Thanks to DVDs and long plane flights, I've finally seen all the movies I want to see from this year's major-category Oscar nominees. (Some of them I definitely don't want to see.) Or as much of them as I want to see, which in some cases was only a few minutes. I have to say, though, that a restless seat on a transatlantic flight is not the best position from which to appreciate a movie. Even BritAir's Fawlty Towers episodes seemed tired and unfunny from that angle.
I find that this year's movies fall into two categories. One consisted of Lady Bird, Mudbound, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: small-scale stories about ordinary people, with absolutely stunningly deep and subtle characterization. Many movies aspire to this state of art, but few achieve it. These three all did. The only other movies I've seen recently that matched it are Boyhood and the little-known Margaret (the one with Anna Paquin). Last year's Manchester by the Sea tried to be that kind of movie, but failed not through inept moviemaking but because the characters were too repressed to come through properly. They weren't necessarily the best movies - Lady Bird was way, way too overlong and desperately needed cutting, and Three Billboards is morally obtuse - but they succeeded brilliantly at portraying the people in them.
The problem is that, after seeing these movies, everything else looked crass by comparison. Especially The Shape of Water, which aspires to being a fairy-tale, a different kind of story. But since from a realistic perspective - which is the space my head was in at the time - nothing that any of the characters do makes any sense at all (and that includes the monster), I found it more annoying than enchanting.
The other fictional character-oriented movie of the year was Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington got a Best Actor nomination for this one as an autistic civil-rights lawyer: well-deserved, but it's all the movie deserved. It takes place over about three weeks, which is ludicrous, as it follows ups and downs in the character's career which ought to have taken at least three years. Nor is it well-written: Washington delivers a lot of impassioned speeches, but I was at a total loss as to what he was talking about, even though the plot is perfectly clear.
Movies telling recent history are a weakness of mine, so I went off early to see both The Post and Darkest Hour (a movie I persistently misremember as titled Greatest Hour). Despite its framing, The Post is not about the Pentagon Papers, but about the paper's moral dilemma in publishing them (a dilemma more complex and difficult than that of the NY Times, which is why this movie is about the Post and not the Times, even though the Times was the one that did the work on the Papers). It's impressively historically accurate, but as a journalism suspense movie it didn't have the sizzle of All the President's Men or Spotlight. Darkest Hour, though, while it looked meticulous in all its physical details, was persistently off in its plot and characterization - they wanted a villain, so they grotesquely paint Halifax as one - in the same way, though not the same extent, that The King's Speech was off.
For historical depictions, that leaves I, Tonya, whose topic I'd of course heard of but knew little about. It's highly illuminating, vivid, and funny as well as sad, most outstanding in its portrayal of that hard-to-depict kind of character, the incompetent bad guy. While in England I got to see on BBC the second episode of A Very English Scandal (Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe), the episode in which the dog gets shot, and by gum it's exactly the same thing as I, Tonya: people with a problem they want solved brutally hire an inept would-be criminal mastermind, who hires an even more inept thug, who totally blows the assignment, getting everybody above him in the chain of command into heaps of trouble.
Two more movies I saw were somewhat more problematic. Molly's Game I watched solely because it had an Aaron Sorkin script. Like Denzel Washington's acting in Roman, this got an Oscar nomination and is the sole reason to watch the movie. It's about a young woman with no obvious talents who suddenly discovers she has a knack for running high-stakes poker games in hotel rooms. As she rapidly learns the rules and lingo of her new profession, the non-poker-playing viewer rapidly falls behind. Eventually Molly gets in trouble for "taking a rake," a term which is never explained; my best guess is that she's betting on her own games. It's snappy, but bewildering.
The Big Sick, however, is just disturbing. It's written by a married couple about how they met and fell in love. It ought to be charming, but it's not. First off, the husband, who's a stand-up comic, plays himself, but the wife is not an actress, so she's played by somebody else. If the characters were both played by actors it wouldn't be weird, but here's the real guy pitching woo to an actress playing his wife, with his real wife's connivance. That's creepy. And the plot is worse. I'm not going to describe it in full, but he crassly and insensitively manipulates her life in two separate ways. She points this out to him and even breaks up at one point, but he seems oblivious to his flaws, and then somehow at the end they get back together again. Apparently she's won over by his sincerity, despite his expressing it crassly. This movie ought to have been made 70 years ago and been forgotten by now.
That leaves two movies I had hopes for but turned off after a few minutes.
All the Money in the World immediately delves into a series of flashbacks intended to inform you that J. Paul Getty had a lot of money. No kidding, Sherlock. Off.
The Florida Project begins with three six-year-olds gleefully spitting onto their neighbor's new car for no reason other than that they can. Do I want to spend a whole movie with such obnoxious kids? Off.