• melissaryanconner

Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 46

Updated: Mar 28

Part 46: 2022


MOVIES:

  • Don't Look Up

  • Drive My Car

  • West Side Story

  • Licorice Pizza

  • Belfast

  • Nightmare Alley (hidden gem)

  • Dune

  • The Power of the Dog

  • King Richard

  • CODA (winner)

Don’t Look Up

Are you looking for a dark comedy that has people more upset and enraged than the actual dumpster fire we live in today? Well, look no further than Don’t Look Up!


Directed by Adam McKay, Don’t Look Up is a clever, unapologetically brash satire about an America so infatuated with celebrity worship, infotainment, social media and political games that it refuses to take the impending destruction of planet Earth seriously.

When Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a planet-killing comet hurtling towards Earth, the PhD candidate informs her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who calculates that the comet will make impact in precisely six months and 14 days. The chances of “planet extinction” are set at 99.78%.


Unsure of who to tell, the team starts at the head: The White House. After a brief and infuriating meeting with President Orleon (Meryl Streep in full Trumpian mode) and her son Jason (Jonah Hill), who also serves as her Chief of Staff, Dr. Mindy and his team are unceremoniously informed that no action will be taken. Why freak everyone out for anything less than a 100% chance?

Ignored by leadership and derailed by social media, Kate and Dr. Mindy go rogue – taking their message to the airwaves via a morning show called “The Daily Rip”, hosted by Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). But this banter-heavy show has to put a positive spin on everything, including the ultimate destruction of the planet. When Kate eventually breaks and loses her cool on national TV, the segment is immediately turned into a meme rather than a drastic call to action.


Meanwhile, billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) has found a way to profit from the approaching comet. This Elon Musk/Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg robot-man has discovered that the murder ball larger than the one that destroyed the dinosaurs is actually filled with valuable minerals. He convinces the President that the collision is a good thing, and they agree to allow the comet to make impact in order to profit from its natural riches.

What follows is a dark, hilarious, tragic and poignant story about humanity at large. Not only does it speak to how we behave in the face of impending doom (only proven during the recent COVID pandemic), but it also speaks to how little the “owners” of this country actually care about the planet, not to mention the people that inhabit it.


The amount of star power on screen in Don’t Look Up is set-up for the movie’s ultimate joke: how celebrity messiness compels us more than the death of our own planet. Take Leo, for example. As Dr. Mindy, he’s an introverted scientist just trying to get a message across to the American people. Instead, he becomes a celebrity that people either disregard or label “A.I.L.F” (astronomer I’d like to f*ck). This film speaks to the weird way our culture can only process people as celebrities, even when they have no interest in becoming one.

When Don’t Look Up was released late last year, it polarized viewers. You really either loved it or hated it. But, despite that, it became one of Netflix’s top viewed films of ALL TIME in just a matter of hours. And while it certainly made me laugh, it actually made me cry, which shocked me. More importantly, it gave me something to think about – and what else could you want from a movie?


True satire is often deadly at the box office. It seems no one wants to watch a movie that literally screams “WE’RE ALL GOING TO F*CKING DIE IF WE DON’T DO SOMETHING” at the top of its lungs – but, as the current political climate has shown – some people would rather blow up than admit that they were wrong. “We just keep the bad news light,” says anchor Brie Evantee, “…because it helps the medicine go down.” But maybe the destruction of the planet isn’t supposed to be fun…maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying.

 

Drive My Car

I’m not gonna lie, the entire drive to go see Drive My Car, I couldn’t get the blasted song out of my head. With a cute red Saab on the movie poster and wistful Beatles-inspired title, I figured this movie would be a fun 3-hour romp around Japan. But, after seeing this artistic, quiet film, a more appropriate title might have been The Long and Winding Road.


Though Drive My Car has more layers than a crepe cake, the simplest one follows middle-aged actor and director, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). He specializes in experimental theater, the most recent being an avantgarde production of “Uncle Vanya”. The play’s still the thing, but you’ve never seen or heard Chekhov quite like this.

With a Babel-esque mixture of languages, including Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Korean sign language, this production presents a unique challenge for Kafuku’s actors, all of whom must draw on all their expressive powers to obtain understanding that transcends words.


But first, prologue.


The seductive opening shots of Drive My Car have Kafuku and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima) in a post-coital haze. Silhouetted against the Tokyo sky, Oto tells Kafuku a story about a teenage girl and her obsession with a young boy. For this couple, sex is as much creative inspiration as it is pleasure. From their union stems brilliant, imaginative stories they form together. These stories then inspire Oto’s screenwriting.


Scene by scene, the story unfolds, like real life, in quiet moments between this couple. But everything changes when Kafuku returns home early one day and stumbles upon something that radically reshapes, or maybe even confirms, what he knew deep down about his wife.

Two years pass and this, about 40 minutes into the film, is where Drive My Car truly begins. Still picking up the pieces of his life after a personal tragedy, Kafuku agrees to serve as artist-in-residence at a Hiroshima theater festival where he will oversee the multi-language production of “Uncle Vanya”. As part of his residency, he must agree to have a chauffeur take him to and from the theater. Reluctant at first, he eventually agrees to hand over the keys of his two-door Saab 900 to a young woman named Misaki (Toko Miura).


His reluctance has less to do with his pride and more to do with the fact that his little red car has become a personal shrine and creative workspace, where he rehearses his lines with the aid of a cassette tape his wife made for him. But the theater will not budge, a driver is mandatory. Gradually, Kafuku and Misaki form a lovely friendship, set to the tune of Oto’s tapes. Eventually we learn that Misaki is guarding some painful secrets of her own that only work to solidify their bond.

Drive My Car is about so many things that somehow all work so perfectly together. It’s about the gift of unexpected friendships, the importance of theater, the idea that acting can achieve the force of real life and how real life requires a sort of acting. It’s about the magic that exists between actors, between partners, that can turn words on a page into works of art. It’s about grief and forgiveness, love and loss. But, most of all, it’s a movie about listening, or, more specifically, paying attention. It’s a story that understands how seldom people really know or understand each other even when they are speaking the same language.


Throughout this 3-hour film, there are no flashbacks…no moments that distract from us focusing on what’s ahead rather than what’s in the rearview mirror. As anyone who has mourned or grieved will tell you, it’s so important to just keep going. As it winds through time at its own pace, Drive My Car offers a heartfelt, tearful ride through the pain we run from, the collisions that awaken us, and the healing that comes from every bump in the road.

 

West Side Story

While I wasn’t the biggest fan of the 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet, I can appreciate what it did. It took a story we all knew and reimagined it in a new way. The same could even be said of the 1961 film, West Side Story, which is also based on the Bard’s play.


When I heard Steven Spielberg was planning to remake the classic 1961 musical, I was, shall we say, less than enthused. When West Side Story came out in 1961, it won 10 of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Did this powerhouse of Hollywood’s Musical Years really need to be remade?

As it turns out, nope, it didn’t. Spielberg first got the inkling to direct his first musical back in 2015, the year Trump announced his presidential campaign. The director issued a statement saying, “…The divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out that in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, make the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

After a statement like that, you might think Spielberg would make the courageous decision to update West Side Story, perhaps tell a modernized story that said something about racism, police brutality, or class warfare. After all, if you’re going to take on one of the greats, you have to at least try to make it better than it was. However, this rendition is still perilously behind the times.


In this new telling, Spielberg has made some adjustments, but the tale is, indeed, old as time. Like the first film, West Side Story is set in the late 1950s in San Juan Hill. Much of the area is being demolished to make room for a new complex called Lincoln Center, and the ethnic tensions between the white (Jets) and Puerto Rican (Sharks) residents are rooted in a battle over their shrinking terrain (ironically, San Juan Hill was a predominately Black area in the 1950's, which would have made this story so much more relevant today, but whatever, what do I know).

The tough-talking New Yawk gang of Jets is led by Riff (Mike Faist), an Irish bully who’s tired of the Sharks taking the city that he thinks belongs to him. Leading the Puerto Rican Sharks is Bernardo (David Alvarez), a boxer who proudly stands his ground against the “gringos” that antagonize him and his gang.


Stuck in the middle are Riff’s BFF Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler). He’s haunted by the violence in his past, she’s eager to make her own way in her new home. As they fall madly in love, their rapture turns to familiar tragedy. Never was there a tale of more woe…

Though the story and music are near copy and pastes of the original, what’s missing from Spielberg’s film is what would have made it so much better – truth. Officer Krupke (Brian de’Arcy James) is a Tom Hanks-type baboon who isn’t racist, just silly! If only all law enforcement was as neutered as him (insert sarcasm here)!


The rest of the characters are just as one-dimensional. Even Valentina (Rita Moreno), who is supposed to be some “woke” fairy godmother-type character, falls flat. Her store is the scene of the infamous sexual assault, where Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) is almost raped by the Jets. It would make sense for Valentina to be the heroine here, as she was the actress who portrayed Anita in the original film, but this scene just doesn’t work. Those who perpetrate the assault get off with nothing more than a “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” speech. You’d like to think a 2021 film would have handled this better.

Also missing from this modern musical – COLOR! Anyone who has seen the original West Side Story knows that the film is a freaking kaleidoscope of colorful costumes and set designs. This film, shot by Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski, may as well be in black and white. Kaminiski is responsible for the desaturated look of such films as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Bridge of Spies. Only makes sense to add West Side Story to the roster, right?


But there’s good here, I have to admit. Spielberg was committed to casting as many Puerto Rican actors as he could, and I have to respect that. Zegler’s Maria, who also had the role on Broadway, has a stunning soprano voice that does justice to the part (unlike Natalie Wood, who was A – not Hispanic, Mexican or Puerto Rican and B – not a singer, her voice was dubbed). Spielberg also made the brave choice to let his characters speak Spanish without providing us subtitles, a bold and wonderful decision that underscores their right to be here, just as they are.


I’m still not sure why Spielberg wanted to remake this musical. He puts good heart into it, but – like Bernardo – brought a knife to a gun fight. It was maybe too big of an undertaking, even for a titan like Spielberg. Maybe somehow, someday, somewhere, West Side Story will get the reboot it deserves, but that is not this day.

 

Licorice Pizza

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) is 15 going on 30. Like Max Fisher of Rushmore, he’s just a kid, but moves through the world with the confidence (and wardrobe) of a middle-aged businessman.


Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is 25, but willing to be any age that will get her out of Encino. She’s an adult, but less experienced and worldly than she thinks.


They meet in a strange moment in history, when Old Hollywood and New Hollywood have started to overlap. Bing Crosby is still alive, Jim Morrison is dead and the Vietnam War has been raging for about 20 years already. It’s an era where everyone pretty much feels the same age because no one really knows what time actually means anymore.

It’s yearbook portrait day at Gary’s high school. As he combs his truly epic 1970’s hair, Alana walks up to him with a mirror. She’s the assistant of the photographer and Gary is instantly smitten. He hits on her with the empty courage of a teenage boy. She brushes him off, but a part of her is clearly flattered. He asks her to meet him for dinner later and it’s hard to tell if it’s a date or a dare.


Still, she shows up. Gary is surprised, but not nearly as surprised as she is in her own decision. And thus begins Licorice Pizza, a film that plays more like a dream, with vignettes of Gary and Alana running around the Valley, starting up businesses, and pretending they don’t care about each other.

On the surface, Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age movie, but not quite a “growing up” movie. Both characters are pretty grown up already (Alana is 25 and Gary is mature beyond his years), yet there remains a childish quality to both of them, and to all the characters in this movie. Towards the middle of the film, Alana sits on a curb in the early hours of the day. On one side of her, a completely unhinged Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) throws a garbage can through a window. On the other side, Gary and his friends engage in a series of comic sexual poses with some gas cans. Alana is literally stuck between grown men who are dangerous lunatics and immature little boys. It’s a movie where no one “acts their age.”

Of course the big will-they-won’t-they question is tainted by the fact that there’s a 10-year age difference between Gary and Alana. They may want to be together, but they shouldn’t be. Yet, they’re drawn to each other, constantly running towards each other with a magnetic force when they’re not in the same place. It’s a theme that runs through the film – this idea of forbidden love. An aging movie star (Sean Penn) develops feelings for a much younger Alana…a politician (Benny Safdie) has to hide a secret relationship from his constituents. Only in this nostalgic, sepia-colored dream world could a love like this exist.


And Licorice Pizza is pretty much as aimless as a dream. Like the classic American Graffiti, Licorice Pizza is about a moment in time, a seemingly very personal film that comes together as memories often do, messy and unformed. It captures the in-between-ness of life, when love isn’t necessarily romance and the future seems full of possibility. And that’s how you have to view Licorice Pizza – as if it were a dream. It doesn’t always add up, or even go anywhere, but it makes its own kind of offbeat sense.

 

Belfast

The term “nostalgia” was originally considered to be a psychological condition, brought on by a powerful and debilitating mixture of depression and homesickness. Today, it is more of an artistic expression – a way of connecting to a place or person and mending the pain of severing those ties. In Belfast, director Kenneth Branagh brings an infectious warmth to his nostalgic childhood, combining the memories of a home left behind with the longing for a time now lost.


It’s the summer of 69’…the summer that seemed to last forever. Man had just stepped foot on the moon, about 500,000 people flocked to the Woodstock Festival, and Belfast, Ireland is filled with chaos. Armed with guns, bombs, and bats, the Protestants are taking to the streets to drive out the Catholics.

It’s like something out of a movie, but it’s playing in real life outside Buddy’s (Jude Hill) window. As the youngest member of a Protestant family who has no beef with the Catholics who live around them, Buddy doesn’t understand the violence, let alone a reason for it. After all, his little crush at school is Catholic – and she’s perfectly delightful.


Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) travels to London for work every week to pay off tax debts, leaving Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and her in-laws, Pop (a wonderful Ciaran Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), to raise two young boys among this insanity.


No family can live like this forever…and Pa and Ma are eventually tasked with a difficult decision – do they leave Belfast, the only home they’ve ever known, or risk the safety of their two young sons? Though danger looms around every corner, 9-year-old Buddy can’t help but look at the world through rose-colored glasses. He loves his schoolmates, his family, his home. There is no way he’s leaving. Ma has friends and family in Belfast, she doesn’t want to go, either. Then, when tragedy hits this family a little too close to home, the decision to leave becomes even harder.

This family dilemma could easily consume the entirety of Belfast, but one of the fine pleasures of this film is the way it shows life going on within the barricades. Buddy is surely worried about his family leaving, but he’s equally concerned with how to capture the attention of the cute girl at school. The family goes to the cinema, the theater, and catches the latest Westerns on TV. There’s dancing in the streets and in the kitchen. Despite the unrest, life does not stop in this corner of the world.

While Belfast is mostly in black and white, Buddy’s early exposure to the arts is in screaming color, perhaps foreshadowing how Branagh – in this semi-autobiographical film – found his love for performance. Belfast feels precious in this way, told from the perspective of a little boy. Like Licorice Pizza, this film feels painfully personal, with memories that are softened, not sharpened.


Can we ever really go home again? It’s a question that pumps through so many films about Ireland, in particular. Early on in Belfast, one of the characters jokes that the Irish were bred for leaving, otherwise the world wouldn’t have any pubs. For a place that has seen so many people leave, it's no surprise that it would also hold so much nostalgia for those who grew up there. While Belfast is by no means perfect, it’s utterly heartwarming. Set to the beats of local hometown hero, Van Morrison, this film almost made me nostalgic for a place I’ve never been. Like the best childhood memories, it’s sweet, sentimental, and packed full of love.

 

Nightmare Alley

Mere minutes into Guillermo del Toro’s film, Nightmare Alley, a man bites the head off a live chicken, blood spewing in all directions. This, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) learns, is a ‘geek show’ – an illegal, but lucrative, carnival attraction in which a desperate, demoralized drunk commits disgusting deeds for the entertainment of others. The ringleader (Willem Dafoe) surveys the crowd. “Is the geek man or beast?” he asks. It’s a dichotomy that runs through Nightmare Alley and remains ever-present as Stan charts his course into the heart of darkness and beyond.


What led Stan to the circus in the first place is pretty much the same thing that leads anyone there – childhood trauma. After setting his childhood home on fire, he hits the road with nothing but his hobo sack and a freaking great hat.

His travels bring him to a carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Dafoe). Ever the smooth talker, Stan finds work for himself behind the scenes, eventually helping Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her boozer husband, Pete (David Strathairn) perform their psychic act. In exchange, Pete teaches Stan how to ‘read’ people, as well as the coded system behind their brilliant vaudeville mentalist show.


After Stan’s negligence causes a tragedy that complicates things with Zeena, he goes off on his own as a mentalist, taking the carnival’s “Electric Girl” Molly (Rooney Mara) with him as his assistant. Years pass, in which Stan teaches Molly the workings of the coded system. Their two-person act is now pulling in tons of rich, gullible folks who can’t wait to get a glimpse of the Great Stan Carlisle at work.

But every noir anti-hero needs a femme fatale. Sporting bleach blonde hair and the best red lips I think I’ve ever seen, Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is onto Stan’s game. A psychoanalyst to the rich and powerful, Lilith proves to be a formidable nemesis to Stan, as well as a highly untrustworthy ally. Together the two hatch a scheme to swindle the skeptical tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) into believing that Stan can speak to the dead. But Ezra isn’t the only one being conned. When you make a deal with the Devil, nothing is ever what it seems.

To say much more here would be criminal, as this film is one downward psychological tunnel after another. Each character in Nightmare Alley is subscribing to a false reality or attempting to sell one, and Stan finds himself on both sides over the course of this expansive plot. In maybe one of his best roles to date, Bradley Cooper is up to the task with a Don Draper-esque performance that rides that razor-sharp line between sinister and likeable (he was utterly robbed of a well-deserved Best Actor nomination this year).


Like any great anti-hero, his downfall is tragic, but very much of his own making. By the gut-wrenching final scene, I didn’t know what to feel for the guy. This isn’t a feel-good movie. You spend the entire time feeling empathy for a character who consistently makes the wrong decisions, and that’s the point. Sometimes redemption doesn’t come. Sometimes, when you choose the wrong paths, mistakes come back to bite you. Like Stan, Nightmare Alley isn’t here to offer a smile, it’s here to entertain. And, to me, it does that flawlessly.

During his training, Pete tells Stan that people are dying inside to be seen. They want to tell you who they are. Though deeply dishonest, Stan’s routine is founded on a set of truths about human nature. Everyone thinks their background is their own unique secret, but we say a lot with our clothing, behavior, and body language. The ability to read character through verbal and visual clues is a useful tool for a mentalist, but also a clever device in Nightmare Alley. Stan maybe an expert at reading the room, but he’s not as subtle as he thinks – and any observant viewer might pick up on the hidden clues while watching this psychotic journey into madness, crime, and deceit.


Though Nightmare Alley doesn’t have any of del Toro’s usual supernatural monsters, there are still horrors aplenty. For centuries, carnivals and fly-by-night fairs have offered some kind of escape from small town life, as patrons willingly pay a nickel here or a quarter there to witness a number of illicit thrills. And now, that experience lives on – immortalized in this darkly whimsical, cautionary tale.

 

Dune

I fully understand that it’s impossible to please everyone when it comes to book-to-movie adaptations. I’d argue that the only series that seemed to do justice to both mediums is The Lord of the Rings. In most cases, the book version offers essential exposition that’s just too hard to transfer to the screen.


Deemed one of the greatest science fiction books ever written, Frank Herbert’s Dune sold more than 20 million copies when it first hit bookshelves in 1965. It’s been adapted several times (to various degrees of success) for film and TV, and has inspired numerous novels, music, games, comic books and franchises (namely Star Wars and Star Trek). In this most recent adaptation, director Denis Villeneuve tries desperately to cover only half of the 800-page novel in what’s set up to be the first in a series of three possible films.

Dune is set in the very distant future. The universe has become a vast feudal society – think interstellar Game of Thrones – in which noble houses control different planets. The most coveted is the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, the source of a powerful, life-extending psychedelic drug called “spice”.


As the story opens, there has been an imperial decree that House Atreides will take over Arrakis from its rival, House Harkonnen. It’s a triumph for Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), but his advisors (Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin) have other thoughts…

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Arrakis holds many dangers, namely an impenetrable desert landscape and massive sandworms that may even best Beetlejuice and Burt Gummer. Still, the Duke takes his wife, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) along for the mission.

However, the Atreides family must first make peace with the planet’s native inhabitants, the Fremens – a tribe of sand people (including Javier Bardem and Zendaya) with husky-blue eyes and a strong hostility towards outsiders who strip their home of its natural mineral wealth without giving two shits about their welfare or beliefs.


But the Atreides family has a trick up their sleeve. Paul, their Edward-Scissorhands-Luke-Skywalker messiah of a son, has certain “gifts”. He dreams of Arrakis before even stepping foot there and has visions of the Fremens before even realizing who they are. He learns to use “The Voice” (USE THE VOICE, LUKE…ER…PAUL!) to manipulate people into doing things they might not do otherwise. Is it possible that Paul could be the Christ-like savior that the Fremen have been waiting for?

Dune is both mesmerizing and mundane…spectacular and slow. It’s a visual treat for those who love world-building fiction, but there seems to be something crucial missing. Much of the plot of Dune is advanced through elements of mind reading and mind control, so it’s a bummer that the movie never really gets inside the heads of its characters. For example, there’s obviously a strong bond between Paul and Momoa’s character, Duncan (very much a Han Solo type), however, we never learn why or when this bond happened. In addition, so many characters come and go for the sake of getting them facetime on screen that it’s hard to remember who’s who – especially when all the names sound so similar.


Like the first Lord of the Rings film, Dune is very much a set-up for what’s to come. It packs a lot of information into its 2.5-hour runtime, yet – unlike the first Lord of the Rings film – it feels unfinished. At the end, I felt like I did at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road…I wanted more character time. Dune spends so much time flying us around in mechanical dragonflies and creating sand-soaked landscapes yet forgets to explore Paul’s own personal journey. Maybe I’m just not one for the science fiction genre, and that’s fine by me. As someone who knew nothing of Dune before watching it, I was entertained, but not engrossed.

 

The Power of the Dog

Besides John Wayne, many classic American Westerns have another star in common: the American landscape. The gorgeous vistas and mountain ranges that permeate the backdrop to films like Shane, Brokeback Mountain and High Noon may look stunning from afar, but they are treacherous and unforgiving to those who don’t know how to traverse them.


In Jane Campion’s Western, The Power of the Dog, the same could be said of love. Like the torrid landscape, love is a deadly weapon. Beguiling, intoxicating, and deceptive, love often creates a deadly mirage, especially to those desperate to find it. And when we’re in our most vulnerable state, be it in the wilderness or just the wild passions of our hearts, nothing is what is seems.

Set in 1925 Montana, The Power of the Dog centers on ranching brothers who couldn’t be more opposite. George Burbank (the always wonderful Jesse Plemons) is quiet and kind. He desires domesticity and wants to be the hostess with the mostess to politicians and socialites. His brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) craves eternal wilderness. He’s a man who needs to prove his toughness, who can castrate a cow with a pocketknife in a matter of seconds.


A cattle drive finds the brothers and their crew dining at a restaurant run by widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil has a grand ol’ time poking fun at Peter and his feminine mannerisms, telling him to “get human” and nicknaming him “Miss Nancy”.

But Rose and Peter soon become fixtures in the Burbank home when Rose and George fall in love and get married. This sends Phil’s passive aggressive nature into overdrive, which, in turn, drives Rose to depression and alcoholism. This powershift in the dynamics of the Burbank home is threatening to Phil and he extends her no kindness. He slyly creates a toxic environment, where he can maintain control over her and George.


To make matters worse, Phil begins to mend and extend his relationship with the young Peter, which puts Rose over the edge. As truths reveal themselves, this twisty, turny, toxic thriller builds tension in every way, be it normal or sexual. Everybody is hiding something from everyone else, and every action – however big or small – is deliberate. This is a film where every word spoken, and left unspoken, is incredibly important.

As Phil, Cumberbatch really hasn’t been better. He’s no stranger to playing sharp-tongued geniuses, but Phil is different. Projects like The Imitation Game and Sherlock had Cumberbatch playing characters who use cruelty to emphasize their brain power, but deep down you could tell he was good at heart. There’s something broken inside Phil Burbank. He keeps everyone at a distance and only feels comfortable showing his true nature when he’s alone in the woods. Phil is tough on the outside, but he’s no John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Nothing about Cumberbatch screams “cowboy masculinity”, which only serves to emphasize the fact that he’s putting up a façade.


With lofty aerial photography and stunning scenery, The Power of the Dog feels like it takes place in a wonderous exaggeration of the American West – a place where legends are made. However, the movie was actually shot in New Zealand, which ironically does a pretty good job of passing as Montana. It’s just one more way that The Power of the Dog reminds us that appearances can be deceiving, and the most startling truths are often hidden in plain sight.

 

King Richard

In 1994, Venus Williams’ second professional tennis match had her paired against Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the top-ranked tennis player in the world. By that time, Vicario had won the French, US and Australian Opens and had two Olympic medals from the 1992 games. Venus Williams was just 14 years old.


Though Venus lost the match, she and her sister Serena would go on to dominate and transform women’s tennis. She currently has seven Grand Slam singles titles, five Wimbledon singles titles, four Olympic gold metals, and has won more than $41.8 million in prize money. No one could have imagined this young girl from Compton would forever change the world of tennis…no one, that is, except her father.

Richard Williams knew his daughters were bound for greatness before they were even born. In a near 80-page manifesto, Richard made a plan for his daughters to make it out of Compton and conquer the world of tennis. Though he had no formal training, he would read magazines, books and watch televised matches to help coach and train them in the basics of tennis. In King Richard, we follow the Williams family from the streets of LA to the stunning Florida courts that gave birth to these two outstanding players. Produced by Venus and Serena Williams, King Richard is a testament to family, gratitude and faith.


“Keep your stance open.” These words form a steady heartbeat in King Richard. As the patriarch of the Williams family, Richard (Will Smith) demands a lot of his five daughters, particularly Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) who, he believes, are destined for greatness. It’s a running gag rooted in truth. He uses it in reference to their position on the court, but it’s also a bit of a life lesson: stay flexible, stay loose, keep an open mind.

This is rich coming from Richard, a stubborn, close-minded father who is a cross between a helicopter parent and a personal publicist. Running around town in his short-shorts, Richard refuses to take no for an answer. He is endlessly practicing with his girls, come rain or shine, and spends all his free time taking coaching advice from a variety of tennis magazines.


Knowing his daughters are beyond impressive, Richard begins the search for a real coach, hopefully someone who will be impressed enough to do the job for free. Certainly no easy task. Eventually Richard recruits Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal in a loveable role, for once), who agrees to coach Venus, the older of the two, for a percentage of her prize money.

Though Venus is skilled beyond her years, her journey is far from smooth. The path to the American Dream is hard when you’re a poor black family competing in a predominately rich, white country club sport. Plus Richard is adamant that his daughters are not only great athletes, but great, well-rounded people. Humility and humbleness aren’t just words to Richard, they’re unwavering morals.


While most sports movies are about exceptional talent, King Richard is more about exceptional belief. It’s about the conviction of one man and his solid commitment that he could turn his daughters into the world’s greatest athletes. Unlike Rocky or The Mighty Ducks, this isn’t an underdog story, at least not in the traditional sense. Venus and Serena are nothing if not talented from the get-go. Rather, the heart of King Richard comes from the fact that this is also a story about a family that sticks together, no matter what. It’s about overcoming the obstacles of race, class and celebrity and shows us, with immense skill, how to play the long game.

 

CODA

There’s a lot to love in CODA, particularly if you’re a fan of the classic feel-good genre. There’s a loveable family, a snarky best friend, a flamboyant choir teacher, a love interest, and a tear-jerking finale. But, that’s not to say that CODA doesn’t offer anything new. These pillars of the genre are given a fresh, new foundation, told from the perspective of a predominately deaf family trying to exist in a world that won’t listen. This is certainly a film that sticks to the feel-good playbook, then goes a step further to find the pureness in it. You may roll your eyes but, more likely, you’ll be wiping them.

CODA, which is an acronym for Children or Child of Deaf Adults, tells the story of Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), who is the only hearing person in her family of four. Her father Frank (Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, leaving Ruby responsible for translating everything from work requests to health ailments.


As residents of Gloucester, MA, Rudy works alongside her father and brother on their fishing boat, taking to open waters to trap flounder, lobsters and crab all before Rudy has to run off to class. She not only takes on the responsibility of manning the radio, but must also negotiate the price of their catch every day…all before first period.


But the Rossi’s are nothing if not a fun-loving group. They all communicate using ASL (American Sign Language), and like any language, it has its own music. Frank and Jackie may argue over finances, but they’re still in a loving, passionate relationship. The whole family supports each other and knows how to have fun, even if that means passing around Leo’s Tinder prospects at the dinner table.

At school, Ruby is a shy senior with a passion for music. Though her family doesn’t understand her interest in singing, her choir teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) does. Her jazzy, airy pipes can lead her to a college scholarship, if only she can learn to apply herself.


In an effort to get her out of her shell, Mr. V sets her up to sing a duet of Marvin Gay and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By”, along with her crush (of course), Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) at the fall concert. Naturally this means rehearsal time, which leads to Ruby and Miles spending hours in her room, frockling in the water, kissing on the beach…you know, typical teenage stuff. Slowly Ruby’s confidence begins to grow, and she becomes more passionate, and dedicated, to exploring her future in music.

But Rudy is needed elsewhere. Her family fishing business relies on her to translate and interpret. Rudy’s parents, who obviously can’t hear Rudy sing, are unaware of her talent and have selfishly relied on her for years…but they all know that can’t last forever. In the end, everyone is going to have to make sacrifices. Be forewarned, please have all the tissues in your house ready for the last 10 minutes of this film. My husband and I just sat there, holding each other and bawling, then laughing, then bawling again.


For any kid who has ever dreamed of leaving a small town or pursuing a passion that their parents don’t approve of, CODA is the movie for you. It shows us a family with real chemistry, real bonds and real trials and tribulations. In this story about a deaf family, sound becomes obsolete – even for those of us who can hear – because CODA ensures that we see the boundless love that this family shares. After all, this film is not about hearing, it’s about listening…listening to your heart, to your gut, to the voice in your head constantly pushing you out of your comfort zone. Like so many feel-good movies, it’s about the power of love, which radiates through all languages, and really is all we need to get by.

 

SCORECARD

 

Belfast

Wins: Best Original Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Original Song ("Down to Joy"), Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Supporting Actor (Ciaran Hinds), Best Director (Kenneth Branagh), Best Picture


CODA

Wins: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur), Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Nominations: None.


Don’t Look Up

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


Drive My Car

Wins: Best International Feature Film

Other Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Ryusuke Hamaguchi), Best Picture


Dune

Wins: Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Costume Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


King Richard

Wins: Best Actor (Will Smith)

Other Nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Original Song ("Be Alive"), Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Aunjanue Ellis), Best Picture


Licorice Pizza

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), Best Picture


Nightmare Alley

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Picture


The Power of the Dog

Wins: Best Director (Jane Campion)

Other Nominations: Best Production Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Kirsten Dunst), Best Supporting Actor (Jesse Plemons), Best Supporting Actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Picture


West Side Story

Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose)

Other Nominations: Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Picture

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