Fresh off last night’s glittery Golden Globes, the Oscar nominations will be announced on January 14. While we wait with gay bated breath, here’s my take on some of the major contenders floating around for your consideration—and don’t forget to add the “big black dingus” of The Hateful Eight and the big star crawling up the disemboweled horse in The Revenant.
Mad Max: Fury Road
I’m the only one on earth who not only didn’t think this stylized action epic was brilliant, I couldn’t tolerate it and bolted for the nearest refreshment stand. I thought the movie was torture—but maybe that was the point.
Remember The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard as a new arrival who’s tricked into a life of squalid prostitution? Well, Brooklyn is the flip side of that. Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish girl who comes to New York and immediately has a job, a place to live, friends, and Mr. Right. The big conflict is that another Mr. Right pops up, elsewhere. Sound horrid? It isn’t. It’s actually beautifully done and very sensitive, with Ronan giving a lovely performance—though it’s the kid at the dinner table who really steals the film. And there’s another reason to like a movie about a happy immigrant: Donald Trump will hate it!
Talk about scene stealing kids! Jacob Tremblay is a genius! He plays an inquisitive boy who’s in captivity with his beleaguered mother, and right off the bat, you’re in the thrall of a bracing vision. Things are so fascinatingly bizarre that I actually expected a sci-fi twist to pop up, but even without it, this is the kind of fresh experience it’s best to encounter without a lot of advance hype or information. Just go, knowing that Brie Larson and Tremblay give two of the most powerful performances of the year and you’ll appreciate being held captive with them. Thanks to this and The Hateful Eight, it’s a big year for being stuck in cabins.
LGBTs got sublime art direction this year, as in this beautifully filmed Todd Haynes-directed adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel about a young girl (Rooney Mara) blossoming under a more mature married woman (Cate Blanchett) in the 1950s. Some intrigue develops, but the film is mainly about longing looks and tactile exchanges on the road to awakening. [SPOILER ALERT] And isn’t it great to have a film about LGBTs who aren’t doomed? See my encounter with Todd Haynes below this list.
The Danish Girl
Again, gorgeous art direction in this Tom Hooper-directed tale of the first transsexual, Danish artist Einar Wegener and his encouraging wife, Gerda. Each frame is picturesque and the performances by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are committed, but as the movie progresses, things become more rote, which is strange since the subject mater is so extraordinary. A comment from a film critic friend of mine: “Swanning around like you’re Lana Turner doesn’t make you a woman!”
Lots of eye-opening private footage fills this excellent doc about Amy Winehouse, who’s depicted as a startling jazz singer who became trapped by fame and mistreated by self-serving folks aiming to cash in around her. Don’t say “No, no, no”—make sure to catch this film and you’ll love the woman even more.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Way before Winehouse, we had Nina Simone, a fiery singer with classical roots who ended up putting an indelible stamp on material like “I Loves You Porgy,” “Ain’t Got No” (from Hair), and her own tunes like “Mississippi Goddamn” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” A supreme stylist, Simone joined the civil rights movement as an angry activist, and her radical views ensured that she wouldn’t get booked on prime-time variety shows. After a marriage to an abusive control freak, she ended up working a small French club for a pittance, few in attendance realizing the depth of her legend. This doc captures all of that and more, and is as much a must-see as Miss Simone herself was.
Straight Outta Compton
A tough, compelling look at NWA, the hiphop group that came about in the ‘80s, speaking harsh truths about ghetto life and oppression while standing up to authorities and getting mass approbation in the process. The film deserves its own kudos. By the way, the Oscars came under fire for their minimal racial inclusion last year, so this year they’ve nabbed Chris Rock as host. If they don’t abet that by honoring deserving African American nominees, it’ll be extremely embarrassing.
Writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle have fashioned the life of the brilliant Jobs into a three-ring circus built around a trio of presentations of Apple product through the years, all masterminded by Jobs. Each time he tries to triumph with his new merch, he’s confronted by a succession of disgruntled coworkers or family members, all chewing him down right in front of frothing onlookers. This conceit initially seems contrived, but it’s more refreshing than a traditional biopic, and it’s interesting to see Jobs’ personal battles turned into theater, bolstered by the fact that Sorkin’s script crackles. Michael Fassbender sparks up the screen and the initially unrecognizable Kate Winslet amuses as his conscience. Alas, the public didn’t necessarily want to know that a media mogul is a schmuck—or maybe they just didn’t care.
This procedural about the real-life coverage of the Roman Catholic church sex scandal by a trio of Boston columnists isn’t the all-time classic they’re saying it is, but it’s a tough, watchable piece blessed with the year’s best ensemble, and the front runner to cop Best Picture. As people methodically going about either uncovering or living their story, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Michael Cyril Creighton are unbeatable. Interestingly, you learn that the Boston Globe sat on the story for some time, and also that another paper had it first. That adds to the film’s intriguing complexities.
Can a movie be both the best and the worst? In this case, yes. The sequence where Joseph Gordon-Levitt—as high-wire artist Philippe Petit--does an amazing aerial walk between two World Trade Center Towers in 1974 is breathtakingly put together and so convincing you might fall out of your seat watching it. But a lot of the peppy, goofy back story leading up to it prompts a gigantic “Who cares?” and feels as weightless as Petit himself was. The Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire captured the man’s pesky textures better, and also included way more context about the sad state New York City was in, and how its residents came to feel they needed this stunt.
Beasts of No Nation
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s account of an African child swept into fighting in a civil war, this is grim, powerful stuff, with Idris Elba especially memorable as the sadistic commandant. Not for twinks.
The Lady in the Van
Crusty old bag pulls up in playwright Alan Bennett’s driveway and stays there. (True story.) Nothing too thrilling here, except that the lady is played by Dame Maggie Smith, quirks and all. But things don’t really simmer until there are literally three Alan Bennetts…well, don’t let me give it away. Drive up for yourself, if you’re in the mood.
Gay director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, Looking) has whipped up a studied and absorbing look at an older married couple’s relationship as it strains to survive revelations surfacing about decades-old doings. The premise might sound a bit arch, but you buy it, especially since 1960s Brit screen icons Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling are incredibly affecting as the seemingly caring couple who find their dynamic rocked forever. I saw this art house winner twice, and could easily spring for a third.
Lily Tomlin plays a cranky lesbian whose granddaughter needs cash pronto for an abortion, so they set out on one of those only-in-the-movies road trips to get it, and in the process basically take a tour of Lily’s life and loves. But the formulaic premise gives way to lots of wonderfulness, mainly because Lily gives a master class in screen presence, and the screenplay sprinkles in some quirky delights to help her shine.
David O. Russell’s film about Joy Mangano, the real-life woman who became rich and famous selling mops on TV, is a wonderfully quirky comedy about oddball people for much of the time. But then, as Joy makes it and then has to single handedly fight the bad guys, it becomes a way more conventional type film that, in lesser hands, could have come off like a Lifetime movie. “Woman wants to make it…woman makes it…woman has to deal with it.” But just like Joy’s mops are special (you never have to touch the head of them), so is the fact that this movie features march-to-their-own-drum talents like Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, and Virginia Madsen. Anchoring it all is Jennifer Lawrence, who surprised everyone with her character performance in Russell’s American Hustle, but here goes back to effective naturalism. Camp lovers should look for cameos by Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and Melissa Rivers (as her mother).
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel lend their stellar presence as a retired conductor and his filmmaker friend who discuss their morning peeing rituals at an Alps resort. And as a big star with issues, Jane Fonda rivets in her one scene, brilliantly telling off Keitel with fire and brimstone. But otherwise, this dramedy by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) is full of cutesy and/or clichéd encounters posing as avant garde, not to mention pseudo profound insights (“We are all extras.”) It’s all rather lovely, but as strained as a plate of pasta.
Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore Discuss Carol (SPOILER ALERT)
I enjoyed reconnecting with Todd Haynes at a party for Carol the other night, hosted by Julianne Moore (the costar of the year’s other big lesbian film, Freeheld). When I thanked him for making a film about LGBTs who weren’t doomed, he replied, “Patricia Highsmith started that. It was in her book. So that came to me in the script and with Cate Blanchett attached, so it was a no brainer.” [Haynes had directed Blanchett as folk singer Bob Dylan in 2007’s I’m Not There.] And did anyone pressure him to change the plot’s trajectory to something more negative? “Oh, God, no,” Haynes answered. ‘”And what I love about the ending is there’s still the element of the unknown. They’ve both been knocked around by life, and they come back on more equal footing, but you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Speaking of the unknown, Haynes said that debuting Carol at Cannes last May and getting such an enthusiastic response was “a fairy tale experience, and everything that’s followed has been so great. But nothing quite matches [that first exposure]. When you first unleash your film on the world, you don’t know what you have. You know it better than anyone, but you also know it the least because you can’t be objective about it.”
Well, the night before this one, Carol had copped Best Picture, Best Director, and two other awards from a very objective group, the New York Film Critics Circle. Haynes said the ceremony went great and that Alec Baldwin presented the award to him. “WHAT?” I shrieked, knowing that Baldwin, while being a leftie liberal who publicly supported gay marriage, has indulged in some gay-slur-based outbursts, one of which got him fired from MSNBC. “Did he call you a [f-word]?” I asked sardonically. “Yes, he called me a [f-word],” said Haynes, playing along. “No, he didn’t! He knows a lot about movies. For his speech, he recited from one of my interviews.” “And did you actually choose him to present to you?” I wondered, surprised. “No,” he said, “but Julianne’s been doing so much already and she was presenting to Kristen Stewart last night, so I didn’t want to abuse her. You don’t like Alec?” “Well, he’s talented,” I conceded, “and maybe this can be part of his redemption.” “We’ll give him that,” agreed Haynes.
Just then, in walked Alec Badlwin.…Kidding! Julianne Moore arrived and said she found Carol “beautiful and grounded and eloquent. It’s about who we love and why we love them. It’s what we build our lives on.”
Preying When They Should be Praying
A far cry from Carol’s celebratory loving, some disturbing same-sex activity is the core of Spotlight, about the 2002 newspaper revelations concerning the Boston church pedophilia scandal. At a panel discussion during a lunch for the film at the Harvard Club, costar Michael Keaton praised director/co-writer Tom McCarthy, saying, “He had to take this plane down through a very narrow canyon.” Keaton explained that it was important that the film’s tone not be “pompous or righteous or look-at-me or showoffy, with really touchy, delicate subject matter,” and McCarthy managed to pull that off with his careful approach. Moderator Tom Brokaw cracked, “A lot of people will say, ‘You can’t be a journalist without being pompous.’ You can’t bury that too deeply.” But Brokaw said he appreciated Spotlight because in the TV show The Newsroom, “every line was meant to be pasted up [on a billboard],” whereas McCarthy injected “doubt and uncertainty” into the film’s mood. With an eye towards awards, Brokaw addressed the panel by concluding, “We wish you the very best when the big one comes in L.A.” “The earthquake?” joked Keaton.
Sad sidebar: At my table, a Spotlight producer revealed that an Oscar-winning actress in her 70s told him that the film really hit home for her because, as a child, she’d been molested by a priest. Yes, girls have been victimized, too.
Luft is a Many Splendored Thing
Female empowerment was the key at Lorna Luft’s amazing act at Feinstein’s/54 Below last week. “I stand here grateful and fearless and triumphant,” said Lorna as her cancer doctors (and everyone else) cheered their guts out. “Girls, I gotta say we’re gonna win!” Lorna certainly did with her show, which was moving, funny, and powerful from beginning to end. “Who knew I’d be back in the basement of Studio 54?” she cracked at the outset. “This time, I’m going to remember it!” She went on to belt a variety of standards, from a deliciously vengeful “Goody Goody” to a soulful “Moon River”, her pipes and energy every bit as strong as before her cancer battle. “I had a surgery that…on a scale of one to Caitlyn Jenner, was an eight!” deadpanned Lorna, who then launched into an apt and beautiful version of “Cockeyed Optimist.” She also talked about mama Judy Garland (Lorna said she was hot and heavy with songwriter Johnny Mercer, even though he was married and Judy was about to marry someone else), and sister Liza (During a medley of classic songs that were weirdly not Oscar nominated, the band tinkled “New York, New York” and Lorna said, “But a certain relative of mine keeps singing it!”) She ended with a rousing version of mama’s “Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” after which I tracked Lorna down in her dressing room and said, “I can’t even name highlights in your act because the whole thing was a high.”
Another New York moment involving Rodgers and Hammerstein: While I was hanging out at the long running West Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis the other night, Scream star Neve Campbell showed up with her actor brother Christian Campbell. As the pianist launched into Sound of Music tunes and the crowd started mass yodeling, my eyes lit up and so did Christian’s. Excited, he told me, “Neve and I saw this movie 18 times when we were kids!” Big deal. I saw it 19 times.