His truth is marching on

Today is Martin Luther King’s birthday. He would have been 86. Today is also the day the Academy Award nominations were announced. Selma, the brilliant film about King and the Selma marches of 1965, was nominated for Best Picture, but its director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were not, and those are as egregious snubs as any in many years. Here’s my review, which can also be found at San Diego LGBT Weekly:

Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Carmen Ejogo
At your local multiplex

Selma, the film about Martin Luther King and the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, is an extraordinary film: wrenching, inspiring, and impeccably made. As a depiction of one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement, it is also more socially and politically relevant to our contemporary world than any feature film released this year. Its connection to the recent protests against racist police brutality is the reason that Selma is essential viewing and also the reason why so many people who normally wouldn’t give a second thought to historical accuracy in movies have wrapped themselves into the controversy about the film and its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1965, Martin Luther King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years prior he had made the “I have a dream” speech at the Great March on Washington, which helped propel the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But blacks in the South still faced numerous barriers to voting, from being forced to pass absurd tests to requiring a current voter to vouch for them, particularly difficult if there were no black voters around. In 1965, King wanted Johnson to use his rather great political power to pass a comprehensive voters’ rights bill. But Johnson wanted to focus on his War on Poverty that year. This disagreement is inarguably fact, but the fictionalized depictions of King and Johnson’s actual arguments have riled a bunch of white people who can’t bear to imagine Johnson was a cynical politician. (Note: It is inarguable fact that Johnson was a cynical politician. That’s one of the reasons he got so much done.)

The events in Selma, a town with a majority of black residents, only 2% of whom could vote, helped force the Voting Rights Act into existence. Selma is about how that happened, how King’s presence in Selma brought the media, which in turn showed how the Alabama state troopers viciously beat peaceful black protesters who were trying to raise awareness about their disenfranchisement, which in turn brought more protesters and more support, from both Johnson and the American people, for a voting rights bill.

Selma has two main plots. One is focused on the political machinations of the march, both among King (David Oyelowo), Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and intransigent Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and among the civil rights activists from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been organizing in Selma before King arrived. These are fascinating, both because of how they humanize and complicate iconic historical figures but also because they depict pragmatic, sometime even crass, strategizing around events that popular history have made to seem purely about the forces of good versus evil. For example, one of the reasons King and his associates wanted to march in Selma was because they knew that its sheriff would brutalize the protesters, thus garnering sympathy from the nation.

Selma’s other plot focuses on the emotional toll of the civil rights movement. Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), King’s wife, is frustrated by his constant absence, the danger they are in, and how close to the truth the rumors of his infidelity are. King himself wonders if he can ever succeed and whether he will survive. And in smaller, perfectly crafted subplots, the people of Selma struggle – in particular Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and Jimmie Lee Johnson (Keith Stanfield) – for dignity and for their lives. And in the epic sequence focused on Bloody Sunday, the day when Alabama troopers savagely attacked the marchers, director Ava DuVernay brings to life one of the most horrific moments of the 1960s with such skill I was left in tears for the rest of the film and for sometime after.

DuVernay’s work on Selma is tremendous, and it announces a major American filmmaker. Her recreations of well documented events are flawless, but so are her quieter, mostly fictionalized, scenes, such as those between King and Coretta or between Cooper and Selma’s voter registrar. The performances she pulled from her cast, in particular Ejogo, Winfrey, Stanfield, and Oyelowo, are roundly wonderful. What the amazing Oyelowo does as King is to make a legendary and iconic hero into a man – a great, flawed, human man.

Short, not so sweet

JustBeforeLosing_WEBIf you’re like most people, when choosing your Oscar pool picks, you guess on a bunch on them, and definitely for the winners of the three short film awards. For many years, the short films were nearly impossible to see; the compilations of all of the nominees often didn’t show up at theater until after the Academy Awards were given, and they were usually only around for a week. Even after the advent of YouTube and iTunes, it’s still been bizarrely hard to see the films. However, not only are the Animation and Live Action films showing for a second week in San Diego (with the Documentaries opening February 28), but almost all of the films will be available online on February 25. They are worth seeing, and not only to increase your chance of winning the pool.

The animated films are always particularly interesting because they tend not to look anything like the big budget blockbuster animated films put out by Disney and Dreamworks. They’re much more artful, abstract, and complex with characters less likely to have been developed through a focus group of six years. The short films tend to be darker and edgier, but this year, with one exception, they are cheerfully sweet paeans to responsibility, often to pets. The most straightforward is Room on the Broom, which features the voices of Simon Peg and Gillian Anderson in about a witch who keeps adopting more pets (cat, dog, bird, frog), the weight of whom eventually becomes too much for her broom to handle. Also, there’s a dragon pursuing them. The animals and their expressions are cute, but the story is most appropriate for five-year-olds. Mr. Hublot is also about pets, with a very odd, partly mechanical man taking in a robotic dog and dealing with its increasing size. The most interesting thing about the film is the intricate steampunk world the man and dog live in, but there doesn’t seem to be a thematic reason for its setting. Still, it’s visually stunning.

The most gorgeous of the short animated films is inarguably Feral, about a little boy found in the snow by a hunter who tries to civilize him. The film is dark, even creepy, and the drawing, slightly abstracted and reminiscent of woodblock prints, communicates the emotional power of the boy’s confusion and fear. The artwork in Possession is just as effective, using a more finely detailed anime style to tell the story of a samurai who is trapped by the supposedly inanimate objects in an abandoned house where he spends the night. The most likely winner is Get is Horse! which is actually eighty years old, a recently unearthed Walt Disney-drawn Mickey Mouse cartoon. It’s cute and has a few moments ingenious, but it’s also only in this short list because of its creator, not its quality. Feral should win the Oscar, but it’s unlikely with Walt in the mix.

While the animated shorts are actually better than the animated features this year, the live action shorts don’t even approach the excellence of the dramatic features. In fact, only two of them seem Oscar worthy. The highest profile of the lot is The Voorman Problem, which is based on a David Mitchell story and starring Martin Freeman (from Sherlock and The Hobbit films) and Tom Hollander. The latter is an inmate who claims to be a good, and the former his incredulous psychiatrist. The film is so slight it’s basically one a plot twist and the end credits. Do I Have To Take Care of Everything? is about a Finnish family that has a lot of trouble getting ready for a wedding. It’s cute and silly. That Wasn’t Me is not cute or sweet; it’s viciously violent, wildly over-acted action film about Spaniards kidnapped by child soldiers in Africa. It’s a subpar Blood Diamond.

Helium, in Danish, is one of the good shorts. An angelic boy dying of an unnamed disease in a hospital is befriended by a bearded, oversensitive orderly who tells him stories about a magical land called Helium where people go when they are no longer alive. As Enzo the orderly, Casper Crump is enormously charismatic and heartbreaking. As good is Leá Drucker in the French Just Before Losing Everything, a tense, unnerving depiction of the several hours before a battered woman and her children escape her husband. She is fierce, unflappable, heroic, and Xavier Legrand’s direction is flawless. He will win the Oscar.

The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animation
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action
Various writers, directors, and actors
Not Rated
On iTunes February 25

Hobbits, Slaves, and the French

hobbit-bilbo630-jpg_045907There are way too many movies released in December. Luckily, most of them are the good ones up for awards consideration.

Last week, the San Diego Film Critics Society, of which I am a member, chose Argo as the best film of the year. It also won best director (Ben Affleck), best adapted screenplay (Chris Terrio), and best editing (William Goldenberg).

While that movie was released more than two months ago, many of the movies that we nominated for multiple awards were released in the last few weeks or haven’t even been released yet. So, I have been to a lot of review screenings and watched a lot of special “For your consideration” DVDs. I have seen some amazing films. But it’s frustrating that so many of the good ones all arrive at the same time. It’s hard to see all of them and give them their due. And it’s why I’m reviewing three new movies this week instead of just one. Continue…

My 10 favorite films of 2011

[Note: In a different form, this was supposed to run in LGBT Weekly last week, but it was cut for space.]

Before you read through the list of my 10 favorite movies of 2011, I want to provide you with a disclaimer. I haven’t seen every movie that came out this year. Yes, part of the reason is that many of the movies that are probably going to be nominated for Oscars only open in New York and Los Angeles before January 1, and they won’t open in San Diego for weeks. However, there are also some movies that have opened in San Diego that I should have seen but haven’t had the time or something was preventing from getting to the screening. For example, I ran out of gas on the 15 on the way to see Tintin. (I didn’t see until after it had been out for three weeks.) Some other big movies that I haven’t seen that could have made this list include War Horse, Take Shelter, Melancholia, A Separation, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, the reason Hugo, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Shame aren’t on the list that I just didn’t like them that much. And I really liked Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but not more than the other ten in this list.

With all of that in mind, here are my favorite movies of the last year.

10. The Help. I could not resist the easy morality of this story of a quiet revolution waged by black housekeepers in early 1960s Mississippi. Viola Davis’s quiet suffering is almost agonizing to watch, while Octavia Spencer is funnier than anyone in Bridesmaids. But most of the white characters are nearly as interesting or layered. (On DVD.)

9. Albert Nobbs. It doesn’t open in San Diego for several weeks, but I managed to see a DVD screener of this quiet and intense drama about gender politics in Victorian London. Glenn Close’s uncanny and deeply moving portrayal of the sad, scared butler Albert Nobbs is the one of the great performances of 2011.

8. Bridesmaids. Easily the funniest movie of the year, Bridesmaids is not just about female friendship, but also class warfare, gender politics, and food poisoning. Melissa McCarthy steals every scene she’s in as the bizarre butch future sister-in-law. The film’s jokes are neither cruel nor racist, as they were in the movie I hated more than any other last year, The Hangover, Part 2. (On DVD.)

7. Heartbeats. Barely anyone saw this stunning French Canadian story of a bisexual love triangle. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, who also starred in the film, it’s gorgeous, avant garde piece of art that seems impossible to have come from someone only 21 years old. (On DVD and Instant Netflix.)

6. Beginners. It’s a gay movie made for straight people – it does little too much Homosexuality 101 – but as Ewan McGregor’s father who comes out after turning 70, Christopher Plummer is as sweet and giddy and confused and awake as a kid in a candy store. Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the movie, uses some brilliant editing and witty voiceover to make something extraordinary, moving and funny. (On DVD.)

5. Drive. A violent, searing, and ultimately gorgeous homage to 1980s LA noir films like American Gigolo and Blade Runner, Drive is also Ryan Gosling’s best performance of the year, and that’s saying a lot. Taciturn, serene, and dressed a bit like Steve McQueen in Le Mans, as the Driver Gosling is the new ultimate example of cool.

4. The Artist. A silent movie about the silent movies, and as good as the best silent movies made at their height, The Artist is an exquisite, perfect film that features a performance by Jean Dujardin that is so charismatic and sexy that when the movie is finished, you want to watch it all over again just to stare at him.

3. Moneyball. How could a movie about baseball statistics be so enthralling, even exciting? The answer is Brad Pitt, who plays former Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane when he revolutionized baseball recruiting. Pitt is funny, arrogant, nervous, sly, and sexy; it’s a marvelous movie star performance.

2. The Tree of Life. The winner of the Cannes Film Festival, Tree of Life divided audiences, half of whom thought it was pretentious nonsense, and half of whom thought it was a masterpiece. I’m in the latter camp; I cried in awe during the film’s montage of the history of the universe. A meditation on family, anger, creation, and memory mostly set in 1960s Texas, the film still haunts me six months later. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain will be rewarded for other movies this year, but is in The Tree of Life that they did the best work of their careers. (On DVD.)

1. Weekend. I will just repeat what I wrote in my review three months ago: “It is about what it is like to be gay and in love now. It is an immediate, intimate, and honest examination of love, sex, and longing in 2011. It’s also gorgeously shot, sensitively acted, and sexier than any gay film I can remember. Andrew Haigh’s sensitive direction and editing and Urszula Pontikos’s cinematography turn what is basically a two-person parlor play into an intense, almost epic work of beauty.” It’s my favorite movie of the 2011. (On Instant Netflix.)