The Oscars are just around the corner; meanwhile, the Oscar nominees are heading home, taking advantage of the buzz. Of the nine Best Picture contenders, Fences, Hidden Figures, La La Land and Lion are still in theaters only, as the rest are either settled in (Hell or High Water, the lone nominee released outside of the fall awards season, has been available for three months now) or making their way onto Blu-ray and DVD.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, my guess is that Moonlight will come away with two on Sunday, for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’ll still be playing in theaters next week, but Blu-ray is an optimum way to see it, as there are several special features that further texture the experience. I saw it at the New York Film Festival, with director Barry Jenkins and the entire cast in attendance, including the three outstanding actors who share the main role of Chiron as he ages acrosses the three movements of the story. They all make appearances here, in the trio of supplements that touch on the making of the movie, its eclectic, Oscar-nominated score, and filming in parts of Miami unseen in most features, and Jenkins offers a wide-ranging commentary as well. Movies this delicately assembled and impressionistic rarely bubble up into the popular culture beyond arthouses, yet Moonlight has managed just that. It might be the story, about a boy’s coming to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality amidst a difficult upbringing and hostile institutions, within a supportive, self-sufficient community that skirts the law. (There are no significant white characters, and the “savior” figure, an open-hearted drug dealer played by presumptive Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, is an unusual one.) It might be the way it’s told, with Chiron observed at a trio of key moments in his life, and characters dropping out of the story or returning with new perspectives. Or it could just be the overall excellence of the production, including Nicholas Britell’s short, savory score and matchless performances by Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s tormented mother, and Ali and Janelle Monae (both in Hidden Figures as well), as the parental figures he intersects with. Whatever gets you into Moonlight, there’s magic here, and it stays with you.
I saw Manchester by the Sea the same day I saw Moonlight at the festival, so that was a Saturday well spent. Both films gain from rewatching, but Kenneth Lonergan’s affected me differently the second time around. Casey Affleck’s sad- to-the-bone performance is still wrenching, the big reveal (relatively early in the film, a surprise) still horrific, and Michelle Williams’ standout scene with ex-husband Affleck still piercing. I found myself appreciating the humorous elements more, with Lucas Hedges’ adolescent pangs pulling focus from the tragedy, which may have been Lonergan’s intent–the movie, like his other films and plays, is all about the untidy mess of life, in its frailties, terrors, occasional amusements, and fleeting triumphs. You absorb the worst of it first, then see a fuller picture emerge from the gloom. Few movies can touch Lonergan’s overflowing, overwhelming Margaret (2011) for impact, yet this is a sturdy companion to that and You Can Count on Me (2000), and I figure Affleck and Lonergan’s original screenplay will come home winners. Extras include an OK commentary with the writer-director, a typical “making of,” and six minutes worth of deleted scenes that are interesting insofar as that critics who saw the film at Sundance last year said that Lonergan’s post-festival tinkering hurt the movie. It seems to have worked out in the end.
This year’s Foreign-Language Film contest is between The Salesman and Toni Erdmann, and I give the edge to the Iranian competitor, which has become a political football in the Trumpian era. (That aside, it’s still a good movie, though I prefer the slow-burning, then explosively funny, German comedy.) The also-rans are the negligible Land of Mine and the little-seen Tanna. Smack dab in the middle is A Man Called Ove, which is total Foreign-Language Film Oscar Bait, being the story of a grumpy middle-aged widower, the terror of his housing development, who is brought back from the edge of suicide by a feisty Iranian neighbor, a cat, and other winsome disturbances. Total Foreign-Language Film Oscar Bait–but quite agreeable nevertheless, with tear-inducing flashbacks to better days for Ove, a few laughs from his cantankerousness, and an all-around splendid performance by star Rolf Lassgard. The actor’s all over the DVD’s supplemental features, which also highlight his very subtle makeup (he’s pretty much the same age as Ove, yet looks quite different)–and I wonder if the detailed explanation therein didn’t help win the film its second nomination, for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. It pays to advertise.
Loving is another evocative slice of regional American cinema from writer-director Jeff Nichols, of Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and another film from last year, Midnight Special. The difference is that this is a true story, of the Virginia couple who fifty years ago invalidated the country’s state laws prohibiting interracial marriage in a series of legal challenges that ended with a Supreme Court victory. Adapting the fine 2011 documentary The Loving Story, Nichols tells the story in his usual undemonstrative but forceful way, allowing Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Oscar nominee Ruth Negga) to speak for themselves–something of a challenge, as Richard is laconic, and almost unknowable in why he bucks the system, and Mildred is gracefully stoic throughout. Yet the movie is very much in their authentic voice, and their courage in the face of humiliation and setbacks is inspiring, and never oversold. It’s a good movie, in terms of quality, and of the values imparted, and confirms Nichols as one our leading talents. He’s heard on a commentary track, as he and other principals, including co-producer Colin Firth, discuss the production and the landmark court case in short supplementary features.
Other nominees this week…
The Before Trilogy: Finally, Richard Linklater’s beloved series of romantic comedy-dramas comes to Blu-ray as a beautifully packaged set, with all the trimmings the Criterion Collection can muster atop lovely transfers. Linklater’s more concentrated Boyhood (2014) received greater acclaim for its harnessing of the clock, but Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) go the distance with Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), in and out of each other’s lives for stretches, yet bound by a commitment that’s passionate, frustrating, and, well, timeless. (Sunset and Midnight were both nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.) Movie lovers can only for a continuation in a few years. “Before” then: Gorgeous transfers for all three movies; a sitdown with the three principals moderated by critic Kent Jones; lots of behind the scenes footage; an excellent documentary from last year about the filmmaker, Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny; a handsome booklet with a thoughtful essay, “Time Regained,” by Dennis Lim; and the proverbial much, much more, a feast for fans and another definitive edition of Linklater’s work for the label.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film, Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 comedy, a classic, was the breakout smash that launched the irrepressible Spanish filmmaker’s international career. (It helped co-star Antonio Banderas’, too.) His films have gotten more serious (and mannered) over the decades, but here everything is in perfect balance–the screwball, ribald antics of a depressed TV actress (the great Carmen Maura) and her friends have a genuinely poignant quality, too. Designed to the eyeteeth, in scrumptious colors, the movie has never looked better than it does now as a Criterion title. Extras include incisive interviews with Almodovar, Maura, Almodovar’s producer brother Agustin, and film programmer Richard Pena, on the seminal movie’s mise en scène.
Something Wild: In 1956 Carroll Baker was nominated for an Oscar for the title role in the wickedly funny Elia Kazan/Tennessee Williams collaboration Baby Doll. She deserved a second for 1961’s Something Wild, in tandem with her husband at the time, Actors Studio mainstay Jack Garfein. Garfein, a Holocaust survivor, put everything he had into this film and his debut, 1957’s The Strange One; he made no other features. But they are extraordinary, challenging norms and pushing against convention, and in their mid-80s both Garfein and Baker are still around to tell the tale of Something Wild. Baker is a rape victim, adrift and suicidal in a bleak Manhattan, who is “rescued” by a mechanic (Ralph Meeker). Her subsequent imprisonment leads to psychodrama and unexpected reversals, brutal and tender, and they act the hell out of the fraught situations. (The all-“Method” cast includes Jean Stapleton.) The movie shocked me with its frankness when I first saw it on DVD; on Blu-ray, Eugen Schüfftan’s black and white cinematography has a harsher beauty than I realized, and the entire presentation is uplifted. A highly recommended walk on the Wild side, with great Criterion extras: New interviews with Baker, which takes in the scope of her varied career, and Garfein, on the film’s autobiographical underpinnings and collaborating with Saul Bass and Aaron Copland on the titles and music; film scholar Foster Hirsch on the Actors Studio and Method acting; and a fascinating inside look at a master class on acting that Garfein held in 2014.
The Man Who Skied Down Everest: Winner of the Best Documentary Feature award at the 1976 Oscars (the first sports-related doc to win), this is another fine HD rescue for The Film Detective, which now has a streaming service. I’m glad it was on the case for this beautifully, and dangerously, realized portrait of Japanese skier Yuichiro Miura, an alpinist who attempted a perilous 40-degree run down Mt. Everest’s treacherous South Col face (parachute included). Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and its 1984 sequel, reads from Miura’s diaries as the losses mount and his dream seems unattainable. This is a stirring saga, and the transfer is as sharp as the mountain air. (Miura, now 84, went on to summit Everest three times, at ages 70, 75, and 80, and is the oldest person to have done so.)
The Forest for the Trees: Toni Erdmann Oscar nominee Maren Ade made her film debut with this student effort, in 2003. (It picked up a prize at Sundance two years later.) Like her current film this isn’t a comfortable sit, as a misfit teacher’s bid for independence in the big city runs afoul of nasty students and troublesome new friends. Based on stories Ade’s teacher parents told her, the film is funny in spots (not “ha ha funny,” as they say) and hardly the usual reassuring teacher movie. It does announce a talent in the offing, however. The DVD, a welcome reissue, includes a short film from the UK, Estes Avenue.
Seasons: The Oscar-nominated team behind Winged Migration (2005) and Oceans (2009) return with another wondrous documentary, this time examining the forests of Europe over the course of an eventful “year”–a year where man first makes his presence known to the bears, wolves, and lynxes, to our dismal, smoggy, urban winters, which theaten to close off the circle of life. The messaging is ham-fisted. The visuals, however, are spectacular (no zoom lens “cheating” here; filmmakers Jacques Perrin, a veteran actor as well, and Jacques Cluzaud mix it up with the wildlife at close range) and if you can put the well-meant ecology lessons to the side the disc is an excellent complement to your viewing of Planet Earth II, with some fascinating “how they did it” supplements.