I recently expressed my outraged astonishment at the great tidal wave of critical praise washing over a modest little mediocrity like La La Land.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what in heaven’s name could have inspired such adulation.
One answer that occurred to me is simple.
Look at the competition.
Many are darker than a moonless sky at midnight while La La Land is refreshingly bittersweet.
Many of the others are remarkably inept while Chazelle’s film is smooth and polished.
Take Manchester by the Sea.
(You take it. I, like Bartleby the Scrivener, prefer not to.)
Brilliantly acted, written and directed, graced by an amazing performance by Michelle Williams, it is also painfully slow.
In fact, it’s just downright painful.
Pain, pain and more pain.
Heaped upon a protagonist who will clearly never escape the crippling burden of his past.
I, like one of the few critics with his head screwed on, kept asking myself, “What did I do to deserve this?”
I finished it whistling “Suicide Is Painless” and had to be restrained from rummaging around in the garage for the rat poison I know to be out there somewhere.
Then there’s Moonlight.
Fluid camera work and direction, astonishing acting (take special note of the remarkable Mahershala Ali), and a faint note of hope at the end, but flawed by physical casting in the second of the film’s three parts.
The talented actor who plays the protagonist as a teenager looks less than nothing like “himself” as a boy or as an adult, completely undercutting the important moment late in the film when a friend from his earlier life miraculously achieves the impossible task of recognizing him.
And while I have boundless compassion for those trapped in the sewer of poverty, racism and drugs, I really don’t want to swim there with them.
After the double bill of Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, I pulled myself up out of the slough of despond in which they had abandoned me (and, I suspect, most of the other members of their audiences) by watching That’s Entertainment, Parts One and Two.
It took the likes of Mickey and Judy, Fred and Ginger, Gene, Donald and Debbie (all of whom, unlike Ryan and Emma, could both sing and dance) to remind me that films are, first and foremost, entertainment.
Entertainment that can very occasionally, as it did under the inspired stewardship of Alfred Hitchcock and a handful of others, become art.
So there’s the one explanation for the immense critical popularity of La La Land.
It, unlike so much of the competition, is mildly entertaining and leaves you mildly uplifted rather than desperately wishing you could join Christopher Walken in his game of Russian roulette at the end of The Deer Hunter.
Then, of course, there is rest of the Oscar field.
How did I loath it?
Let me count the ways.
Void of drama or any kind of characterization.
Full of pretense.
Some good performances in an ineptly filmed version of an overrated play.
Denzel Washington might have picked up a few hints on how to translate a work from theatre to screen by studying Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men or Long Day’s Journey into Night.
But he did not.
It begins with hideous nude shots of grotesquely fat women who turn out to be part of a performance art show at a gallery owned by Amy Adams. The nauseating show finally ends, and Amy goes home, where she starts to read a novel by her ex-husband, a novel in which the characters behave like teenaged idiots in a brainless horror film.
What possessed this enormously talented actress this year? After a long stream of great performances, she made two really bad choices, condemning herself to endlessly enter and exit, enter and exit, enter and exit an alien ship shaped like a seed pod…and then, in her other film, to be photographed passively reading a novel manuscript.
If you’ve ever wondered why they don’t make movies about writers, it’s because they don’t do anything you can see except scribble and type. It’s even worse with readers—they just sit and turn pages. What in heaven’s name was she thinking?
A tiresomely familiar structure—a reporter interviewing the film’s subject with flashback after flashback after flashback—and a star who underplays her role so determinedly that the only thing you notice is her Elmer Fudd accent.
So…explanation number two is that with the competition so weak, even a mediocre film looks great.
…and this is a very big but…
THERE WERE SOME TRULY GREAT PICTURES IN PLAY THIS YEAR!
Why is La La Land getting so much attention while these remarkable movies are getting so little?
Florence Foster Jenkins
A masterpiece of a comedy starring one of the greatest of all film actresses, it had me laughing until I cried.
Do you know the story of writer/director George Seaton visiting his old friend actor Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed?
Seaton, who had directed Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, asked him how he was doing, and Gwenn replied, “Dying is hard, George.” And then, after a perfectly timed pause, “But not as hard as comedy.”
Gwenn was right, but the Academy is traditionally loath to acknowledge that indisputable fact, and it’s unlikely to make an exception in the case of this remarkable comedy.
One of the most realistic portraits of war ever put on film, possibly even surpassing the D-Day invasion at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.
A masterwork from a master filmmaker built around extraordinary performances, not just from star Andrew Garfield (he was Spiderman, for God’s sake—who knew he could act?) and supporting actor Vince Vaughn (he’s a comic, a wedding crasher, right?) but from every member of the cast.
But Mel Gibson is still paying for that drunken meltdown years ago. Odds are the Academy isn’t ready to forgive him just yet.
A truly great film about three truly great black women.
Neither the movie nor its stars nor the women they portray have yet received their due.
Tell your friends.
Then see it again.
…and keep your eyes open, once again, for Mahershala Ali and for a Kevin Costner you’ve never seen before.
Hell or High Water
A brilliant portrait of life in today’s West Texas, one that helps the viewer understand the Trump phenomenon, but more important, it’s yet another moral drama from screenwriter Sheridan Taylor, scribe of the dazzlingly brilliant but ineptly titled Sicario.
Like the earlier film, Hell or High Water explores the question of what happens when an individual, driven by the best, most understandable of motives, crosses the line and finds himself engaged in dubious battle.
And it gives us yet another great performance from Jeff Bridges. I remember director Lamont Johnson telling me that when Bridges finished the photo booth scene in The Last American Hero, the entire crew burst into spontaneous applause. I did the same thing at the end of this remarkable film. He is nothing short of a wonder.
And I could say the same for the actress who plays the coffee shop waitress, the one who asks Bridges and his companion, “What don’t you want?” She makes this brief encounter a classic on the level of the famous “Hold the chicken” scene from Five Easy Pieces.
It’s my personal favorite of the four or five films worth seeing in 2016, but it came out in the spring, and the Academy’s memory is as short-lived as a mayfly.
…when it comes to the Academy Awards, we might as well join hands with the membership and sing “City of Stars” each of the fourteen times the cast and crew of La La Land dance awkwardly to the stage.