(To see the results of last year’s Grouches, go here. For the year before, go here. To see the first Grouches, which also carries a significantly more complete version of my criteria, go here.)
Last year, we at the Grouches decided that we were going to go whole hog into being Oscars counterprogramming and for that reason have excluded non-Anglophone cinema from non-American or Commonwealth nations. Last year, Drive My Car was a likely casualty; this year, those casualties include RRR and BAFTA darling All Quiet on the Western Front. So it goes. No TV, which is basically summarized as “Does it feel like TV?” Again, if you want more detailed rules for this game, you can check out my intro from last year or, for the fattest prose, the first Grouches.
The Grouches award a full-size galvanized metal trash can to the winners in the following categories, which are limited to five nominees and one winner unless otherwise noted: Best Picture, Best Director, Outstanding Actor (twenty nominees, four winners), Best Casting, Outstanding Screenplay (ten nominees, two winners), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Mise-en-scène (a combination of Production Design, Costume Design, and Hair and Makeup), and Best Music. The Grouches also apologize in advance to the film directed by Todd Field starring Cate Blanchett for the fact that nowhere do I use the little acute accent over the “a,” because I don’t have a computer that allows me to do alt-codes.
Anyway! Pomp! Circumstance! Let’s do it to it!
Best Music: Benediction
- Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
- The Banshees of Inisherin
- The Fabelmans
Moonage Daydream was the first film out.
Not an outstanding year for film music, I wouldn’t say, and again the film music that I’m most compelled by is not from original scores but from compilations and specific usages. (I am embarrassed by how close Moonage Daydream, a truly middling little mess of a documentary, came to breaking into this category.) That’s what The Fabelmans is doing here; Mitzi is a wonderful pianist, but her artistic aspirations are, truth be told, not so high. There’s technical skill there, but the pieces are old favorites, drawn down to prettiness from overuse. The scene where the men in her life work together to cut one of her fingernails because they’ve been clacking on the piano keys is one of the better ones in the film; it speaks to the aesthetics of this character, limited as they are. Apollo 10 1/2 gets some credit for not simply doing the same tired set of ’60s music. Linklater has always had an ear for picking different songs than the same old same old, and his soundtrack for Apollo 10 1/2 is so overwhelming that I have to respect it. Fifty-six songs! Even more than the occasional (and unnecessary) little comments about how things were different in the ’60s, these song are a cumulus of signification rather than the curlicue cirrus that soundtrack stuff like this usually stands for. Shockingly, two of the nominees are just soundtracks. Nope has a great, pounding, uncanny score and some nice soundtrack work here and there; it’s a film where the sound design and the score really feel like they belong together as opposed to being synthesized for one another. The Banshees of Inisherin is not good, but it’s not Carter Burwell’s fault. His soundtrack, plunky, a little wry, slightly unsettling, does more for that film than anything Martin McDonagh gave it. However, it’s a Terence Davies year, and I’m not sure there’s a director living who uses music better than Davies. He’s got this beautiful little throughline between Ivor Novello performing “And Her Mother Came Too,” a witty and repetitious little number, and then much later using “Typically English” as a similar song some decades on. The film begins with The Rite of Spring and ends with that most emotive passage from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” and both are eminently appropriate for what Benediction is after. It’s funny, for one thing, to begin a film about Sassoon with a bassoon, but for another The Rite of Spring exemplifies this moment of chaotic nostalgia right before the war came that turned nostalgia into a way of life for those who were lucky enough to have one postwar. And then, that passage from “Fantasia,” grafted onto the use of Wilfred Owen’s “Disabled,” combining what is probably Owen’s best poem with the unbearably intense elegy of strings…and then there are Davies’s figures. First, the double amputee in the wheelchair, fidgeting, looking into a dying dusk, and then Sassoon, young again, in uniform, fighting a sob, losing, fighting a sob, losing, fading into the darkness. The poet disappears as someone else’s music and someone else’s poetry persist around him. If it were this one scene, it would have been enough to win this category.
Best Mise-en-scène: Nope
- The Munsters
- Three Thousand Years of Longing
Prey was the first film out.
The winner of this category this year is very different from the other four nominees. Benediction and Tar go together, even though they are set a pretty cool hundred years apart. Both of them favor these sets and costumes of opulence, albeit opulence as the people of the time would recognize it. In Benediction, that means beautiful tuxedos, thin suits for thin men, tasteful eyeliner, swooping hair, handsome knickknacks and table decorations. In Tar, that means clean, hard lines, vast spaces, tastefully varnished wood, absolutely precise outfits and hair that dangles sweatily or limply as a sign of personal feeling. And the other two, perhaps even more hilariously, belong together. Three Thousand Years of Longing creates these thrilling sets for the djinn’s stories, rich costumes, delightful hair and makeup. The Munsters, on the other hand, is delightfully cartoonish in much the same ways. The sets are enchanting, the costumes in their own way as precise as those in Tar, and of course the makeup work makes the film sing. If good mise-en-scène brings you into the world of the picture and holds your hand firmly, then The Munsters is very, very good mise-en-scène. Nope stands out. Modern like Tar, but OJ Haywood is more likely to meet Herman Munster on the street than Lydia Tar. I love the sandiness, the vastness of the set of Nope, the way that even our human heroes are forced to use goofy tricks on the ground to defeat the predator in the sky. (The design of that predator, incidentally, is spectacular.) A lot of credit goes to the Jupiter’s Claim sets, which perfectly encapsulate this tired tourist trap wistfulness, the kind of place that you go to for a respite for boredom and yet feel stuck with within the first thirty seconds. I can still recall the way that TV set from the first section of the movie looks, especially from under the table; part of that is a function of the spectacular horror of the moment, but just as much of it comes from the microwave cooking quality of the multicam set. Jordan Peele has shown a gift for settings and costumes throughout his career, and this is probably his best work on that front.
Best Editing: Alex Mackie, Benediction
- Stephen Rivkin, David Brenner, John Refoua, and James Cameron, Avatar: The Way of Water
- Nicholas Monsour, Nope
- Monika Willi, Tar
- Margaret Sixel, Three Thousand Years of Longing
Thirteen Lives was the first film out.
After a documentary winner last year, I really struggled to think of a documentary that excelled in editing the way that Attica excelled. Welcome back to the field, narrative features. I was drawn to longer movies for this award this year; Three Thousand Years of Longing, which has five distinct pieces (discovery of the djinn by Alithea, three prior mistresses, the romance), is a good twenty minutes shorter than the next-shortest competitor. The one that I’m shocked hasn’t received more love this awards season is Avatar: The Way of Water, which is put together so well on a micro and macro level. If screenplay and editing work together as the spine of a film, that which provides structure, the thing which is really holding The Way of Water together is the edit. Maybe it’ll never be held up as the clinical, professional piece of work that other Cameron movies are held up as, and I’ll grant that compared to T2, we’re not playing the same game. But I’d take the edit on The Way of Water over the cut of its predecessor. That Poseidon Adventure sequence which separates the family and then brings them back together is emotional because of how it’s arrayed, not because of what’s said, and it’s thrilling and comprehensible for the same reasons. There’s only one Oscar nominee in this group; Monika Willi emphatically deserves the Oscar that I don’t expect she’ll get, and I had her as the winner here for a minute before I ultimately switched over to Benediction. Mackie’s work is so incredibly smooth, building this sense of slipping into time, going neck deep, and rising out of it again with dribbles of time running down your back.
Best Casting: Tar
- Confess, Fletch
- The Woman King
Prey was the first film out.
I went back and looked at the other nominees from the past three ceremonies, and I think this is probably the best group since the 1st Grouches (for 2019 releases). The Woman King and Confess, Fletch would have had an honest shot at last year’s title, even though neither one is particularly close to the top of my list here. The Woman King, with that enormous cast to pull from, struggles a little bit to get good men in the movie; I could have stood more swoon from the Jordan Bolger part and a little more malice from the Hero Fiennes Tiffin part. On the other hand, Gina Prince-Bythewood just got the best performance of John Boyega’s career out of him, and Jimmy Odukoya is spellbinding as the snarling, dangerous, huge leader of the men against Dahomey. (I had this thought during the final fight between Davis and Odukoya which I almost never have during action movies, which is “How is she going to beat him?” He’s got a good six inches on her, and as chiseled as Davis got for this movie, Odukoya looks like he could play running back in the NFL. It’s a great twist on a scene which often feels stale.) This is still a chemistry award, and there is a terrific web of chemistry between the four leading women in this movie. Viola Davis is great with Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch, and Thuso Mbedu; Mbedu is great with Lynch and Davis; Atim is great with Davis; Lynch is great with Mbedu. As for Confess, Fletch, that’s another movie with delicious chemistry. Jon Hamm, as it turns out, has chemistry with everyone, even the people he only shares a couple scenes with. Those of us who watched Mad Men know that there are two kinds of people who pop sharing the screen with Hamm: women and Jon Slattery. Fortunately, that covers most of the people in Confess, Fletch.
With apologies to Nope, which I think we’ll remember as being a film with Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, and Brandon Perea, but which is way deeper than that with good performances, this came down to The Woman King, Benediction and Tar. As much as I like the Benediction cast, with its stable of handsome lads playing hurt boys, a lot of what appeals to me about that cast has more to do with the screenplay than the people saying it. (Peter Capaldi doesn’t look like Jack Lowden, but it’s not inconceivable to imagine Lowden drying up and squishing himself into Capaldi’s thinner carapace. Alternately, Gemma Jones is a fine replacement for Kate Phillips, and Anton Lesser a mildly inspired one for Calam Lynch.) Tar is the right answer. It’s Blanchett in total command, Nina Hoss and Noemie Merlant scrambling to grasp what repulses them, Julian Glover looking like a farty old marshmallow and sounding almost like one, Allan Corduner shriveled and despairing, Sophie Kauer soft and pretentious with youth, Mark Strong in a hairpiece so bad it’s great. Last but not least, the exquisite Gwydion Lashlee-Walton of Tar, Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist.
Best Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister, Tar
- Nicola Daley, Benediction
- Katia and Maurice Krafft, Fire of Love
- Hoyte van Hoytema, Nope
- Janusz Kaminski, The Fabelmans
Three Thousand Years of Longing was the first film out.
Chalk another one up for Tar, although this is a closer competition than Casting. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more surprised at an individual nomination for the Grouches than I am for Janusz Kaminski, whose photography usually makes me want to tear my hair out. Turns out the guy can, in fact, shoot a movie sinuously and without the same two tricks of lighting that he’s such a mark for. The Fabelmans moves with aplomb and holds still with politeness; the camera slows down for Michelle Williams and gets unsteady, almost irritable when Paul Dano is at the center of the frame. And that last shot…funny! One of the best endings of the year, a single motion charming and self-effacing. The Kraffts, whose footage fills Fire of Love, were good filmmakers. I think it’s probably fair to say that any idiot can make an erupting volcano look good, can involve us in the hypnotic spell of watching magma rebirth itself as lava, the undeniable orange that you can watch blending from red and yellow in real time, the foreboding grays of volcanoes more pyroclastically inclined. The Kraffts have something of Herzog in them. The comparison here isn’t Into the Inferno, amusingly, but Lessons of Darkness. The Kraffts and Herzog are both good at drawing us to the flames, the incandescence of implied destruction, and yet their photography is not designed for wonder but for us to grasp the meaning of those things. The one I feel like an absolute idiot for not putting at the top is Hoyte van Hoytema’s work on Nope. A movie about the cinematic gaze, perhaps more overtly and wonderfully about the cinematic gaze than any film this century, and the work of the DP who helps to bring that forward can’t get a win here? In the end, it’s Hoffmeister for me. (Like Willi, he’s the only one of the Grouches nominees to have the slightly more prestigious Oscar nod, and like Willi, he would be my choice if I got to have one.) His work is both stately and sly, capable of capturing the majesty of Lydia Tar’s chosen spaces, putting us firmly in the orchestra in multiple sequences, putting us firmly in the classroom in that Internet-famous section about how Lydia Tar got famous on the Internet, puts us on stage with Lydia Tar and Adam Gopnik. This is Todd Field’s film, and Cate Blanchett’s film. But gosh, if it isn’t just as much Hoffmeister’s! In shot after shot, we’re put in this position of deference, of spectator to Lydia Tar; the film starts with her filmed on a smartphone, a shot which emphatically brings that distant but rapt focus into being from the start.
Outstanding Screenplay: Terence Davies, Benediction / Jordan Peele, Nope
- Richard Linklater, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
- Zev Borow and Greg Mottola, Confess, Fletch
- Margaret Brown and Kern Jackson, Descendant
- Jon Bois, Alex Rubenstein, Seth Rosenthal, and Kofie Yeboah, The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts
- Todd Field, Tar
- William Nicholson, Thirteen Lives
- George Miller and Augusta Gore, Three Thousand Years of Longing
- Julia Cho and Domee Shi, Turning Red
The Woman King was the first film out.
Incredibly, the film I feel worst about not including as a winner this year is not Tar, which has an obviously great screenplay, but The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts. Meticulously researched, carefully made, sympathetic and ironic and personable, this incredibly talky doc is defined most by its screenplay. The visuals are so limited that the writing must be practically perfect, and while there are a couple places where the film lags a little bit in service of a joke that isn’t quite funny enough to demand the time, I found that the movie’s way of giving each of its speakers a different focus made the film more coherent rather than less. Like The Secret Land, which assigned three narrators for three separate parts of an Antarctic mission, Paying to Be in Shorts does this splitting aptly. And once again, Confess, Fletch finds this easygoing tone from the very beginning and maintains it. Fletch calls the local precinct because there is a dead woman in his apartment, and when he’s informed that you call 911 for that kind of thing, he replies, “Well, the emergency part is kind of over, y’know?” There’s some level of McDonaghesque needless cleverness in the screenplay (upon being told to “Shut up and talk,” Hamm replies that that’s a “very confusing set of commands”), but it’s not the winner here anyway.
Benediction and Nope are the winners for completely different reasons. Benediction wins because it’s a screenplay which combines the structure of its already (award-winning, teehee) editing with Davies’ facility for wordplay. Even if I didn’t filter everything from the British 1920s through my affection for Brideshead Revisited, the petty sallies and deflections and stabs of the characters in this film would ring just as marvelously as Waugh’s dialogue. I also love the way that this film uses poetry to set a moment, anchor a scene. Again, the “Disabled”-“Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” tandem sequence is among the best of the year, and it’s not just the music I rhapsodized about earlier. It’s in the writing, too, the use of a poem that Sassoon read earlier in the film and must have realized that he’d never quite equal. To back away from one’s own words at that moment, knowing that what one wants to evince is done far better with the poetry of another, is humble and brilliant. Nope wins because it is, and I know this will get me in trouble, conceptually dense in the way that a really good novel is conceptually dense. The idea of this terrifying, airborne, seemingly unstoppable predator reacting most to being looked in the eye…that’s good. That’s clever, that’s a nice pull from the way that animals react. To write a screenplay which not only imagines but frames the Gordy incident as prologue, a prologue with long arms and cruel fingers, is stunning. To write a screenplay that makes the commentary on the power and insult of the gaze into commentary on seeing itself, the conception of cinema as an art form…I don’t think an American screenplay has gotten into this territory in more than six decades. The last movie from our country to do it this well was Rear Window.
Outstanding Actor: Jack Lowden, Benediction / Paul Dano, The Fabelmans / Daniel Kaluuya, Nope / Amber Midthunder, Prey
- Justin H. Min, After Yang
- Britain Dalton, Avatar: The Way of Water
- Calam Lynch, Benediction
- Jon Hamm, Confess, Fletch
- Lea Seydoux, Crimes of the Future
- Regina Hall, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
- Zoe Kravitz, Kimi
- Jeff Daniel Phillips, The Munsters
- Steven Yeun, Nope
- Cate Blanchett, Tar
- Nina Hoss, Tar
- Viggo Mortensen, Thirteen Lives
- Idris Elba, Three Thousand Years of Longing
- Tilda Swinton, Three Thousand Years of Longing
- Viola Davis, The Woman King
- Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King
To be sporting, the next four: Blanchett, Hoss, Yeun, Mbedu.
It’s a fairly deep class for acting this year, even though it comes from a pretty narrow stretch of films. Thirteen different movies are represented here. Last year it was fifteen, the year before it was seventeen, and the year before that it was thirteen. As ever, some of my favorite performances come from movies that don’t have a bunch of other nominations. The soul of After Yang, Kogonoda’s fine but disappointing sophomore feature, is in Justin H. Min and not in Colin Farrell. In a similar way, Avatar: The Way of Water gains its greatest emotional strength not from the protagonists of the film but from Lo’ak, the Middle Child That Could. I have no idea if this opens up other doors for Britain Dalton, but I’d like to believe it does. Jeff Daniel Phillips is so much fun as Herman Munster, at once recognizable for people who grew up loving the old TV show but also accessible for those of us who had never spent a moment with them before. (I considered Richard Brake from The Munsters as well, and if this category had thirty nominations instead of twenty I probably would have gone there.) Thirteen Lives, which I underrated a little bit on release and have come around on as a rock-solid picture since, gets its second nomination (and very nearly its fourth) with Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of sullen leadership. A trio of three actors whose films have no other nods are, in my opinion, the best parts of their respective films that have found fans elsewhere but not so much with me: Lea Seydoux, Regina Hall, and Zoe Kravitz. And just to round this off, I am livid that I couldn’t find a spot in my top eight, somehow, for Swinton and Elba. I loved both of those performances.
As usual, our winners here are not ordered, but listed alphabetically. I really liked Prey. I am disappointed that I couldn’t find another place to put Prey; you’ll remember that twice it was my sixth film in a category that will always be five strong for me. This year, a number of the best performances I saw were primarily stoic, a description which certainly describes the work Dano, Kaluuya, and Lowden did. It also suits Midthunder. I don’t know how many action hero roles she’s got left in her, or if she’ll transition to different work in the future, or if she’ll get sucked into the world of television where she was before this film. What I do know is that she’s a really talented performer in this realm, never overplaying her hand, mostly even-keeled and focused and ferocious. The mud scene is probably the most tense of the film, and her panic in that sequence is the exact counterpoint to her composure that the film needs in that spot. (Also, we cannot talk about Midthunder without mentioning the very cute dog, Coco, who she runs around with in Prey and genuinely interacts with like a sidekick. Chemistry with animals is not something that everyone has in them!) About as stolid is Kaluuya, who now has won this award twice in a row. OJ Haywood, cerebral and taciturn and emotionally ingrown, is just about the opposite of Fred Hampton, who in Kaluuya’s interpretation was sparking and strident and visionary. It doesn’t matter. In a film like Nope that swirls with wild possibility and mysterious portents, a film which denies us a steady footing for a long time, Kaluuya is working with both feet on the ground even if the ground is as unsteady for him as it is for us in the comfy chairs. Jack Lowden, although I’d suggest that Sassoon matters more to Benediction than OJ matters to Nope, is doing something similar in a structural sense for his film. Like Kaluuya, Lowden is the middle C among a glissando of performers. Calam Lynch, who repeats the penultimate scene from Topsy-Turvy with Shirley Henderson but without the grace of someone else’s words to sponge off the egotism, is clearly my preference of the group. Still, my favorite is Tom Blyth, the most memorable is Jeremy Irvine, and the one who combines meekness with the eternal is Matthew Tennyson. In the midst of these performances is Lowden, who holds it together by being a little bit less so than everyone else in the frame, an anole who lacks the charisma of a chameleon. My vote for the best English-language performance of the year, were I actually pressed to choose, would go to Paul Dano’s supporting role in The Fabelmans. Once again, this is not a particularly showy performance, although compared to the other three people I’ve cited as winners this one feels very loud. He shouts a few times, after all, and at one point a monkey lands on his shoulder. Mostly Dano brings out the contradictions in this man who is obviously a great success. From all accounts in the film, he has a terrific mind, maybe even a prescient one, a man who understands computers are the future in the way that some geniuses figured out in the early ’90s that the Internet was the future. He keeps moving up the corporate ladder, and short one rental home stay, he and his wife and four kids live in comfort. Yet his personal life is, for so much of the film, a failure. What’s so remarkable about that is that he doesn’t exactly seem like Steve Jobs; he’s not running around trying to deny that those are his kids or anything. But he is not adequately loved by the people he provides for. The circle of affection, barring one lovely scene late in the film, seems always to circle back to his (ex-) wife. Dano takes the good father, the kind of part that can defeat even good actors (Paul Mescal in Aftersun, Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me by Your Name) and nails it.
Best Director: Terence Davies, Benediction
- Jordan Peele, Nope
- Todd Field, Tar
- George Miller, Three Thousand Years of Longing
- Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King
The first director out is James Cameron.
Not quite as dull a year as last year, all things considered, where Editing, Director, and Picture were the same group of five. Here at least we get…seven different ones. (There’s a Picture nomination which did not get an Editing nod or a Director nod, somehow. Who makes this crap?) This is a good group of directors, all told, and it’s definitely dominated by people who wrote their own stuff. Peele I’ve made much of in the Screenplay category already. I really like Prince-Bythewood’s clean, classic approach to a Gladiator-style film, one which lacks the fighting panache of Ridley Scott’s Best Picture winner but which more than makes up for it by having palace intrigue that isn’t just whispered and doesn’t produce snores in bushels. George Miller has made a movie which feels almost entirely unlike his last effort (yep, Mad Max: Fury Road), except for the indisputable fact that his central characters are so much like Max and Furiosa. The Djinn, like Max, runs into Alithea, an incredibly capable woman at a personal crossroads. Neither of them expect to find one another, but the two of them turn out to be so much more powerful and effective together than either one of them could be alone. Like Furiosa, Alithea is the star of the film; like Max, the Djinn is the one with the richer backstory but is still something of a secondhand person, someone who witnesses more than he is. In much the same way that Miller brought out the comradeship of the two in Fury Road, the surprising and possessive love affair of Three Thousand Years comes to the fore. What seems serendipitous at first becomes tragic for, like Max, the Djinn cannot stay forever. Miller crafts this story beautifully, with these stories that do feel like tales from the Arabian Nights but in some cases are basically historical, with images that are mostly recognizable but occasionally unprecedented. (Solomon and Sheba we know; the instrument that Solomon plays is so weird.) Field is turning into something like the forgotten man in this ceremony. He’s very nearly made the best English-language film of the year, but I cannot quite say that he’s made one of the two best screenplays, directed one of the four best performances, or himself been the best helmsman of any in this category. As I’ve had to say a couple times already: Field is the only one of these five nominated at the Oscars, and thus he’d be my preference to win that award.
What I keep coming back to is this thought I had at the end of last year, before I’d seen Benediction, that if you asked me who the ten greatest directors of all time were, I’d probably include Terence Davies on that list. Benediction is only his ninth feature, but Andrei Tarkovsky made just seven before his untimely death and I’d put him on that list too. This film only adds to my belief in Davies as one of those Olympian figures in direction. He has left behind, perhaps for good, the firmly dreamlike. We are starting to grow distant from the stuff that feels like memories extracted the way that one extracts an icepick after a lobotomy. He has not made a movie that’s truly reminiscent of Distant Voices, Still Lives since The Deep Blue Sea. Since then, his movies have felt more like The House of Mirth films that are still wondrous, lush, and beautiful, but also with a recognizable hint of prestige filmmaking to them. Benediction is, for my money, the best of that group which includes House of Mirth as well as A Quiet Passion and Sunset Song. Like A Quiet Passion, Benediction has some slightly autobiographical tinges told through the story of a long-dead poet, but Benediction feels more personal, roars more loudly, and yet cedes less to the individual vision of the character at the center of the biopic. Anyway, we can probably cut to the chase here.
Best Picture: Benediction
- Three Thousand Years of Longing
The sixth place movie…I dunno. There’s a second tier of movies where I’d put stuff like Turning Red, which I feel a little guilty about not including in more ways here. I have that above any Pixar effort from the 2010s; in narrative terms, it’s the first Pixar movie I feel any inclination to revisit since The Good Dinosaur. The Fabelmans does so much so well, that incredibly annoying screenplay notwithstanding. The Woman King, like I’ve said already, is so incredibly competent. (Watch…virtually any comparable movie from the past five or six years, and that extreme competence sounds pretty good!) The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts, which I know many people will not call a movie, felt adequately cinematic to me. No matter how Prezi it is, it’s still more cinematic and less like a Wikipedia page than even some of the best-reviewed docs of the past few years.
So far I haven’t shouted out Descendant at all, even though I’d call it the fifth-best English language movie I saw this year. It’s not the equal of The Order of Myths, I don’t think, which is something I’ve been trying to riddle out for a couple weeks. The production values are better, which can be both good and bad, and I don’t think this is a movie that Margaret Brown would have had the credentials to make if she hadn’t already made The Order of Myths. It’s not directed as well as The Woman King, but it’s more even. The digressions this film makes are more worthwhile than the ones that The Woman King makes with its surprising and disappointing emphasis on starcrossed teen romance. What Descendant does successfully is to make what would be a history book story for basically everyone who’s not from Mobile into a personal story for anyone who watches it. The legacy of the Clotilda, the rise and fall of Africatown, the continued story of exploitation and de facto segregation becomes not just the story of the individual Clotilda descendants we meet but the exposure of (white) people who are fortunate enough to witness this story changing and growing firsthand and still act as if it’s far away from them.
I saw this tweet yesterday while I was scrolling. I was already preparing my “Everything Everywhere is Shape of Water for people who unironically think that Avengers: Endgame is a great movie” take, but this one has me thinking I’m not aiming high enough.
A Social Network level event. Love it. Where I think this take is quietly even better (not that I think the author of the tweet is likely to agree with me about this) is that there are some even better movies that aren’t even nominated for Best Picture. Tar, out of the ten films they’ve got nominated this year, should absolutely win Best Picture. Shoot, I think you could probably convince me that if Benediction didn’t exist, it should win the more seriously considered Grouch. But if Tar is The Social Network, a social media phenomenon and an obviously artistic film trampled by pseudointellectual feelgoodery with some favorite movie personalities up front, then that makes Benediction something like Meek’s Cutoff. (I’m not going as far as saying it’s like Certified Copy. Even I have limits.) It has, like Meek’s Cutoff, a number of recognizable figures performing in a largely hackneyed genre that everyone is intensely familiar with. Like Meek’s Cutoff, it graciously swerves around those pitfalls and does something new and thrilling with that genre. Benediction casts a new Sassoon rather than putting Jack Lowden in showy old-age makeup. Benediction is about someone whose meteoric fame in his late twenties turned into practical anonymity by his forties; there is no second act in his life that the film wants us to root for. Benediction is about one poet but treats another poet as his superior, so much so that in the final climactic emotional moment, the poem recited is by Wilfred Owen and not by Sassoon. Benediction recognizes that Sassoon may have had a greater love for Steven Tennant than for Owen or Ivor Novello, but that Sassoon is someone who never really had a love that fulfilled him, let alone satisfied him. Benediction is about disappointment that tracks over that line to despair, a fierce disillusionment that’s so much more potent and hurtful than the rush of suburban miseries that fill Broadway stages and popular novels. At every stage of his life, the hope that Sassoon had is dashed. A faith in country, a hope in love, a belief in poetry. That last five minutes of the movie forces you to wonder if Owen, who died a week before the war ended, may have been the lucky one, a poetic Achilles compared to Sassoon’s Idomeneus.