanation as he’s trying to work out how to answer the question, and Teresa manages to stop Juan from going in a particular direction just with the smallest look that clearly expresses so much. It gave a sense of a real relationship, where the two just know each other so well that they can communicate wordlessly between themselves.
The other acting Oscar nomination for the film is for Naomie Harris, playing Chiron’s mother. And that I find a bit more frustrating. Look, it is an excellent performance, and she does strong work taking the character through the course of her drug addiction. (It’s especially impressive since she filmed the role in three days while on a promotional junket for another film.) But it is the part of the film that felt most like a cliché – we’ve all seen the drug-addicted mother unable to function or take care of their child before. I recognise that it is a cliché because there is truth in it (Harris apparently had to be talked into the role by learning how the character was based on the actual mothers of both the original writer and the director). And she does great, nuanced work charting the development of her character, but when I left the film it did bother me because that was the one part that I felt wasn’t new, the one part that I felt I had seen.
Acknowledgement also has to be given to Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, who all play the character of Chiron through each segment of the film, and who manage to bring their performances together so that you can see the earlier person in the later performances. What’s particularly interesting about the film is that ordinarily an actor is able to engage with the material and create the character that they see (albeit always in collaboration with the director to ensure that their version of the character is consistent with the film’s vision). But it must have been hard for the actors here to really do that; for instance, while Trevante Rhodes no doubt had the script and understood what the experiences were that the earlier Chirons had gone through, he didn’t necessarily know how the other actors were playing the role, making it challenging to really incorporate the performances of Hibbert and Sanders into his work. Which means that a lot of credit for the performances probably goes to director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins; by necessity he becomes the one who has the oversight over the character and his arc, and he’s the one who has to shape their performances into a consistent person on a journey. This is only Jenkins’ second film, and he displays incredible confidence and talent in his direction, but I do think his most impressive achievement is in seamlessly crafting these performances together into his lead character.
One of the things I loved about the film was how much was left unsaid. This is a film that finds beauty in small subtleties of glances and in the depths of unspoken expression. Two scenes in particular come to mind. I’ve already cited one: the way a wordless glance between Teresa and Juan steers the direction of a conversation. But more significantly, the entire climax of the film plays on these subtleties [and this is something of a SPOILER]; the adult Chiron meets up with Kevin, and it’s a long scene between the two. Chiron is trying to play it cool, trying not to show his feelings for this man, but you can read his hopes, his nervousness, his searching for some kind of signal that might let him know that it’s okay for him unburden himself. This man is carrying a lifetime of never being honest, and he just wants to know if he can do that here. It’s a remarkable performance, by an actor who doesn’t immediately read as vulnerable until you see the effect Kevin has on him. What’s particularly surprising is that the film’s entire resolution rests on a character wordlessly expressing his emotional journey while waiting to discover if he can actually express that journey out loud. And it seems that there’s a realistic possibility the film might leave this journey unspoken, in which case the only emotional resolution is written on Chiron’s face. It’s a brave choice to rest the film’s entire resolution on a character who might never say aloud what we may want him to say; that it works so well is incredible and a testament to the quality of the work being done in the film.
I liked the film, appreciated it, but I didn’t really love it at first. I completely understood why people were having this strong response to the film, but it didn’t initially connect to me. But Moonlight is a film that has lingered in my mind in a way that few films do, creating a sense of emotional connection to the material that I didn’t necessarily feel at the time. The more I think about it, the more I want to think about it, and the more I find to love in it. It is an incredible, glorious piece of filmmaking, and I couldn’t be happier to see it get the recognition it deserves.
Casey Affleck plays Lee, a building custodian who returns to his hometown after his brother dies of a heart condition. Once there, he learns that his brother has appointed him as guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick, a responsibility which he has no interest in taking on. And that we cut between the past and the present, watching Lee’s relationship with his now-dead brother, watching his marriage with his now-ex wife and their young children, learning why he left town, while in the present Lee stubbornly fights to stay detached from his nephew and from this new role he’s been forced into, trying to deal with this grief brought on by his brother’s passing, and being confronted by the consequences of his past that he had tried to avoid.
It’s a film of big emotions and big traumas, and yet I really appreciated the subtle touch evident throughout. Lonergan recognises when the emotion needs to be driven home and when he needs to step back. For instance, there is a set of framed photos that are particularly significant. There’s a lot of emotion tied up in these images, and at various points in the film we have scenes of people looking at the photos and reacting. Yet at no point are we ever shown the photos, and in fact, I don’t think we’re even explicitly told who the photos are of; we’re just left to rely on context and the performances of the actors as they react to the photos to interpret them. But it’s not as if the film is playing the photos as a puzzle (we’re never in any doubt who they are of); it’s just that Lonergan clearly recognised that to actually show the photos would risk forcing emotions out of the audience, so where other films might have exploited the photos at the right time for maximum emotional impact, Lonergan keeps the specifics of the photos private to the characters while letting us examine the impact they have on the people.
Which is not to say that the movie doesn’t drive home the emotional impact of the work, just that it knows to only do so when it absolutely has to. There’s one extended sequence that is one of the most devastating pieces of cinema I think I’ve ever seen. It’s the one big moment where the film feels like it drops all pretence of subtlety and just plays it as big and as raw as it can – and it’s the right choice, because at that moment the characters are unprepared for what is happening, are just trying to process the impossibility of everything, and are just reacting on impulse. It’s an incredible sequence, and a marvellous display of cinematic storytelling. (It’s just unfortunate that they decided to pair it with Albinoni’s Adagio; it’s a wonderful piece of music that works perfectly in context, but it’s also too well-known a piece of music, and using it puts its thumb on the emotional scales in a way a lesser-known piece would not have.)
I also loved how the film explored, not just the emotional consequences of the passing of a loved one, but also the practical impact that this happens. Part of that is inevitable, certainly – the film’s entire plot is driven by a practical consideration over who will be the guardian of this kid. But it really is surprisingly focused on the practical issues – what are the funeral arrangements going to be? what does our life look like without this person? is it better to try and keep this boat running or should we just sell it? There’s the frustration that comes with the discovery that it’s too cold to hold the funeral, as the ground is too frozen to dig the grave. There’s even a wonderfully real scene where Lee and Patrick go coffin-shopping, and get so caught up in an argument that they completely forget where they’ve parked. It’s all about the way, at the most devastating moments of our lives, we become consumed by this and that and how all this minutiae makes it possible for us to function at a time when it seems like functioning should be impossible.
Affleck’s performance is positively revelatory; his character has spent years punishing himself for his failings, and trying to push away his self-crimination; as a result he feels like someone who was incredibly tightly wound, as though he could have exploded at any time, until he learned to just sever all connections and forcibly empty himself as a way of avoiding hurting others. One of the most impressive things to me was how carefully modulated the performance was; the flashbacks in particular often move around through different time periods with little or no signposts to where we are in the timeline, and when this happened often I often looked to Affleck and his emotional state for indicators as to where we were in the story. That degree of observed precision in the performance, without ever feeling anything less than real and honest, is just staggering.
But then everyone in the film is doing remarkable work; there’s a reason why the film has had three acting nominations. Lucas Hedges’ work as the nephew is a real surprise; he’s frequently an asshole, and the film doesn’t let him off the hook because he’s dealing with grief over his father’s death, it’s clearly just who he is. It’s a surprisingly alienating and off-putting character, who I felt with a different performance might easily lose the audience’s goodwill, yet Hedges lets a strain of decency and likability appear through his performance, enough that we wanted him to become the person we felt that he could be. It’s a wonderfully subtle balancing act he achieves, and hopefully bodes well for his future career.
And then there’s Michelle Williams, as Affleck’s ex-wife. I’m always excited to see Williams, one of the most reliably great actresses working today, and her prominence on the poster had me expecting her to have a significant part to play in the film. Unfortunately she inhabits just one small corner of the film, appearing in only a few scenes, but when she’s on-screen she is magnificent. But as good as her work throughout the film is, there’s no doubt that her nomination was the result of one tough, tough scene where she exposes feelings she’s never been able to admit to herself, and it comes pouring out in a stream of emotions, and I feel like I could cry just thinking about it. This is Williams’ fourth Oscar nomination, and she’s not going to win this one either, but if she continues to work at this level then an eventual win seems like an inevitability.
There was really only one frustration I felt with the film, one thing that pulled it away from being pretty damned perfect. There is one character, played by a recognisable name actor. He only appears on-screen in one scene, and we hear his voice in a second scene, so he’s not in the film very much. And the character is a Christian. We know he’s a Christian because he dresses almost like Ned Flanders, he has a bland niceness to him, he has a massive picture of Jesus on the wall, and the characters say grace before eating. The character is so Christian that when asked what the guy is like, someone actually describes him as “He’s very Christian.” The thing I loved about the movie was its specificity – its characters felt real and whole – but this Christian character was the only person in the film who didn’t feel real. I recognise that the character isn’t in the film all that much, and I’m not expecting a fully developed character in a few minutes of screentime, but this felt like Lonergan decided “This guy’s a Christian, it’s his most important characteristic, and we don’t have much time so we need to make sure people recognise that.” With every other character it seemed as though Lonergan was taking people he actually knew and writing them into the film, but with this person I almost wondered if he just doesn’t know any Christians he could look to. And in a film that is otherwise so subtle and careful in its characterisations, to be so stereotypical with this one person was distracting.
But it would be churlish to hold a single misstep against a film that is otherwise a carefully observed and loving portrait of a world and characters searching for ways to deal with the unimaginable. Lonergan’s filmmaking career could have been over after Margaret – that film was caught up in editing dramas for half a decade, and while the eventual film was wonderful and profound, neither the theatrical cut nor Lonergan’s extended cut feels like they quite found the right shape for the material. So it was a surprise to see a new film from him just a few years later, and even more so to find it to be such a wonderful work. Manchester by the Sea is a masterpiece, and I can only hope for many more films for Lonergan.
The thing is, I was somewhat wary approaching the film. I hadn’t seen any of Denis Villeneuve’s early work, but of his more recent work since he came to prominence, I’ve found him to be an engaging visual director but his work just lacked something. I generally liked the experience of watching all of his films, but Prisoners and Enemy in particular just faded away, while Sicario has basically stayed with me mainly because of the quality of its action scenes and little else.
And then I saw it, and I loved it. What I found particularly thrilling was that this was a big-budget Hollywood science fiction film that was about language. I’m not saying that it’s the smartest or most incisive exploration of the concept there is, but this was a thrilling film that was ultimately and unmistakably about exploring ideas, about language, about the idea that language isn’t just a tool for communication, and about how different approaches to communication can express different worldviews. Nothing ground-breaking, and it’s the type of issue that science-fiction has often explored in other forms, but cinematic science-fiction tends to focus on spectacle at the expense of substance, so for a film like this that’s targeting a popular public response to be dedicated to talking about these concepts felt almost positively revolutionary. Sure, it was severely simplified/dumbed down (I was amused by the way they essentially skipped over the whole “learning the language” thing; one second they can’t communicate at all, then they jump ahead a few weeks and they conveniently have a more or less complete understanding of the aliens’ language), but it’s a delight to see a major blockbuster film that has the ambition to actually be about something in the way that this was. And they’re dedicated to digging into every corner of the subject and finding everything it can comment on. In one of my favourite scenes, there’s a moment where Adams learns that the Chinese has been teaching the aliens to communicate through playing Mah Jong. Leaving aside the handwaving over whether you actually could use a game like that to talk to someone else (I don’t know Mah Jong, but that really doesn’t seem possible), it prompts an interesting suggestion that, if their means of expression is based on a game, then that would become a barrier between the species because the means of communication introduces a competitiveness between the parties, changing the entire nature of the conversation and negatively affecting any understanding that might develop. Regardless of the realism of talking through Mah Jong, that manages to take a potentially complicated idea and present it to a mainstream audience in a way that they can engage with. And that’s exciting.
I appreciated the clear coherent vision that flowed through the film. You can see it right from the design of the spacecraft, which is bizarre and fascinating and manages to be utterly unique while evoking 2001, a clear declaration of ambition that it lived up to. And once the film ends and you can look back over it, you can see how carefully constructed the film is in heading towards that ending – the design of the alien language looks the way it does because that’s the only way it really can look, the aliens’ purpose for coming to Earth makes no sense until we know what’s happening, even the big glaring questions the movie leaves unanswered are unanswered not because they’re setting up a sequel but because they simply cannot be answered given what we learn. The film proves to be this carefully built structure, where every piece fits perfectly, where every piece supports and is supported by every other piece. It’s a surprisingly elegant piece of filmmaking, and I really appreciated it.
As I was watching the film, there was really only one thing that I didn’t like about it; in fact, something I kinda hated. In the middle of this film that was so efficient and careful, there was one plot element that frankly aggravating to me; it was a cliché, it wasn’t doing anything new or interesting, why is this even in this film wasting my time. But then as the film progressed, it started to become clear exactly what purpose this plot thread was serving in the film, and the second I recognised what was happening this storyline went from being the one thing I hated about the film to my favourite part of the film. What I particularly loved was that the film didn’t treat this development as a big reveal (which lesser films might have). Instead it was a gradual unfolding; I suspect throughout the film there were different points where different members of the audience came to recognise the significance of this plot element (certainly I understood it from about halfway through the film). And often that can be frustrating, when you feel as though you’re ahead of the film. But because the film couched this element so strongly in the character’s development and her understanding of her experiences, it because less about the film trying to surprise us, and more about us becoming the supportive observer who can see what’s happening to someone else but who needs to allow them to come to their own realisation. It’s a delicate balancing act the film has to achieve, and it does so admirably. And the best part was that understanding gave this whole plot element extra weight emotionally; by the time the film reached its ending and this plot thread was reaching its resolution I was really surprised by how much emotional burden I felt for those characters, and how engaged I felt by the choices they’re confronted with.
Next week the film society starts up again, with the first movie being Villeneuve’s breakthrough film Incendies; I’ve heard good things about the film, and I’m excited for that screening (showing in 35mm!). But more surprisingly, after seeing Arrival, I’m actually anticipating Villeneuve’s new film, Blade Runner 2049. I didn’t think I wanted a new Blade Runner – I couldn’t see what benefit there would be in making a sequel, and it would seem to inevitably have to answer questions I don’t want answers to (if only because I disagree with the filmmakers about the answer to those questions). Some of my hesitation does still remain. But if we are going to have a new Blade Runner, I’m really glad he’s going to be making it. Not only does he have a great visual sense, Arrival gave me the confidence to believe that he understands the deliberate pacing needed to make that film work, and the ambition to make a film as smart as the original film. (My optimism seems to have been borne out by the teaser trailer, which does look phenomenal.) All of a sudden, I find I’m excited by Villeneuve, and that’s a testament to how well Arrival works.
The good thing is that Gibson’s nomination may indicate that his directing career can get back on track, and as a film fan that is rather exciting. Gibson as a director has a lot of flaws, but I always admire his ambition and vision for his work. This was the man who decided to make a bloody, violent movie about the death of Jesus and shoot it entirely in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin (his original vision for that film even involved the movie being presented without subtitles!), and then followed that film with another action film entirely in the Mayan language. This is not a man who tries to make easy films. I also find his sense of action and violence fascinating; he has a masterful grasp on how to present action with grace and clarity, which is a relief in an era of often over-edited incoherent action sequences. But he also has an almost fetishized view of violence, finding a weird beauty in viscera and almost eagerly focused on the destruction that can be inflicted on the human body.
All of which make his decision to make this film, based on the true story of pacific war medic Desmond Doss, rather fascinating. Many people have observed that this is possibly the most violent movie about a man opposed to violence that has ever been made. And one has to wonder what Doss would have thought of his story being told in this manner. A sincere Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss took the commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill to heart; when World War Two broke out, Doss enlisted as a medic but refused to carry or even touch a gun, even during his boot camp training, which led to him being subject to a great deal of hostility from his fellow recruits. Eventually his unit is sent to fight in the Battle of Okinawa, at a perilous clifftop location known as Hacksaw Ridge; the battle is a bloodbath and the unit retreats, but Doss remains, eventually saving 76 people, and later receiving the Medal of Honour in recognition of the feat. It’s a remarkable story, and I was glad to learn about it.
And at times it is an incredible piece of filmmaking. But I had several problems with the film. For a start, it just has a weird structure that seemed to work against it. The first half of the film is spent introducing us to Doss, then meeting his eventual wife and starting a relationship with her (which is fine, if a little clichéd and uninvolving) and then following him to boot camp. It was in boot camp that the film lost me quite a bit. The main problem is that we live in a world where Full Metal Jacket exists, and so we have seen the greatest cinematic portrayal of boot camp that has ever and will ever be shown. Inevitably any movie that spends any time in boot camp is going to come up short in that comparison, and unfortunately Hacksaw Ridge failed to do anything notable to distinguish itself in that area. It’s really not helped by the casting of Vince Vaughan as Sergeant Howell – Vaughan can be good in the right roles, but he’s no R Lee Ermy, and just makes the role feel like a very safe family-friendly version. I can understand the choice to go in that direction – as the story of a man who held firm to his faith and his principles, this is a film that I could see having a strong appeal to a more conservative Christian audience that might be offended by someone yelling “I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull-fuck you!”. (Hell, my parents have watched Hacksaw Ridge, and there’s no way they would make it through even the opening scene of FMJ.) But given the graphic realism of the later battle sequence, it feels as though the film is backing away from a more honest portrayal in these scenes.
Eventually we get to the battle, and that’s the point where Mel Gibson feels at home. The battle sequence is rough and bloody and violent and horrific and easily the equal of any battle sequence I’ve ever seen. As a piece of pure action cinema, it is truly remarkable, and the point where the film really came to life for me. It's big, it's chaotic, it's literally and figuratively visceral, and it's absolutely masterful filmmaking. The problem is that Doss doesn’t really have all that much to do during that initial battle sequence; aside from the occasional cutaway to Doss running around the battlefield there’s a good 15, 20 minutes where the film effectively forgets about our main character and instead roams around visiting all the other thinly-developed supporting characters, watching them be blown apart, brutally shot, left for dead, trying desperately to survive, and eventually retreating if they’re able to. But I remember in the cinema thinking “what happened to Doss?” Part of the problem was that during the early boot camp scenes the film had been so focused on Doss that these other characters hadn’t really been developed enough to elicit the emotional response it seemed to be aiming for when they experienced the war. For the most part, they were just bodies to be mangled.
And then the troops retreat back down the cliff, and finally the film comes together. That climactic sequence was one of the best things I saw in cinema all of last year. We find Doss abandoned and alone, unarmed and defenceless at the top of a cliff, with enemy soldiers prowling around looking for survivors to kill. And he makes the choice not to retreat; he chooses to remain at the top, looking for survivors, looking for people he can save, never caring whether they’re allied or enemy soldiers, dragging them across the battlefield and lowering them down the cliff for assistance before returning to look for other survivors. And you’re just watching this man who had been dismissed as a coward for standing by his conviction, and he’s achieving incredible things that I cannot imagine doing. It genuinely is an incredibly powerful piece of cinema; not just harrowing and thrilling, but it also spoke to me as a moving and challenging reflection on the nature of courage and what it means to live a life of faith in impossible circumstances. I may have real problems with the rest of the film, but dammit, at that moment I did not care. It was a thrill to see a filmmaker like Gibson working again, and a wonder to see him working at the height of his powers, and I hope for more from him.
Now, I really liked the film. It’s rather remarkable material, angry and passionate and frustrated. And it feels real, as though Wilson had just taken people he knew and presented them as they are. The performances are great; Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in particular both played their roles in a revival of the play, and there’s a lived-in understanding of the characters that comes with portraying these people every night for months. When Washington delivers his old stories about his ball-playing days, they flow from his mouth like practiced anecdotes he’s been telling people for twenty years; when he rants about how his entire life he’s been kept away from opportunities because of the colour of his skin, it feels like he’s giving voice to thoughts he’s been harbouring longer than he can remember; and his explosions of anger feel inevitable with the careful build-up of frustrations and resentment. But it’s Viola Davis who really astonished me. There has been a lot of debate about categorising her character; she won the Tony for Lead Actress in the role, but here has been nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar. And for much of the film I felt that the Oscars had it right; it’s a great role and great performance, but it’s clearly a supporting role. And then the final scene happened, and it became clear just how central she is to the narrative. As she discusses the life she built with Troy, her eyes spark as she remembers the man she fell in love with, and she angrily defends remaining with her husband as a choice that she made because it was the best that life offered her. It’s an incredible moment that reframes the entire film as being, not just about Troy and his frustrated ego lashing out at those who would deny him his right, but also about the woman who made a choice to be with this man throughout everything.
I also rather appreciated the direction of the film. This was the third film that Denzel Washington has directed, but the first I’ve seen, and I was rather impressed with his work. He’s not a particularly visual director, he's clearly better working with his actors, but he does clearly have a vision for what he wants the film to be, and coupled with his honed understanding of the play, he’s able to communicate its strength without getting in the way of the material. One thing I particularly appreciated was how classical his shooting actually was. If you pay attention to modern film shooting and editing these days, dialogue scenes are usually intercut in something of a choppy manner, cutting from close-up to close-up as each person ends their line of dialogue and the next person speaks, in a filmmaking approach I’ve heard referred to as “intensified continuity”. But Washington has a tendency to step back, to not just focus in close on the person currently talking; instead there’s a surprising number of wide-shots that allow us to see, not only the actor’s entire physical performance, but also the character around responding to their words. Part of that creative choice may have been forced on him by the inherent nature of the material (a close-up is fine for a single line of dialogue, but would quickly become uncomfortable where someone is delivering several pages of monologue), or perhaps it better reflects the way the audience would view the material on stage (where all the actors remain visible no matter who’s speaking). Or perhaps that’s just the approach Washington felt worked best with the material. Regardless, I really loved watching the film play out in this way, because it allows you to really watch everyone acting and reacting together, playing out their character regardless of whether they’re the focal point of the scene.
So there’s a lot to really like about the film. But here’s the problem with the film. I acknowledge that I knew coming into the film that it was a play, but if I had not, I suspect I would have realised its stage origins within the first five minutes. Movies are a fundamentally different art form to a play, and this felt like a play. It was largely limited in location (much of the film took place in the backyard of the Maxson house, with the film only occasionally going inside the house, and rarely onto the street or into a bar) which makes the film feel rather constrained and limited in a way that I don’t think anyone ever really intended. A play is limited by the constraints of the performance space, so a practical choice might be made to have the entire play take part in one location. But when a film takes place in one location, it starts to feel as though the world of the film is incredibly limited and claustrophobic. Which is fine if that’s what you’re trying to communicate, but I didn’t get the sense that that was the intention. It’s also filled with a lot of great, rich, strong monologues; Washington gets to deliver wonderful diatribes about how he’s been wronged, and Davis delivers heartbreaking descriptions of all she has lived with over the years. They’re brilliantly performed and wonderful to listen to. But again, it feels like these people are just holding court, delivering speeches while people stand around listening, waiting for their cue to speak. It doesn’t feel natural. The thing is, there’s a degree of artifice and contrivance in a play that we all accept; we can see that this isn’t a real backyard, and so right from the start we just accept that the entire world of a play is fake, and we then allow for people to behave in ways they wouldn’t, delivering eloquent and grand speeches. But in a film, the backyard looks like a real backyard, and suddenly we’re watching real people in a real location speechifying in a way that these people never would in reality, and it feels false. And I think that’s what we mean when we say that a film feels like a play and why that’s a problem; they may seem like closely related artforms, but the context of each is so different that what works in one feels off in the other. August Wilson (who died in 2005) apparently wrote the screenplay before his death, and he’s been nominated for Adapted Screenplay, but the truth is it feels as though he has been nominated for the quality of the play he wrote in the 1980s, not for the screenplay he wrote 20 years later. Don’t get me wrong; it’s well worth seeing, but looking at it as a piece of cinema, it’s not as effective as it might have been.
The performances in the film are universally great. I’ve liked Chris Pine playing Kirk in the Star Trek films, but here he’s doing work as the sensible brother Toby that I never would have imagined; his character is fuelled by a justified anger and regret over the actions that he’s forced to take. One of the best scenes in the film involves Pine sitting with his son, realising seemingly for the first time that his son will learn about his involvement with these robberies, and trying to reconcile what he needs to do to be a good father for his son with this path that he’s now trapped on. I would have loved to see Ben Foster receive a nomination, as he has been a reliable on-screen presence for years, and his charismatic impulsiveness as Tanner is absolutely thrilling to watch; he feels genuinely dangerous to be with while still engendering a surprising amount of sympathy. The person who has been nominated is Jeff Bridges, which is frustrating; I like Jeff Bridges, everybody likes Jeff Bridges, and I really liked his performance as Texas Ranger Hamilton, but it’s essentially a more-coherent version of his work as Rooster Cogburn. What I did find really interesting was how much the role relied on Bridges’ likability; without that natural good-naturedness the character (who, in addition to standing in opposition to our sympathetic lead characters, is also prone to obliviously throwing racial slurs at his Native American partner) might be actively off-putting. As it is, thanks to Bridges’ charisma and the wonderful relationship between Hamilton and his partner Alberto (wonderfully played by Gil Birmingham), the audience is left seriously with our sympathies seriously conflicted between the law and the criminals. Which means that, whoever wins this conflict, the outcome will inevitably hurt.
The best thing about the film is that there is incredible affection given to every character; no matter how minor, everyone feels as though they had an existence before the film. The care taken with these characters is shown by the fact that, four months after seeing it, there are two different “waitress” characters that instantly come to mind when I think about the movie. In most films, that’s the kind of forgettable role that gets thrown in just because if a scene is set in a diner you need to have a waitress. But here the characters felt real, they have a spark, I can remember lines each one said. And that’s true of everyone in the film; the guys in the diner, the bank customers, the hotel clerk – all of these throwaway roles felt like they all inhabited this world and had their own place in it. When you see major movies that completely fail to develop even their main characters, it’s a delight to see a film that gives such attention to every person that appears on-screen.
There’s also a nice piece of commentary running through the film that is absolutely unmistakable. The decision of the brothers to start robbing these banks in particular is driven as a response to an action of the bank’s that they quite understandably feel to be immoral and exploitative. And this negative attitude to the banks runs through most of the characters; in one memorable moment, one minor character observes that he saw someone robbing “the same bank that's been robbing me for 30 years”. And you can see the consequences of the economic downturn crated by the 2008 financial crisis everywhere in the film, in the closed-down businesses, in the boarded-up buildings, in the town centres that seem like ghost towns. The film offers screenwriter Taylor Sheridan a chance to argue that the banking institutions have essentially ceased to serve the communities; instead they have exploited their positions to prey on the public, and rather than being chastened by having created the financial crisis, they instead almost seem to have been emboldened by the lack of accountability imposed on them for disastrously affecting the economy. The thing that I was really impressed with by the film was the fact that it managed to make its argument, and was absolutely unambiguous about what it was saying, yet never one did I feel like I was watching a sermon or sitting through a diatribe. The film works because Sheridan works incredibly hard to ensure that every time he presents his argument, it’s based strongly in the characters and in their actions; no-one’s ever delivering a speech that would make no sense for them to be delivering in reality.
The other idea that the film is exploring is illuminated particularly through the character of Hamilton’s partner Alberto. The film is unmistakably a modern day western, and the decision to place the film in that genre very pointedly ties the events of this film to the founding of the country, something that was mythologised in the western and the old idea of “cowboys and Indians”. So when people talk about these big impassive bodies that seek to exploit the disadvantaged and disempowered for their own benefit, it’s no accident that the film has a Native American character who can speak to the fact that such exploitation was the basis for the creation of the nation in the first place; similarly it’s clearly a deliberate choice that a pivotal plot point involves the use of an Indian casino, using one of the few and most-obvious points of Native American economic power as part of the brother’s fight against the banks.
Hell or High Water is a remarkably strong piece of work. Where films are made as a vehicle for exploring an issue they can often become frustrating and airless, consumed by their need to communicate their message at the expense of the story being told. But Hell or High Water demonstrates how such material should be approached; it constantly sparks with energy, with entertaining characters and a thrilling, compelling story that keeps the audience engaged as it turns its attention to what it has to say, never insisting that you listen to its message. First and foremost, it’s just a bloody fun film.
The first thing that surprised me was how patient it was with its story. I was expecting something that would rush through Saroo getting lost in twenty minutes, and that would focus its attention on the story of adult Saroo, since that’s the part of the story that has recognisable stars and doesn’t rely on an child non-actor to carry the story. But instead it seemed like there was a fairly even split in the film. And even more surprisingly, it was absolutely the first half of the film that really grabbed me. That first half is an absolute gut punch: Sunny Pawar, just 7 years old at the time, is an appealing presence as the young Saroo, and the pain and horror when he winds up separated from his brother is genuinely shocking. The film navigates a delicate balance in the scenes of Saroo lost – he finds himself in some terrible situations with people who might look to exploit a young child without connections – and I was trying to grapple with whether the film was trying to soften some of those events just to avoid affecting the feel-good nature of the story, but I don’t think it is. The film is extremely effective at putting us in the mindset of this young child, so while we as adult viewers can recognise what’s happening, we’re seeing the events through someone who only knows “something bad is happening”. Once we move into the second half, the film changes quite significantly. Rightly recognising that you can’t build too much of a story out of someone looking at Google Maps for years, the film avoids spending too much time on the actual search that it’s ostensibly about. Instead it adopts a much more emotional focus – there’s a massive hole in Saroo, because he doesn’t have any resolution over what happened to his birth family and he knows that they’re also suffering in having lost him without even understanding why, but at the same time he has this other family who raised him and who loved him and who he’s afraid will be hurt by his efforts to find his birth parents. And so that second half becomes more insular in a way that is really interesting, but less immediately engaging than the more dynamic first half, Fortunately the strength of the acting talent is incredibly strong; both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman are understandably nominated for their performances that ache with pain and pride and regret and joy, and they're able to carry the film through to its emotional conclusion.
One of the things I really liked about the film was that it felt, for want of a better term, real. There’s no real sheen or polish to the film. There’s a rough messiness to the film, that seems less about composing the film for maximum impact, and just about being truthful to the events being portrayed. One of the best examples of the film’s messiness comes after Saroo has been adopted; the film cuts to a scene one year later where the family welcomes a second adopted child named Mantosh, a child who is clearly troubled. And then, after maybe a minute of this scene, the film jumps forward twenty years to tell the rest of the story. Mantosh remains a small presence in the film, and we learn that he continues to be troubled as an adult, but for the most part he’s not really a big part of the film’s focus. I found myself reflecting on how other movies might have dealt with the figure of Mantosh. Perhaps it would be tidier to just omit the character altogether, since he’s really not relevant to the film’s story. Or perhaps they could adopt the two children together, which would at least remove the need for the random “one year later” time jump. Or perhaps keep Mantosh in the film as he is, but more explicitly draw connections between the brothers; say, as Saroo begins to withdraw from everyone due to his search his parent might worry about whether what happened to Mantosh is happening to Saroo. All of these things are decisions I could see other filmmakers making, just to make the film a little tidier. But I love the fact that Lion doesn’t do any of these things. Instead, it seems to very consciously just try to reflect what really happened, and who cares if the story’s not as perfectly constructed or fits neatly into a conventional structure. It’s messy, but in a way that genuinely allowed me to get lost, made me forget that I was watching a movie and feel as though I was watching real events.
But the frustrating thing about the film is that, for all the faith shown in the audience’s willingness to engage with an unconventionally messy narrative, there seemed to occasionally be a fear that the audience might not be able to keep up with the film, which leads to some very small but annoying choices in the second half. This first revealed itself in a moment where Saroo is at a dinner where the menu is Indian food; he finds himself looking at and tasting a brightly-coloured sweet named jalebi, which immediately reminds him of a moment from his youth when he asked his brother to buy some jalebi. The instant we see the distinctively bright colours of the food, we’re reminded of that wonderful little scene and completely understand the distant look on his face. Which was why it was so insulting that we’re then actually given a brief flashback to that scene. I’m not sure whether it shows a lack of confidence in the audience’s ability to follow the story, or a lack of confidence in the film’s ability to tell the story, but whatever it was, it was a clumsy effort to make sure we all followed something I’m pretty sure no-one was having any difficulty with. But if that was just a one-off moment it would be one thing; instead the bizarre unnecessary flashback inserts got worse. One of the distinctive features of the train station Saroo is looking for was a water tower; we know this because we saw the water tower when he was at the station, and he later refers to it being something he remembers. So why is it that, every time he’s looking at a station on Google Maps and he sees a water tower, the film feels the need to throw in a quick insert shot of the water tower from the night he was lost? It didn’t seem as though any new information was being communicated – he didn’t seem to be remembering any detail that would allow him to dismiss any of the stations – it was seemingly just “well, I guess it could be that one.” But the film felt the need to give us these weird flashback inserts three or four times, and at those moments it felt like the film was talking down to me, thinking I wouldn’t remember why the water tower mattered. And since I loved the film so much because it was trying to be messy and avoid meeting the audience’s expectations, those moments bothered me more than in another film because they almost changed the film back into one where it thought the audience needed to be talked down to, and that’s not what this film was.
But it has to be said: given I walked into the movie reluctantly and with no expectation of enjoying it, the fact that my only real criticism revolves around a half-dozen shots, not even 30 seconds of screen time, in a film I otherwise raved about really does indicate how strong the film was. It is a wonderful film, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
I need to emphasise that I really enjoyed the film – it’s a genuinely fascinating and entertaining film telling a story that is worth learning about – but seeing the film so soon after Lion really did make Hidden Figures feel like a movie. You could feel the shift between the films right from the start; there was a gloss and vibrancy to the image in Hidden Figures that felt artificial compared to the slight gloom of the image in Lion. All the way through the film, I found myself aware of the screenwriters (Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder) constructing every scene. Every line of dialogue seems heightened, every character delivers the exact perfect remark at the right time, and every behaviour seems escalated to make a point, to a degree where actions simply stopped feeling natural. It’s not that I think the movie actively misrepresents the real events; just that it covers the entire story in a film of artifice to heighten the drama in a way that meant I never believed what I was watching to be an accurate presentation of what happened. It’s the type of film where a department head personally starts attacking a sign, bashing it and prying it with a crowbar, in order to make his point about removing the sign in the most dramatic way possible. It’s the type of film where a woman can walk through a test chamber, getting her high-heels caught in a grate, literally seconds before an explosive test is conducted. It’s the type of film where one of the characters meets and falls in love and it all plays out in the most surface level clichéd storybook manner. The artifice of the film reaches its low point with the installation of the first IBM Computing Machine – in one scene the technicians are puzzled by why the machine wasn’t work, while as an audience member I could see this one big conspicuous cable and immediately recognise “That’s probably connected to the wrong thing”; sure enough when our hero Dorothy Vaughan (having previously only read a book about computer programming that she had to steal from the library since it wasn’t in the “coloured” section) sneaks into the room without authorisation wanting to learn how to operate the machine, she sees it’s not working, can immediately identify by sight where the cable should lead to, and fixes the machine.
And to be clear – it’s not that I’m saying that a film needs to be strictly accurate to the true events in order for me to enjoy it. But if I’m watching John Glenn standing on the launchpad refusing to take off unless the machine’s calculations are confirmed by one of the characters and it takes me out of the film because I think “that can’t have happened like that”, that’s an issue. It’s not as bad as Argo with its last-minute chase down the airport runway (it is at least true that he requested the calculations be confirmed, even if the timing of the request was made at a less-dramatic moment several days earlier), but it’s still unfortunate that I was taken out of the film so much.
I find myself wondering what I really wanted from the film. And if I’m honest, what I want can’t be achieved in a narrative film. Ideally, I personally would love to see a well-made documentary film telling the story of these women, removed from the need for big dramatic moments and just offering honest reflections on who these people were, what they had to go through, and what their greater impact was. The thing is, I might love that, but the audience for that film would be very small. The great thing about Hidden Figures is that the film is doing well; it has taken this story and presented it in an accessible way; it means that there are people learning about these women, it’s allowing people to see black women in a context where they probably previously just imagine a lot of white men, and there is real value in doing that. Certainly the movie made me sufficiently interested in the story that I decided to pick up the source book; I’ve only just started reading it in the last couple of days, but this is a story I would never have heard of, and now I’m looking forward to learning about who these women really were, and that’s something of real value that happened only because of the movie.