2019 Oscars: Diverse and Divisive

Women won in record numbers this year! Hurrah for Regina King, Rayka Zehtabchi, Hannah Beachler and RuthE. Carter

From the get-go, the 91st Academy Awards courted controversy by announcing Kevin Hart as this year’s Host. The Academy should’ve done it’s homework. People remember when you’ve said homophobic slurs; especially when posted on Twitter. To make matters worse, the Producers thought to make the show shorter by awarding a few categories featuring less glamorous nominees, i.e., cinematography, editing, make-up and hairstyling, and live-action shorts, off-camera.

After significant uproar from the film community, the Academy President reversed that decision and the Show went on, without a Host.

This year’s program was one of the most diverse–both in Oscar Winners and the rainbow of Presenters. There was Serena Williams, Senator John Lewis, actors and musicians, both young and old. Black Panther was the first Super-Hero film to be nominated for Best Picture, and was awarded Oscars for Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter) and Best Production Design (Hannah Beachler). The two women made history as African American women winning awards in non-acting roles. Regina King’s win for Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk and Mahershala Ali, Green Book added to that celebration of diversity.

Billy Porter, star of the TV series Pose, broke gender norms with his tuxedo-inspired ball gown. Melissa McCarthy, Awkwafina, Amy Poehler, and Elsie Fisher walked the red carpet in pantsuits. The cast of Crazy Rich Asians was featured in many red carpet interviews. There were moments of triumph for Egyptian Americans (Rami Malek winning Best Actor), Iranian Americans (Rayka Zehtabchi for Best Documentary Short), a record number of LGBTQ-inspired films nominated, and Mexican Director Alfonso Cuarón applauding “…the Academy for recognizing a film centered around an indigenous woman. One of the 70 million domestic workers in the world without workers’ rights.”

There was some disappointment that Glenn Close didn’t win and silly gossip about Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s music performance and whether it signified an affair.

The show went along at a nice pace with some great acceptance speeches. Then the envelope for Best Picture was opened and Green Book was the Oscar winner! This film that landed one of it’s stars, (Viggo Mortensen, nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga) in hot water for use of the “N” word. Green Book was also boycotted by the family of the real Don Shirley. Was this another film about a White Savior–did it create drama with altercations that never happened so that the white character could come to the rescue? Spike Lee, after his triumphant win for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlackKKlansman, turned his back on the stage and later said, “the ref made a bad call” and “every time someone’s driving someone, I lose” — referring to Driving Miss Daisy.

Did Roma, the Best Picture film favored to win, not garner enough votes because it was produced by Netflix? Was the Old Guard Hollywood voting with it’s pocketbook and trying to protect theaterical screening? Alfonso Cuarón had a great response. “For me the conversation about theatrical is super important… I’m a filmmaker. I believe in the theatrical experience. But there has to be diversity. The multiplex theatrical experience is a very gentrified experience. You have one kind of product with few variations. It’s hard to see art-house films. It’s hard to see foreign films. Most theaters play big Hollywood movies.”

As Cuarón told IndieWire before the Roma premiere at the Venice Film Festival last August, the main reason he went to Netflix in the first place was because no other platform that would globally release a black-and-white, Spanish-language drama featuring a cast of mostly unknown actors.

The 2019 Oscar’s may have escaped the #OscarsSoWhite label this year, but we still have some work to do to change hearts and minds. Diversity and inclusion are important, but the Academy needs to continue to welcome younger voters who’ll embrace the changing dynamic of today’s film culture.

Inspired Cinema in 2018: Innovative, Universal and showcasing flawed human beings as Heroes!

72 film tickets which doesn’t include films screened for festivals, shorts watched on my computer or any of the 15 films watched on Netflix, rented from Redbox or DVDS!

This was a wonderful year for movies. No matter how you consumed them: via Netflix, at your local cineplex or at a starry Festival premiere, there was a broad array of offerings. A few of the sequels were as good, if not BETTER than the original films (Paddington 2, Incredibles 2, Bumblebee), our comic book films celebrated diversity and empowerment (Wonder Woman, Black Panther) and it was a banner year for documentaries (RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Free Solo).

My favorite movies this year were two beautiful black and white films that transported me to another time and place with amazing cinematography and rich storytelling. Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski‘s tragic love story tracked lovers thru a decade of Polish folk music to jazz in Paris. It was in the small moments when a stillness seemed to freeze frame the characters so we could study their emotions. The lush cinematography and the amazing, luminous performances of Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot really drew me in. The film had a documentary feel and was almost as moving as my favorite films from 2013, Ida, by the same director.

 Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s personal film about life in an upper middle-class Mexican family home is also shot in black and white (by Cuaron). Told thru the eyes of the caring family helper (both maid and nanny), Roma reveals how the personal and the political impact and influence everyone’s lives. The casualness of how a normal day can be shattered by violence, transformed by a brush with death or unite a family to battle a brush fire; while the family tries to maintain security and stability. We may not suffer as much trauma but it’s a universal struggle to protect those we love that everyone can understand.

There were some astounding films this year. I was so moved by A Beautiful Boy (Steve Carell and Timothy Chalamet), and Ben is Back also explored the drug crisis with searing performances (Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts). Welcome to Marwen and Annilahation were visually stunning as was the sweet Paddington 2. Into the Spiderverse was a zany Pop Culture Spiderman that we didn’t know we needed.

There were some great explorations of race and gender this year in film. My favorite was Blindspotting. I had to see Black Panther and Wonder Woman twice! And cheered for RBG AND On the Basis of Sex. One of my favorite moments at the movies this year was Edna Mode in The Incredibles 2 transforming into Aunt Edna and hustling the exhausted Dad (Bob, trying to be a Super Dad) back home. I felt that this year, the movies gave us some heroes that were flawed and all the more likable for it. Our society is changing. How we perceive ourselves and others is changing. Our films should too.

There may well have been other films I would’ve ranked in my Top 10 if I’d made one, but I know I missed seeing some great films this year: Madeline’s Madeline, Happy as Lazzaro, Private Life, The Rider, Support the Girls, Let The Sunshine In, Capernaum, Never Look Away, Burning, and Shoplifters.  A few I’ll be able to see on Netflix or Hulu, and a few that may still screen at an arthouse cinema somewhere.

Follow me on Instagram for snapshots of films as I see them.

See you at the movies my friends!

Jill ranks the films she saw at the Telluride Film Festival

If it seems to exist on a higher plane, this is not just a matter of altitude. Mostly it is the kind of place where, for one long weekend, all anyone wants to talk about is movies. There are no prizes, and therefore no juries; no market, no press screenings, no red carpets or paparazzi photo calls. The ethos is open and egalitarian. –A.O. Scott, The New York Times

There’s no way to see all the films you want to see at the Telluride Film Festival. Once you’ve accepted that, you’ll find that what you do see–is often more enriching or more thought-provoking than what you may have chosen on your own. After attending for five years, I’ve learned to seek out the smaller films and hope to catch some of the studio films at later festivals or when they come to the theaters. Sometimes though, it’s just a matter of what film is playing in the theater you’ve ushering at…or the next available screening that’ll fit into your schedule…or the one film where you might not have to wait too long in the rain. C’est la vie!

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I was lucky to see 12 films out of the 37 in the Main Program. I’ve listed them in order of my enjoyment level. Please remember that I didn’t see First Man, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Destroyer…or the smaller films I wished I’d seen like Shoplifters, The Biggest Little Farm, Girl, The White Crow and Fistful of Dirt.

  1. Roma: Alfonso Cuaron (writer, director, cinematographer) I was fortunate to see two beautiful black & white films enveloped in non-stop smoking and wonderful music back-to-back; Cold War and Roma. It’s rare that I submit to an almost 2 1/2 hour film without feeling that there should’ve been an intermission or some serious editing. I was so immersed in this story of a young Mexican woman caring for an upper middle-class family and anticipating the unfolding turmoil about to descend upon them all. This was a true labor of love from Alfonso Cuaron; a tribute to the woman who raised him as well an odd to his biological mother trying to find her place in the world.
  2. Cold War: Pawel Pawlikowski (writer, director, Oscar-winner for Ida) This was the most beautifully-shot film I saw at the festival. A tragic love story set in Poland and Paris, we watch as the couple perform folk music under a political watchdog, traveling to Russia. Years later, they’re reunited in a life of jazz and booze. But the reality of life with someone who’s had to compromise too many times leads to a tragic return to Poland. Love can triumph over politics but can it survive the loss of your soul?
  3. Ghost Fleet: Shannon Service, Jeffrey Waldron: Documenting the horrifying reality of men imprisoned on fishing boats in the Indonesian sea, this film was a revelation to me. Focusing on the brave team lead by Patima Tungpuchayakul traveling to surrounding islands to rescue men who’ve fled slavery in the seafood trade, there’s a tension and tenderness to the footage. The horrors that these men face is compounded by the shame they feel about not wanting to return home, penniless and broken. Truly an amazing, inspiring film.
  4. Trail By Fire: Ed Zwick: 12 years on death row for a Texas man who’s low-class hard-living ways have blinded the legal system to his innocence and genuine love for his children. Jack O’Connell is mesmerizing in his performance of a man losing his soul but finding some meaning in his connection with Elizabeth Gilbert (played with great depth by Laura Dern). She starts a crusade to overturn his death sentence. A moving true story to make us rethink the death penalty.
  5. Boy Erased: Joel Edgerton (director, script, co-star): Lucas Hedges is a soulful young man trying to reconcile his same sex attraction with his family’s Baptist faith. When his preacher father (Russell Crowe) sends him to a religious conversion center, we meet the clients, many forced into treatment by their parents. Based on the autobiography of Garrad Conley, the painful revelations and vicious abuse heaped on the teens rings true. Joel Edgerton plays a masterful misguided leader who doesn’t just believe in praying away the gay; but also, beating out the devil of same sex sin. Nicole Kidman, the loving mother who comes to realize her son deserves understanding instead of punishment, is a welcome relief to the trauma. The closing scene between father and son is truly touching.
  6. The Favourite: Yorgos Lanthimos: I must confess to not being a fan of director Lanthimos’ work but this film was wicked and odd and sometimes wonderful. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne of the 18th Century British court as a simpering, needy bully. Her companion, Rachel Weisz as Lady Marborough, keeps the Queen in check with flattery and sexual companionship. When her poor cousin shows up in court (the versatile Emma Stone), her position as “favourite” is threatened. Gorgeous costumes, some scathing lines and wacky antics kept me amused. The cinematography (low-light, fish-eye, wide-angles) was distracting but the long takes of Olivia Colman’s mournful face held me in thrall.
  7. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache: Pamela E. Green: Bravo to this intrepid woman, Pamela E. Green! Upon seeing a documentary about early filmmakers, she wondered why she’d never heard of Alice Guy-Blache. When she discovered that not only her pioneering role in cinema, but also her films were not recognized by history or her peers, Green started this passion project. Connecting long-lost family members, discovering treasure troves of archival footage and recordings, Green seeks to restore Alice Guy-Blache to her rightful place as the first narrative filmmaker; and the first woman filmmaker! This is a fun fast-paced documentary that should be a must-see for any film lover.
  8. The Old Man & The Gun: David Lowery: A delightful film about an unrepentant bank robber and jail breaker played by the legend Robert Redford. The charm of this film is in the relationship between the thief and his comrades-in-arms (Danny Glover and Tom Waits), the detective who doesn’t want to catch him (Casey Affleck) and the woman who falls for his charms (the delightful Sissy Spacek). The real kick is that this is based on a true story. The sad news is that this is Robert Redford’s last role…what a great swan song.
  9. The Front Runner: Jason Reitman: Gary Hart, played with a nice head of hair by Hugh Jackman, gets his comeuppance in this political drama about the power of the media. Vera Farmiga portrays the much-wronged wife who must deal with the media circus and the sensationalism that can destroy a career and sideline not only a man’s run for office but also a nation’s chances for a flawed leader who may have made a big difference in politics.
  10. Eldorado: Markus Imhoof: Swiss filmmaker Imhoof interweaves his childhood relationship with an Italian refugee, a child sheltered by is family in World War II with a look at the overwhelming plight of refugees from Africa. His argument; that these immigrants are supplying low-paid labor to harvest food that is then subsidized and undercuts the economy in their own countries. A tragic cycle of economic slavery and hardship.
  11. Christian Wahnschaffe, Part 1 & 2: Danish silent filmmaker Urban Gad: Restored prints from 1920, this drama of class struggle with religious allegory was accompanied by Stephen Horne playing piano, flute, accordion with various thumping and strumming to great effect. A fascinating look at well-realized story where the acting, though broad, is still emotional.
  12. Graves Without A Name: Rithy Panh: The noted Cambodian filmmaker has created a tone poem to remember the thousands of lives brutally and agonizingly ended in the genocide there. Beautiful images of white paper prayer flags fluttering in the wind and carved faces to represent ghosts of those lost float in the water or appear in the tree’s bark. They represent those bodies lost in mass graves or never recovered as they were left to decompose on the land. A meditation on death and remembrance in a cyclical telling over 2 hours.