Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Film: This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Films, Part 1: “To Leslie,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Living” and Deserving Non-Nominee “Bad Axe”

To Leslie (c) Momentum Films

For the next couple of weeks, I will be looking at movies nominated for Oscars that I saw but didn’t review on this site, either because I didn’t have time or I any great takes. I don’t think I will get to all the films – there are some shorts I won’t be able to see and I think I’ll skip the one with the Diane Warren song in it. But I will try to get to most. I will also try (like I will in this column) to point out a film that was shortlisted for a category but didn’t make the final five that I feel are worth your time. Enjoy. 

Film:  To Leslie 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Demand 

One of the biggest surprises of the Oscar nominations was the inclusion of actress Andrea Riseborough for the little seen, but well reviewed “To Leslie.” Even though she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, when the buzz started at the beginning of Oscar voting, pundits acted like she came out of nowhere. The film, about a desperate alcoholic single mother, first premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and Riseborough, a well-respected actress got a lot of praise, but the film only had a small release last fall by the indie Canadian company Momentum Pictures (their biggest title is the Nicholas Cage film, “Mom and Dad”). So, with the help of Andrea’s friends (like Jennifer Aniston and Amy Adams) hosting screenings, posting on social media and Riseborough even getting mentions on other award shows, there was a grassroot campaign that ultimately got her the nomination. Is she that good? Thankfully, Yes. Riseborough gives a very old school kind of performance, losing herself into Leslie, this down-and-out drinker, who has lost all the goodwill of her friends and family (played by Owen Teague, Allison Janney and Stephen Root), and finally has to has to depend on the kindness of strangers, this time a motel manager (Marc Maron, in what I believe is the best performance of the film). The movie’s first hour doesn’t really stray too far from the formula done better in movies like “The Florida Project” (for the struggles of the poor) and “Beautiful Boy” (for addiction), but once Maron shows up, the movie depicts a relationship that feels fresh. And despite an ending that felt beamed in from a different movie, it’s not too jarring and the audience deserves this resolution after experiencing the lows and lows that Leslie has put us through. Her nomination will be the stuff of legends for Oscar historians, but thankfully, it’s also a deserving recognition. 

All Quiet on the Western Front (c) Netflix

Film:  All Quiet on the Western Front 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Netflix 

The Oscars love a good war epic, and in the absence of a viable Hollywood option in 2022, they went to Germany’s submission for the International Feature Oscar, the WWI “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a second big screen treatment of the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque – the first version was a Hollywood hit in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone, and was the first war movie to win a Best Picture Oscar. The German film, directed by Edward Berger, is aggressively antiwar, seeing the horrors of WWI through a young naïve German student named Paul (Felix Kammerer), who with his friends are so swept up by the German patriotic propaganda that they join the army to fortify the Western Front in Northern France. Like most war movies of the modern era, like “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Saving Private Ryan” and as recent as “1917,” the horrors of war are vividly and painfully rendered on screen with limbs and blood and internal organs spewn across the battlefield. “All Quiet” is no different. My main criticism about the film is that the filmmakers are already preaching to the converted, so the relentlessness of these images that war is hell is already overkill, no matter how well produced it is (it certainly deserved the technical nominations like Sound, Production Design, Cinematography and Visual Effects). After a while, I tuned out. To be immersed in the trenches, with each day being a déjà vu, without a proper narrative, is punishing, and while some may criticize the story of Private Ryan in the Spielberg film as superfluous, I believe war films need these narratives to weave in and out of the numbness of the situation. And however well Berger tries to keep us engaged, especially with his secondary story of the armistice talks, the Western Front setting with its yearlong battles becomes exhausting at two and a half hours. And as we witness the horrors of the current war in the Ukraine, it seems that the people who most needs to learn the lesson of this film are not listening. I’m sure it won’t be playing in Russia anytime soon. 

Living (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film:  Living 
In Cinemas 

One of the best movies of 2022 is also one of the quietest. But if you know the work of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro like “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go,” it shouldn’t be too surprising. “Living” is Ishiguro’s reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru,” so it’s odd not to see a single Asian face in Oliver Hermanus’ adaptation which takes place in 1950s Britain. We follow Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy), a pencil pushing, lifetime bureaucrat, doing the same work, day-in and day-out, living with his son and daughter-in-law, both of whom see his presence in their house as a burden. What finally shakes Rodney from his daily routine is a health diagnosis that he has less than six months to live, and while he doesn’t tell anyone, he starts to reassess his priorities and experience life outside his comfort zone, including taking an interest in Miss Harris (a dynamic Aimee Lou Wood from TV’s “Sex Education”), one of the few women in his office who has an ambition for a career change that he would never have considered for himself. Nighy shockingly received his first Oscar nomination this year after such a wonderful body of work, mostly in light comedies like “Pride,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “About Time.” He is heartbreaking in “Living,” as a lonely man who, when faced with his own mortality, is lost since he has never taken his own life into consideration when he was living without a deadline. I’ve never seen the Kurosawa original, which I hear this movie doesn’t deviate too much from, so I can’t compare. What I can say is that with Nighy’s performance and Ishiguro’s sparse Oscar-nominated script, I felt the yearning and regret of a life unlived from this indelible character. 

Bad Axe (c) IFC Films

Bad Axe 
Streaming on Demand 

One of the documentaries short-listed for the Oscars but didn’t make the top five was “Bad Axe,” a rather ordinary, point-and-shoot doc from David Siev, a young New York film director who decided to move back in with his family in Bad Axe, Michigan, at the start of the pandemic and film the experience. What makes the documentary so intriguing is its look at the pandemic of red state America through the prism of a blue sensibility. Siev’s parents own and run Rachel’s, a popular restaurant in town, and David, along with his sisters, try to help keep the restaurant afloat with only takeout and delivery services, as well keep their parents healthy. Since I’m in New York City, where there were so many Covid cases (and deaths) and people took the mandates and protocols seriously, it was an eye opener that even at the beginning of the pandemic, the mostly white community of Bad Axe was offended when the Siev family (did I mention that patriarch Chun is Cambodian and his wife Rachel is Mexican) required that people coming into their restaurant wear masks, even when the guy making the most noise about his right not to wear one is there not to buy food but to use their restroom. Crazy. The second act of the film, like the second act of all our 2020, focused on the Black Lives Matter protests, and what happens to the Siev family shouldn’t surprise anyone. Not groundbreaking cinema, but it is provocative evidence recovered from the ashes of the burning ember of a divided pandemic America that many groups in the future will dispute ever happened.

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