Full disclosure: I saw Ford v. Ferrari at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. I enjoyed it. It was probably in my top three movies there. But you know what? I never got around to writing a review for it. I just wasn’t inspired. I still haven’t figured out why.
I loved the cars. I remember chasing after the Ford GT40 in Gran Turismo and/or Forza (driving games from the late 90s or early 2000s) and it being totally worth the “work”. And like those games, Ford v. Ferrari puts the viewer in the driver’s seat at the legendary 24 Hours of LeMans (which, coincidentally, was one of the races I had to win in my video game quest, with lots of pauses).
I love the story. It’s based on true events as designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) team up with the Ford Motor Company to build a car that is able to compete with Ferrari’s racers. It’s a classic underdog tale twice over, as Ford had no racing pedigree at the time, and Ford wanted no part of Miles. But as often happens in movies and in real life that becomes movies, these spare parts were thrown together and triumphed against all odds – sort of. Ford got its trophy, Miles got the short end of the stick, and Shelby made a whole lot more classic cars, many of which you’ve seen in other movies (Bad Boys’ Shelby 427 Cobra and Gone in 60 Seconds’ Shelby GT500).
I liked the film. Damon and Bale have a nice chemistry. The script is clever and funny. The story translates well to the big screen. The effects are great.
And yet, Ford v. Ferrari would never have been in my list of best picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. It makes sense; it is a deserving nominee. I guess there were just a number of other movies this year that appealed to me and connected with me more than Ford v. Ferrari. Us, The Farewell, Knives Out, Ad Astra, Bombshell and Honey Boy, to name a few. But there are only so many spots. Ford v. Ferrari is really good, so I guess just make sure to see the others too!
Sean and I have had our eye on a tiny, forgotten movie theatre in the basement of a local shopping mall. It only shows films during mall hours, and it’s strictly second-run stuff: this is where movies go to die, these are their last breaths at the box office, and the last chance Sean and I will have to see them in theatres before the Oscars which ARE THIS WEEKEND. It’s where we saw Richard Jewell last week and it’s where we caught Bombshell this week. It came out just before Christmas, and between holiday prep and Rise of Skywalker, we never got around to it. Plus, word was that it was kind of a lame movie that housed some good performances. Of course once those Oscar nominations came out, the movie went from back burner to the pressure cooker: see 38 movies before February 9th, some of which aren’t in theatres and hardly where, and certainly not in this country or in a language that I speak (and that’s not counting the shorts!).
So when I finally got around to seeing Bombshell, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. True, Bombshell is all flame and no burning embers; it deals with the headline-grabbing sexual harassment case at Fox News circa 2016 and though it does justice to the headlines, it doesn’t offer up a lot of meat. However, it does an excellent job of spreading the heat and accounting for the experience of many.
Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is right in the middle of the blast. Having been with Fox in one capacity or another for years, Gretchen finds herself demoted, and reprimanded for covering stories deemed by network president Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) to be ‘too feminist’ and criticized for not upholding beauty standards when she dares to do one episode makeup-free. She’s seen the writing on the wall and when she’s let go in June of 2016, she’s ready with a lawsuit accusing Ailes of sexual harassment. She’s confident that once she breaks the ice, other women will come forward, but she’s forgetting just how pervasive the culture is at Fox news.
Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Roger’s golden girl, the tough reporter recently taking heat for questioning Trump’s behaviour toward women during a debate, has remained silent. No support for Gretchen, but none for Roger either, though the entirety of the organization seems to pressure her. Instead, she’s searching for the truth, quietly speaking with other women about their own experiences. Eventually she’ll make her way to Kayla (Margot Robbie), a composite character of a new girl trying to climb her way up the ladder. It’s pretty clear whose “ladder” she’ll have to “climb” in order to get anywhere – but ambition and livelihoods are inextricably tangled up in this thing, and it’s fairly clear that any woman who comes forward will have a permanent stain on her record, untouchable by any other network for having dared to make a complaint against her boss. That’s just not something women are allowed to get away with.
It’s shocking, actually, that it’s the women of Fox of all places that really got something done. They haven’t toppled the patriarchy; there were plenty of other white men to replace Ailes in more ways than one. Director Jay Roach shows how pervasive the boys’ club can be, and how women have been denied their own network by constantly being pitted against each other. There’s too much history here for any one film, too much damage to uncover let alone comprehend. Still, I like the attempt. I like all three of these performances even if Kidman got shut out of awards season. What I dislike is that this very important story told (written and directed) by men. Which kind of misses the point altogether.
In so many ways, Waad al-Kateab is a young woman just like you and I. She went to school, left home, fell in love, got married, had a daughter. But al-Kateab’s milestones are happening amidst the backdrop of the Syrian war. For five years she has had her camera trained on the uprising in Aleppo and she crafts this documentary as a love letter to her young daughter so she may know just what her parents were fighting for.
This is an intimate, female portrait of war, a side of the story rarely reported. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit is the film that got me thinking down this path; war stories are so often told from the point of view of the soldier (1917 is a good one), but for the women and children left behind, life goes on. Life: complicated and confusing, but there is no pause button. Children grow out of shoes, and tape idols on their bedroom walls. Mothers cobble together meals, and try to create some semblance of a happy home. For Sama is a story that is ongoing, and real. Waad al-Kateab is a real wife and mother telling her story from war-torn streets. Bombs are dropping around her but she slow-danced at her wedding just like you, peed on a stick just like you, felt her belly swell not just with baby but with hope and happiness, but tinged with a filament of fear always burning from within. She plays peek-a-boo with her baby just like you, but flees from a barrel bomb dropped on her by her own government with her baby clutched to her breast. But she loves her country just like you, believes it is worth saving. Her husband, a doctor, tends every day to the wounded. There are always new wounded. Sometimes the body bags are so small. It is endless work. So is the balancing of parenthood and principle, the urge to flee the city to protect their daughter’s life, and the conviction to stay and fight for what so many have already sacrificed so much.
It feels so alien to face such choices, and yet one image stops me cold: sock feet in a pile of bodies. Sock feet that could easily belong to anyone. Must I (we?) relate to those who suffer before we feel compassion? It’s so easy to dismiss this conflict as “their” problem but the boundary between us and them is illusory at best. We are all brothers and sisters, and if this documentary helps us walk a mile in someone else’s socks, it has done its job.
Sama is a toddler with big, gorgeous eyes. She was born during war. She knows nothing else. A loud bang erupts as another bomb explodes nearby. Her mother flinches, crouches reflexively, but Sama doesn’t react at all: a baby who doesn’t cry at a loud noise? Sama doesn’t know this is wrong, this is scary. She thinks this is life. Who will be left to tell her otherwise?
Hair Love: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. & Bruce Smith
A father does his daughter’s hair. Normally I’d be extremely dismissive – these types of videos go viral all the time, the world falls over itself to applaud dads for attempting the things mothers are expected to do on a daily basis. HOWEVER. Hair Love is not really about a father patting himself on the back, it’s about a little black girl named Zuri who wakes up wanting to look extra nice on this special day. She follows an online tutorial from her absent mother’s hair blog, but wrangling her hair is challenging and things don’t go well for Zuri or her dad. A black woman’s hair is a special thing indeed, tied up in her identity and her culture, a symbol of her status, perhaps fraught with difficulty. But Zuri just wants to honour her mother; she already knows that hair does not make the woman. Inspirational and sweetly animated.
Kitbull: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Rosana Sullivan
A scrappy young street cat (well, kitten) and a pit bull trained to be vicious form an unlikely bond and experience friendship together for the first time. It brought a tear to my eye. Though it’s by Pixar (SparkShorts), the 8 minute film is 2D, every frame hand-drawn and hand-painted. Available now on Disney+.
Brotherhood: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Meryam Joobeur
Mohamed, a shepherd, is deeply shaken and a little suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home from Syria to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The black sheep of the family returns on the same day as an actual sheep is found slaughtered. Families are tough things to navigate and Mohamed’s is no different. He is mistrustful of this new woman, covered head to toe in a niqab, and even of his son, one of 3 red-headed brothers played by real-life red-headed brothers, a jarring sight out in this hard-scrabbled land. He doesn’t approve of Malek’s decision to fight in Syria but it’s clear their relationship has always been fraught. Brotherhood has stunning cinematography and a meaty script but neither will soften the blow when Mohamed learns how costly assumptions can be.
Walk Run Cha-Cha: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by Laura Nix
Paul and Millie recall their youth in Vietnam, where ‘foreign music’ was so romantic and sexy, and dance parties at home were illegal. They fell in love but were separated when Paul’s family fled the communists. They lost their youth and their young love to the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but 40 years later they have reunited in California and are rekindling their romance on the dance floor. Through one couple’s love story, Laura Nix teaches us about the immigration process and what it takes to relearn the language of love and make up for lost time. In their golden years, Paul and Millie finally have the time, energy, safety and security to learn what it means to enjoy life.
Nefta Football Club: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Yves Piat
In the south of Tunisia (again with Tunisia!), two young brothers and ardent football fan brothers bump into a donkey just chilling out in the middle of the desert on the border of Algeria. Oddly, the donkey is wearing red headphones (and yes, listening to music). The donkey is carrying bags of white powder (flour, they wonder? laundry detergent?) – they ditch the donkey and bring the powder back to their village, where their friends are playing football.
The Neighbors’ Window: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Marshall Curry
Exhausted, frazzled, middle-aged parents Alli and Jacob are mesmerized by their curtainless neighbours in the next building. While they breastfeed and wipe up poop and serve up meals that don’t get eaten, the two pine for their youth by spying on their young, horny neighbours across the street. This film is about envy more than voyeurism, well-acted and slick as hell, two people who are so busy that they’ve forgotten the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is Curry’s third nomination so it seems unwise to discount him.
Life Overtakes Me: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
Over the last 15 years, hundreds of traumatized refugee children in Sweden have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Life is so hard they withdraw into a coma-like state, unresponsive, sometimes for years. It’s like their little bodies can only take so much. Children need security, not uncertainty, to recover after a trauma, but for refugees, security is a long time coming. Watching these kids waste away is tragic. What is happening here? And the scariest part is that their families are still facing deportation. Imagine caring for a comatose child as a refugee? Those kids are frankly not likely to survive. But with anti-immigration sentiment growing in Sweden, and asylum laws getting stricter, the outlook isn’t positive. This documentary had me asking questions I’d never even thought of before, and combing the internet for answers. Stirring and urgent, Life Overtakes Me is available on Netflix.
Some of these are available to watch on Youtube, legally and for free – check out my Oscar-nominated films playlist.
Thirty-two years after his film Sabor (Flavor) came out, writer-director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is just coming to terms with it. He hasn’t seen Sabor’s lead actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) since it premiered 3 decades ago but the cinemateque has recently restored the film, labelled it a classic, and viewing it with fresh (well, older, wiser, more experienced) eyes, Salvador decides maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet.
It is clear that Salvador is taking stock of his life. He’s not well. But his recollections suggest that his life has rarely been without pain of some kind. As a talented choir soloist, he was educated by the priests and taught his book learning to others. But geography he learned by traveling the world as a successful director. And anatomy he learned through pain and illness. When he reconnects with Alberto we assume he’s making amends but resentments still run hot and what is actually exchanged is heroin.
Antonia Banderas is the picture of a tortured man. Riddled with pain he can no longer make movies. But without shooting, his life has no purpose. To hear those truths is to understand a man who is resigned to the end. His character has come full circle in a lot of ways, a lot of ways that are painfully obvious as a play about his youth is staged and brings out forgotten friends. We learn so much about his fears and motivations and how a man who has made his living telling stories is now grappling with his own. And in many ways, this role brings Banderas full circle from the role that first garnered him attention from American audiences as Tom Hanks’ lover in Philadelphia. This time Banderas is front and centre, earning himself his first Oscar nomination for his restraint, consideration, and tenderness.
Dolor Y Gloria is like a vise on my heart for every shred of his own humanity that master film-maker Pedro Almodóvar pulls from his experience and uses to paint the screen with sorrow and redemption. Using heroin is referred to as ‘chasing the dragon’ but this film chases after so much more: compassion, reflection, grief, making peace. Almodóvar still knows how to engage us, but in this he surprises us, and perhaps even himself, with the authenticity in his unflinching self-examination.
Contrary to popular opinion, I do not see every single movie in the world, but usually I do at least know about them. Not much sneaks by me. So when this particular movie managed to snag an Oscar nomination (for original song), I was like: huh? Sean thought it might be “one of those religion ones” but it wasn’t until I saw the poster that I remembered it at all, indeed a religion one, starring Chrissy Metz from This Is Us (Randolph & Beth forever!). I’m glad to see her branching out but it wasn’t for that pesky Oscar nom, this one would 110% have passed me by,
Chrissy Metz stars as Joyce, a Christian mother who offers up the kind of teasing prayers during dinner that make husband Brian (Josh Lucas) smirk. But her son John (Marcel Ruiz) is a teenager, determined not to crack a smile. He’s in an eye-rolling phase. An avid basket ball player at school, John is also struggling with his origin story, having been adopted from Guatemala while Joyce and Brian were there on a church mission. Meanwhile, Joyce is at odds with the new “cool” young pastor at her church, Jason (Topher Grace). Jason has a spiky haircut and references The Bachelor during sermons and says things like “Dope!” He wears the same kind of headset microphone that Britney Spears wears and has rock bands with auto-tuned rappers sing “hymns.” Oh he’s shaking things up.
Meanwhile, the movie is determined to establish itself as not just a Christian movie, shelling out for pop songs by Bruno Mars and Macklemore; John is a kid like any other, saving a pristine pair of Jordans for an occasion so special that only he will know it when he sees it.
I happened to notice a Stephen Curry listed as a producer and wondered if it could be THAT Curry. I wondered even more when the all-star was mentioned by name – the Warriors would be in town to face Kevin Durant and the Thunder. This places the film for me immediately, in the season just before Durant joined Curry on Golden State, the very same season when Sean and I traveled to OKC to see Durant face Lebron, then playing for Cleveland, and then we drove down to Dallas to see them play the Warriors. We were traveling in December, for Sean’s birthday, and a snowstorm here in Ottawa meant we almost didn’t make it, touching down in Oklahoma with just minutes to spare. I remember the valet at our hotel apologizing for their unseasonably cool weather but of course it felt downright tropical to us. But in St Louis, MI, it was cold enough for a lake to have frozen, but warm enough that a trio of teenage boys were out playing on it when the ice gave way and John went down.
After an hour with no breath and no pulse, the doctors draw the logical conclusion; they’ve only worked this long to keep him decent for his mother to arrive and say goodbye. Her frantic prayer is heard, or else this movie wouldn’t be much of a movie, and a pulse reappears from nowhere. But his brain was starved of oxygen for far too long. In an induced-coma, his parents are prepped for his inevitable vegetative state. But you know that Joyce isn’t about to let that happen. She badgers his doctors just as much as she badgers the lord.
He recovers of course. That’s a foregone conclusion in a Christian film. Religion isn’t my thing and neither is an entirely predictable plot. But I will begrudgingly admit that Breakthrough has a whole mess of admirable performances. And interestingly for a movie that attributes John’s recover to god’s miracle, it dares to ask why god saves some and not others, which is one of religion’s great quandaries. Of course Breakthrough doesn’t have an answer, but I give it credit for even voicing the question.
And push come to shove, it’s now an Oscar-nominated film, for a song called I’m Standing With You, performed by the esteemed Chrissy Metz and written by Diane Warren. And Diane Warren is not to be messed with. She’s got 11 nominations under her belt, including for chart-busting songs like Because You Loved me, from Up Close and Personal, performed by Celine Dion, and How Do I Live from Con Air performed by Trisha Yearwood and I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing from Armageddon and performed of course by Aerosmith. The woman is a songwriting powerhouse. Will this be her year? Check it out:
Undeniably beautiful, but her competition is fierce:
Stand Up, written by Joshuah Brian Campbell & Cynthia Erivo, performed by Erivo for the movie Harriet
From Toy Story 4, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, written and performed Randy Newman, a man with 20 Oscar nominations and 2 wins under his belt (Toy Story 3‘s “We Belong Together” and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc.)
Also from Disney, Into the Unknown, performed by Idina Menzel and AURORA, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez who have two previous Oscar wins for “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Remember Me” from Coco.
And of course (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again from the Elton John biopic Rocketman. Written by John (who has a previous win for The Lion King’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight) and Bernie Taupin, performed by both Elton and Taron Egerton. It took the Globe – will it take the Oscar as well?
Brazilian film-maker Petra Costa is in her 30s, and just a little older than democracy itself in her country. Her parents were activists and briefly jailed for their convictions when military regimes still governed the country. This film blends political documentary with personal memoir as she recounts her family’s political and social entanglements while studying the dramatic collision between two Brazilian presidencies.
Costa voted for Lula da Silva but watches in dismay as scandal and corruption engulf his presidency and he scrambles to compromise and resort to alliances with the oligarchy that he’d always railed against. And yet Brazil prospers: the economy thrives, the poor are lifted up. When he leaves office two terms later, his approval rate is at an all-time high. He anoints a predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, and she is elected thanks to an even stronger alliance with PMDB, who appoints her vice president. She starts her presidency strong but the socio-political climate of Brazil is changing, as it is in many of the world’s democracies. The people are waking up, and Rousseff scrambles to regain credibility by initiating a sweeping investigation into corruption.
As one president is impeached and another imprisoned, the country is further destabilized. It is clear as Costa narrates this film in the first-person that she is watching her country descend into turmoil and worries that democracy itself is crumbling. When you witness some of the illogical but fervent rhetoric being flung around in its media, it reminds us rather alarmingly of Trump’s disregard for the rules of democracy and the parameters of the presidency.
Brazil is on the edge of democracy, perhaps teetering back toward dictatorship. Costa narrates an angry and intimate portrait of this tumultuous time; it is one-sided to be sure, personal and impassioned. And yet the country’s split into two seemingly irreconcilable factions feels all-too familiar and if nothing else, The Edge of Democracy should be viewed by Americans as a warning shot against the increasing polarization of their own country. This documentary is a portrait of democracy’s demise, but Brazil isn’t the only country in danger of rolling down this hill.
The Edge of Democracy is nominated for an Oscar in the documentary (feature) category, alongside American Factory, The Cave, For Sama, and Honeyland. Which do you think will win?