Oscar Blitz: Short and Sweet



Since I’m not really doing an Oscar blitz this year (having already seen most of the films I wanted to see when they came out) and because I’m finding it hard to gin up enthusiasm for debating the merits of nominees in specific categories, I won’t be doing an Oscar Blitz series this year.* However, I did want to highlight the stellar line-up of Oscar shorts I saw this past weekend.

For the eighth year in a row, La Maratonista and I took in both the Animated and Live Action Short Film programs at our local Landmark cinema. I’m sad to report this is likely our last such annual outing as she will soon be moving on to bigger and better things. And I don’t mean feature films—she and her husband are literally moving. Farewell, opera buddy, I wish you all the success in the world with your new baby, new degree program, and your new home! I just hope San Francisco will lure you back one day soon.


At least we are going out on a high. Upon leaving the theater, La Maratonista and I agreed that this was the most solid field we’ve ever seen in our years of watching these collections. Both categories were very strong and, while we didn’t love everything, there was nothing we hated. Of course, that makes predictions a little more difficult, but let’s give it a try, shall we?

The nominees are…

Animated Short Film
Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

While all the animated films had something in their favor, I’d guess that Piper has this one locked up. As I wrote last summer, the stellar animation in Piper, which played before Finding Dory, only highlighted the weaknesses of the animation in that film. Plus, it has an incredibly sweet story of overcoming your fears and triumphing over adversity.

The only film that comes even close to it in the odds is Blind Vaysha. This film is based on a short story by Georgi Gospodinov and has the look and feel of an Eastern European fairy tale. I didn’t love the animation, but it certainly fit the mood of the piece. The last few lines are incredibly poetic and provoked a strong positive reaction from the crowd in the theater. [Side note for Wonderfalls fans: Caroline Dhavernas does the narration in both the French and English versions.]

As for the other three nominated films, we loved the look of Borrowed Time, but wanted a bit more from it. Pearl was just sort of meh from a story perspective (and I really didn’t love the animation). Pear Cider and Cigarettes earned a strong content warning and played last on the bill, even after the “highly commended” extras, but didn’t really live up to the expectation that such a warning seemed to promise. Frankly, it was a bit boring, although that might be due to the fact that all of the other films in this program ran 6-8 minutes while Pear Cider was a full 35. The extra films added to round out the bill (Asteria, Happy End, La Tête disparaît) were all solid, but didn’t make me feel the wrong films had been nominated.

The animation of Pixar's latest entry, Piper, is truly incredible.

The animation of Pixar’s latest entry, Piper, is truly incredible.

Live Action Short Film
Ennemis intérieurs
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights

The live action films revolved around the theme of connections, whether making or breaking them, and were mostly of the sweet or bittersweet variety. I definitely recommend this program over the animated shorts if you are choosing just one, especially since these films are considerably longer than the animated selections, with almost all of them being 30 minutes or so.

As we felt might be the case on leaving the theater—given the current political climate—Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within) is apparently the odds-on favorite with bookmakers. In any other year, this film might be too specifically French to play well with a general audience; however, given that it concerns a long-time Algerian resident applying for French citizenship and being coerced by his beur interviewer into naming names, it may be a chance for the Academy to make a strong statement on the Muslim Ban.

The brilliantly acted Ennemis intérieurs, a front-runner in the Oscar race.

Ennemis intérieurs is brilliantly acted and a strong contender.

Ennemis intérieurs is followed fairly closely in the odds by Timecode and Sing, both of which I really liked. I won’t spoil either, but suffice it to say that the ending of each is very rewarding. Speaking of rewarding endings, I’m surprised that La Femme et le TGV is not more in the mix, since it stars Jane Birkin and has a very Amélie vibe, but it is well behind the others in the odds, along with Silent Nights. La Maratonista both agreed that Silent Nights is probably the least likely to win. Of course, in the past, this would almost guarantee an Oscar. Really I could see any of these snagging an award and would be fine with the selection. I’m not even sure which one I would vote for if I had the chance. It would probably depend on the day.

As always, I highly encourage you to support these short films by seeking them out at your local theater.

Timecode: Sometimes you only need an audience of one.

Timecode is proof that sometimes you only need an audience of one.

*Never fear, I will be posting an Oscar Wish List later this week as we get closer to the big night.

Oscar Nominations: La La La I Can’t Hear You!


And so the race for the 89th Academy Awards begins.


The nominees for Best Picture are…

Arrival (8 nominations)
Fences (4 nominations)
Hacksaw Ridge (6 nominations)
Hell or High Water (4 nominations)
Hidden Figures (3 nominations)
La La Land (14 nominations)
Lion (6 nominations)
Manchester by the Sea (6 nominations)
Moonlight (8 nominations)

You can see a full ballot list for printing here. My own round-up of 2016 films is here (where you’ll also find links to my film quarterly round-ups).

My first thoughts on this list? Fairly predictable.

The Good
Overall, this is a solid Best Picture list. Of course I’m happy to see Arrival and Hell or High Water here, since both of them made my own personal 2016 top ten, and I’m delighted to see Hidden Figures sneak in, since I worried it might have hit the ground running too late to make it.

The other major categories held very few surprises for me. Many choices are not what I would have personally nominated, but are certainly legitimate selections. And I’m happy to see somewhat more diversity in the nominations than in previous years.

In the acting categories, I’m most pleasantly surprised to see Isabelle Huppert in the mix. Foreign-language performances are always touch and go with the Academy, but this nod is well deserved, even if I have issues with Elle overall.

Of course, I was very happy to see some of my own “Year in Film” picks on the nominees list, notably Arrival for Directing, Hell or High Water for Editing, and The Lobster for Original Screenplay.

I was also pleased to see both 13th and O.J.: Made in America in the Documentary Feature category. When I wasn’t marching, I spent much of this past weekend with the Math Greek watching the new Frontline (“Divided States of America”) and O.J.: Made in America. If you are seeking to better understand the intersection of race and politics in this country, I can’t recommend these two miniseries (and 13th) enough. O.J.: Made in America is quite simply stellar documentary filmmaking and everyone should watch it.

The Bad
Where to begin? In my opinion, there are a number of serious omissions in various categories. I’m just going to mention a few here as I will be discussing most major categories in separate Oscar Blitz posts once I’ve seen a few more of these films.

First off, while La La Land is a perfectly fine film, does it really deserve to lead the pack with fourteen nominations and tie the record held by All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997)? No, it does not.

In the acting categories, I’m mostly fine with the men (I think I am, that is, I haven’t seen most of the films in question) although I would have loved to see Ryan Gosling nominated for The Nice Guys over La La Land and Tom Bennett for his comedic supporting turn in Love & Friendship. I’m stunned to not see Amy Adams in the lead actress category as I think she delivered one of the performances of the year in Arrival, a film that absolutely required a strong, but subtle, performance. I would have traded her for either Meryl Streep or Emma Stone in a heartbeat.

Costume and Production Design are particularly baffling to me this year and I look forward to looking at those categories in closer detail in my Oscar Blitz posts. I felt sure Love & Friendship would get something for Costume, and maybe even The Dressmaker if there was any justice in this world. Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden) also deserved to be in one or both of these categories. I have to assume some of these nods are guild members rewarding their own.

Finally, I’d love to hear from someone who cares about animation as to why Kubo and the Two Strings is nominated for Visual Effects. That just seems odd for an animated feature.

The Ugly
The fact that Arrival‘s score was apparently not eligible for Best Score is simply a crime, especially in a year after Morricone just won for a score with elements heavily borrowed from his own prior work.

Six nominations for Hacksaw Ridge including one for Mel Gibson as director. Nope, not gonna see it. No way no how.

Oscar Blitz Plans
So, what will I be running out to see? Well, as I predicted in my 2016 round-up, I’ve actually already seen many of these films, including five of the Best Picture nominees. Of those I haven’t yet seen, Lion and Jackie (3 nominations) top the list of films I want to see, and, since they are still in theaters here, those two are likely to be next up, along with Toni Erdmann (which, although it violates my under-two-hour rule in a major way, is directed by a woman and supposed to be hilarious). Also up soon are Loving (Lead Actress), 20th Century Women (Original Screenplay), and Captain Fantastic (Lead Actor), mostly because the Math Greek brought me all his Indie Spirit screeners. After that, who knows? I’m not super interested in Fences or Manchester by the Sea, but if I can get to them in theaters I might see them anyway.

Finally, I’m eager to see how Jimmy Kimmel does hosting on the big night (February 26). It’s nice to have someone with such an obvious love of the awards in the mix and he should be able to come up with some good material.


What are your thoughts on this morning’s announcement? Add your thoughts below and stay tuned over the next month for my Oscar Blitz series with more details on all the major categories.

The End of Innocence: The Year in Film


, , ,

The incredible nuns of Les Innocentes (The Innocents)

The incredible, and incredibly complex, nuns of Les Innocentes

Though I might not have thought it possible, I managed to see even more films in 2016 than in the previous year—47 in theaters and 156 at home. Whether this was because the election drove me to seek out escapism wherever I could I don’t know. I have come up with what I feel is a fairly solid Top Ten below, but there are still plenty of critically acclaimed films I haven’t seen yet (see lists at the end of this post), so I suspect this list may shift somewhat in my first quarterly review of 2017. I was somewhat surprised to realize that not many films from the fourth quarter of the year appear in my Top Ten, but I recently rewatched seven of the films on this list and must say they all held up rather well and confirmed my first impression of them. I’m not sure that will prove to be true about The Light Between Oceans, so I imagine it will be pretty easy to knock that one off if need be.

Top Ten of 2016*
Les Innocentes (The Innocents)
Love & Friendship
Hell or High Water
Maggie’s Plan
Green Room
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
The Edge of Seventeen
The Light Between Oceans

While the subject matter at the heart of Les Innocentes is rather brutal, and the issues it considers morally complex, the film is remarkably hopeful and eminently human, displaying an incredible amount of empathy for its characters. Hope and optimism characterized many of my favorite films of the year, whether in the face of aliens from outer space, economic despair, or the trials and tribulations of high school.

And now… the awards!

Best Achievement in Filmmaking: Les Innocentes. I pretty much felt I had seen my favorite film of the year on leaving the cinema after viewing Les Innocentes and I’m still stunned this wasn’t either the French or Polish foreign-language entry for the Academy Awards (however, it’s not even on the Oscar eligibility list so maybe there was a problem with its production and/or release dates). The cast is superb, the cinematography stunning, and the treatment of its complicated themes deft and even-handed.

Best Achievement in Filmmaking (runner-up): Arrival. While the cast is uneven, the structure of this film is absolutely incredible. This is a script that in the wrong hands might have utterly failed, but Villeneuve makes it all work, ably assisted by an incredible cinematographer, masterful editing, a pitch-perfect score, and a nuanced performance by Amy Adams that only reveals its perfection upon second viewing.

Best Theater Experience: Green Room. Though wary of the potential gore—and there was gore—I was really looking forward to this horror thriller by Jeremy Saulnier, the director of 2014 favorite Blue Ruin. The crowd of critics and other guests was obviously excited as well and there was even swag at the screening. Plus, this is the type of movie that absolutely begs to be seen in a crowd. Terrific performances all around, including a Patrick Stewart like you’ve never seen him before and the late Anton Yelchin, gone far too soon.

Most Improved on Rewatch: Maggie’s Plan. I went into this rewatch not knowing if this film deserved a spot in the Top Ten, but instead I placed it higher than I ever imagined. A screwball comedy for our own time.


Best Ensemble (Drama): Les Innocentes. The nuns in this story could have all too easily blended together, but I felt I knew each one individually.

Best Ensemble (Comedy): Maggie’s Plan. While I don’t love that Julianne Moore is Danish for some reason, everyone plays their role to perfection here.

Standout Performances (Female): Amy Adams in Arrival and Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship

Standout Performance (Male): Colin Farrell in The Lobster

Best Supporting Performance (Female): Judy Davis in The Dressmaker

Best Supporting Performances (Male): Mahershala Ali in Moonlight and Tom Bennett in Love & Friendship

Standout Performances (Teen): Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

Best Debut: Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwe

Best Scene Stealer: Hugo Weaving in The Dressmaker

Best Hero/Heroine: Lou de Laâge in Les Innocentes

Best Villain: Rachel House in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

2016 VIP (Female): Isabelle Huppert for Elle and L’Avenir (Things to Come)

2016 VIP (Male): Ryan Gosling for La La Land and The Nice Guys


Best Direction: Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Best Directorial Debut: Kelly Fremon Craig for The Edge of Seventeen

Best Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw for The Light Between Oceans

Best Editing: Jake Roberts for Hell or High Water

Best Original Screenplay: Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster

Best Adapted Screenplay: Whit Stillman for Love & Friendship

Best Score: Jóhann Jóhannsson for Arrival

Best Production Design: Ryu Seong-hee for The Handmaiden

Best Costumes: Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson for The Dressmaker


Top Five Pleasant Surprises:
The Dressmaker
The Edge of Seventeen
The Love Witch
Maggie’s Plan
Queen of Katwe

Top Five Feminist Films:
Les Innocentes
The Love Witch
Queen of Katwe

Favorite Scene: “What Don’t You Want” in Hell or High Water

Best Opening: La La Land

Best Ending: Moonlight

Best Ending (runner-up): The Invitation

Best Closing Credits: Ghostbusters

Best Use of a Song: “One More Try” by George Michael in Keanu

Best Teaser: Rogue One

Most Effective Trailer: La La Land

Biggest Disappointment: Jason Bourne

Most Overrated: Captain America: Civil War

Most Underrated: The Dressmaker

Most Miscast: Brad Pitt in Allied

Five Worst Films I Saw In Theaters:
The 5th Wave
Jason Bourne
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Top Three Films I Hope Are Not Part of My Oscar Blitz:
Hacksaw Ridge
Nocturnal Animals

Top Ten Unseen 2016 Films I’m Most Looking Forward To:
American Honey
Certain Women
Hidden Figures
Toni Erdmann
20th Century Women

Past Perfect and Imperfect

Best of the (Oscar) Blitz: Mustang

Favorite (Non-Blitz) Films of 2015:
Appropriate Behavior
Respire (Breathe)

Favorite Films of the “52 Films by Women” Series:
Mustang (2015)
Les Innocentes (2016)
Respire (Breathe) (2015)
Maggie’s Plan (2016)
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Walking and Talking (1996)
Appropriate Behavior (2015)
Meadowland (2015)
The Love Witch (2016)
The Dressmaker (2016)
Dear Frankie (2005)
McFarland, USA (2015)

Favorite Rewatches:
Laura (1944)
Freaks (1932)
Star Wars (1977)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The Usual Suspects (1995)

Favorite “New to Me” Films:
The Old Dark House (1932)
The Unknown (1927)
Exotica (1994)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
Blow Out (1981)

Worst “New to Me” Film (tie): Little Big Man (1970) and Ishtar (1987). Oddly enough, both starring Dustin Hoffman. Make of that what you will.

What were your favorite movies of the year? What have I missed that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.

For more thoughts about what I watched this year, see my “Film Quarterly” posts: Vol. 2016, Issue 1, Vol. 2016, Issue 2, Vol. 2016, Issue 3, and Vol. 2016, Issue 4.

*The 2016 movies I saw this year are:
The Accountant, Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden), Allegiant, Allied, Arrival, L’Avenir (Things to Come), A Bigger Splash, Captain America: Civil War, Demolition, Denial; Don’t Think Twice, The Dressmaker, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, The 5th Wave, Finding Dory, The Fits, Florence Foster Jenkins, Ghostbusters, Green Room, Hail Caesar!, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Les Innocentes (The Innocents), The Invitation, Jason Bourne, Keanu, La La Land, The Light Between Oceans, The Lobster, Love & Friendship, The Love Witch, Maggie’s Plan, The Magnificent Seven, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Money Monster, Moonlight, The Nice Guys, Queen of Katwe, Rogue One, Rules Don’t Apply, Sausage Party, Sing Street, Tallulah, 13th, Tickled, The Witch, Zero Days, Zootopia

Note to email subscribers, there is embedded video in this post that may not appear in your email. Please click through to the actual post to see the complete list of selections.

Film Quarterly, Vol. 2016, Issue 4


, , ,

This image of teen angst from The Edge of Seventeen pretty much sums up my feelings post-election.

This image of teen angst from The Edge of Seventeen pretty much sums up my feelings post-election.

This quarter I saw thirteen films in the theater and sixty-five at home (either on DVD or streaming). I watched thirteen female-directed works, making good on my 52 Films By Women pledge, while also managing to complete a thorough review of classic horror, watching forty-eight horror (or horror-adjacent) films released between 1920 and 1960. In addition to these films that were mostly new to me, I rewatched eight of my favorites from earlier in the year to confirm my 2016 top ten rankings; however, I didn’t feel I should include these in my yearly viewing totals a second time. At least it was all a nice distraction from the disastrous election.

Best Movie Seen in the Theater: Arrival (2016). I saw Arrival just days after the election and its hopeful message was exactly what I needed at the time. I was already big fan of Villeneuve’s work through his recent films (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) and Arrival made me seriously hopeful for the Blade Runner sequel. One thing I love about Villeneuve’s work is that it always makes me think. Arrival is no exception and I recommend going into it as unspoiled as possible. That said, I did see this film a second time in the theater and I’m happy to report it was just as enjoyable on rewatch. In fact, the second viewing left me with even more admiration for its structure, score, and Amy Adams’s performance.

“They’re here!” (and there, and there…) in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

Best Theater Experience: The Love Witch (2016). I was very privileged to attend a local showing of The Love Witch in the presence of its director, the lovely and talented Anna Biller, who also served as the film’s set designer, costumer, and composer, among other tasks. It is very hard to describe this gorgeous film in only a few words, but for me it was Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot meets Jacques Demy’s Peau d’Âne meets The Court Jester, all wrapped up in a feminist witch bottle. Shot to look like an old Technicolor film, I consider myself privileged to have seen this in a theater, especially since the audience took such a delight in it.

Samantha Robinson as Elaine in The Love Witch

Samantha Robinson as Elaine in The Love Witch

Best Adaptation: Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden) (2016). I had only read about one hundred pages of Fingersmith when I saw this and I’m glad for that because this is not a film you should be spoiled for. It’s a thriller with incredible twists and turns, but also romance and humor. I would have cut way down on the extensive sex scene (a number of previous scenes are full of sexual tension and the explicitness wasn’t necessary) and some of the gore at the end, but otherwise this film was near flawless. One of the best examples I have seen of successfully resetting a story in another time and place entirely and still having it work. [Side note: I loved that they set the subtitles in different colors depending on whether the characters were speaking Japanese or Korean so you could understand the class implications.]

The cast of Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden

The cast of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden

Best Directorial Debut: The Edge of Seventeen (2016). I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of this coming-of-age tale, but I didn’t expect it to be so laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, the teen awkwardness on display was also so real and so uncomfortable at times as to make me squirm. While being full of the usual elements found in teen flicks, debut director Kelly Fremon Craig manages to present each character as a fully developed person, not just a cliché. Hailee Steinfeld delivers an excellent performance as the misfit teen trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school.

Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen

Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen

Speaking of female-directed films, I completed my 52 Films By Women challenge this quarter, watching thirteen films that qualified: L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016) by Mia Hansen-Løve, Bachelorette (2012) by Leslye Headland, The Bling Ring (2013) by Sofia Coppola, Crossing Delancey (1987) by Joan Micklin Silver, The Edge of Seventeen (2016) by Kelly Fremon Craig, The Fits (2016) by Anna Rose Holmer, The Invitation (2016) by Karyn Kusama, The Love Witch (2016) by Anna Biller, Real Women Have Curves (2002) by Patricia Cardoso, Saving Face (2004) by Alice Wu, 13th (2016) by Ava DuVernay, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005) by Judy Irving, The Wolfpack (2015) by Crystal Moselle.

#52FilmsByWomen Ranked
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
The Love Witch (2016)
Saving Face (2004)
L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016)
Crossing Delancey (1987)
13th (2016)
The Fits (2016)
The Invitation (2016)
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
The Bling Ring (2013)
The Wolfpack (2015)
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005)
Bachelorette (2012)

I haven’t quite decided if I’m going to undertake this challenge again in 2017. Fifty-two films represents about a quarter of my movie viewing for the year, which is a significant commitment given the small percentage of films out there that are directed by women. While I support the cause, my selections are really starting to feel very random. At this point I have seen a lot of the best older films directed by women and I’m not sure seeing obscure films is really helping promote women in the industry today. Instead, I may try to focus on seeing a certain number of current films in the theaters. I missed a number of high-profile female-directed films in the theaters this year (due to travel, schedules, or sheer laziness) and I’d like to rectify that.

Isabelle Huppert contemplates her future in L'Avenir (Things to Come).

Isabelle Huppert contemplates her future in L’Avenir (Things to Come).

You can see the complete list of films I watched for the #52FilmsByWomen challenge at Letterboxd.

Top Ten Classic Horror
Freaks (1932)
The Old Dark House (1932)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The Unknown (1927)
King Kong (1933)
The Mummy (1932)
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
Frankenstein (1931)
Cat People (1942)
The Bad Seed (1956)

I’m not going to go into my horror series much here or below since I am planning to post about the remaining films in the next week or so. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed a number of these movies, but that watching so many (48!) in such a short time was overwhelming and didn’t leave much room for other older films I might have chosen instead.

You can see the complete list of films I watched for my Horror 101 series at Letterboxd.

Fay Wray contemplates a Trump presidency.

Fay Wray contemplates a Trump presidency.

In terms of my other movie watching this quarter, here are some favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections:

Best Classic Rewatch: Freaks (1932)

Best New-to-Me Classic: The Old Dark House (1932)

Best Silent (tie): The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Unknown (1927)

Best Documentary: 13th (2016). A highly informative documentary about race and racism in America and its implications for the U.S. prison industrial complex.

Must-Watch Documentary: Tickled (2016). I don’t even know how to describe this bizarre film that gets weirder and creepier as you go along. It is not a particularly good example of documentary filmmaking and definitely rambles, but the story it tells is utterly fascinating. Just watch it; it’s not what you think.

Best Math Greek Selection: Exotica (1994). Speaking of bizarre, and weird, and creepy, Exotica is all of these and more. Atom Egoyan proves himself to be a master at drawing you into the least attractive mysteries possible and providing utterly satisfying conclusions (even when they don’t necessarily answer all your questions). The Math Greek is getting so good at picks for me that when he proposed watching this I was convinced I must have seen it already when I was living in Paris once upon a time, but I hadn’t.

Mia Kirshner as Christina in Exotica

Mia Kirshner as Christina in Exotica

Most Underrated: The Accountant (2016). Speaking of math, going into the theater I didn’t realize The Accountant was going to be like John Wick but with math. To be sure, The Accountant is no John Wick, but it is far more enjoyable than critics would have you believe. I feel like I should have figured out a few things before their reveal but didn’t and I loved many of the performances and the resolution of the lead couple’s relationship. I’m not claiming this is a great film, but it would be a good rental and most other decent films I saw this quarter were fairly (or over) praised. Speaking of which…

Most Overrated: Moonlight (2016) and La La Land (2016). Both of these are perfectly fine films and I’m happy to see them on the screen and reaching an audience, but I don’t get the raving to high heaven in either case. Both have a number of great scenes but, for me, those individual moments don’t hang together successfully (for very different reasons). While they start and finish very strong, these films fall apart in the middle either through clichéd, clunky, or inconsistent storytelling. I just wasn’t transported by the story in either case—and I so wanted to be. Given the subject matter and hype, I would have expected these to be among my favorite films of the year, but they aren’t even in my top ten. In the case of Moonlight, I’ve seen comparisons to both Malick and Carol, neither of which I get but perhaps explain why I wasn’t blown away by it. That said, some of the performances, notably those of Mahershala Ali, André Holland, and Ryan Gosling, really elevate themselves above any script limitations.

Biggest Theater Disappointment: Rogue One (2016). Admittedly, I was so looking forward to Rogue One that it would have been hard for anything to live up to what was in my brain. There was a lot to like about it, but I really wish they had stayed off the Death Star altogether and focused more on the caper elements of the plot and the characterization of those on the squad. A side bonus to such a plan would be that the completely unnecessary (and atrocious) CGI character could have been completely avoided.

Worst Movie Seen in the Theater: Rules Don’t Apply (2016). I don’t know what Warren Beatty was thinking with this one. A waste of great period set design.

Lily Collins as Marla in Rules Don't Apply recovers from a night out in her mid-century modern house above the Hollywood Bowl.

Lily Collins as Marla in Rules Don’t Apply recovers from a night out in her mid-century modern house above the Hollywood Bowl.

Worst #52FilmsByWomen Movie: The Bachelorette (2012). I felt like this was trying to be a female Hangover but I don’t remember the guys in that film being as mean as the girls in Bachelorette. I just can’t decide if this is being subversive or reinforcing ugly stereotypes. I don’t need characters to be likeable per se, but who are we rooting for here?

The Rupert Giles Award (aka Mathiest): The Accountant (2016). See above.

Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016). This film is so French it hurts. It is also one of those good films that doesn’t really go anywhere so it will never be on any “favorites” list of mine, but it’s solid filmmaking nonetheless.

Quirkiest: The Lobster (2016). I wasn’t sure what to expect of this film, and I’m not sure it is entirely successful (for one thing, it is extremely repetitive in its message), but it held my attention all the way through and that’s more than I can say for a lot of films I watch at home. If you can accept the absurd premise and have an offbeat sense of humor, this may be a film for you.

Colin Farrell as David in The Lobster

Colin Farrell as David in The Lobster

Most Romantic Couple: Black and Kevin in Moonlight (2016)

Sexiest Couple: Lady Hideko and Sook-hee in The Handmaiden (2016)

Best Romance to Take Place in a New York Immigrant Community (tie): Crossing Delancey (1987) and Saving Face (2004). Saving Face focuses on a young Chinese American doctor whose family is not necessarily accepting of her homosexuality. Meanwhile, her widowed mother, played by Joan Chen, is pregnant and refuses to say who the father is, also causing a rift in the family. This story reminded me a lot of Appropriate Behavior, but is lighter in tone. Crossing Delancey, which takes place in New York’s Jewish community, centers on a young, intellectual, single woman whose grandmother hires a matchmaker to ensure she settles down. The film is very sweet, but super dated at this point. Still, it was very interesting to see how independent and unlikable Amy Irving’s character was allowed to be (and not in an “adorably awkward” way).

Most Confusing Geography: Elle (2016). Both my sister and I have lived in and around Paris but neither of us could figure out where Isabelle Huppert lived or worked in this movie and it drove us crazy.

Worst Abuse of Geography: The Love Witch (2016). While this could have been Arrival (Where exactly does Louise live that you can fly from her house to Montana in a helicopter?) or La La Land (Pasadena, Hermosa Beach, and Watts are all just a hop, skip, and a jump away in La La Land’s Los Angeles), I chose the geographical quirk that most bothered me while watching, namely, if Elaine is driving north from San Francisco (which I think is implied), why is the ocean on her right?

Best Opening: La La Land (2016). A great ode to the traffic that essentially validates the fact that much of the rest of the action is pure fantasy.


Best Closing Shot: The Invitation (2016). I’m sure some might argue that it is too cheesy, but I loved the Twilight Zone-like ending.

Best Closing Shot (runner-up): The Lobster (2016). If you know my issues with certain kinds of violence on screen, you’ll know why I thank god this movie ended how and when it did.

Freddy Mercury Real Life-Fantasy Award: The Wolfpack (2016). This is either a middle-of-the-road documentary or a brilliant performance piece. I just can’t decide which.

Joss Whedon “Bored Now” Award: Captain America: Civil War (2016). Oh good god, make them stop already. Or at least let’s stop pretending these bloated superhero movies are in any way good filmmaking.

Gloria Steinem “Thank God This Film Wasn’t Made by a Man” Award: Real Women Have Curves (2002). “Thank god this film wasn’t made by a man” is a serious thought I had at multiple points during this film. While I loved the fact that this movie was so body positive and that the women were complex and super independent, the lead character wasn’t very sympathetic, which I guess is good in the sense that she seemed like a real teenager, but I couldn’t fully root for her as a result.

Reading is FUNdamental Award: The Handmaiden (2016). This movie is book porn in every sense of the word.

Least Faithful Adaption: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). This film isn’t bad by any means, but it doesn’t come close to resembling the original novella.

Most Sherlockian: Zero Effect (1997)

Best Western: The Magnificent Seven (2016). There was nothing really innovative about this western except the casting, but it was very fun and serves as another example of how female or PoC directors can help revitalize and/or reenergize stale genres.

Best Sports Movie: The Fits (2016). I didn’t really understand this movie, or what the director was trying to say with it, but I loved the coming-of-age through sports element and seeing Toni, played by Royalty Hightower, move from the world of boxing to dance.

Royalty Hightower as Toni in The Fits

Royalty Hightower as Toni in The Fits

Best Worst Dancing (tie): The Lobster (2016) and The Fits (2016)

Biggest Head-Scratcher: Elle (2016). My sister and I left the theater and simultaneously said to each other “WTF was that?” I’m still wondering. Isabelle Huppert is great though (of course).

Best Headshake: Janelle Monáe in Moonlight (2016). One of the many scenes in the first third of this movie that stood out to me. I’d love to know how many takes it took to get her glance just right.

Best Score: Arrival (2016)

Best Score (Classic Edition): Candyman (1992)

Best Mantra: Rogue One (2016)

I’m one with the Force; the Force is with me.

Best Gloves: The Handmaiden (2016)

Best Lingerie: The Love Witch (2016)

Best in Birds: The Big Year (2011). I came to this delightful film about obsessed birders via Far Out City. I think it was underrated upon its release because it’s not a clear-cut comedy or buddy picture, but it has amazing actors and a fascinating story.

Best in Birds (runner-up): Arrival (2016)

Worst in Birds: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005). I had wanted to watch this documentary about the parrots in San Francisco for some time but I was sorely disappointed. It is more about one man than about the birds, a fact that is problematic at best when you realize the director ends up in a relationship with her subject.

Most Surprising Lack of Birds: The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Best in Cats: L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016)

Most Cats: Cat People (1942)

Most Superfluous Cat: The Black Cat (1934)

Least Effective Watch Cat: Elle (2016)

Most Unfortunate Cat: A Bucket of Blood (1959)

Most Unfortunate Cat (runner-up): The Fly (1958)

Most Misunderstood Cat: The Leopard Man (1943)

Most Surprising Lack of Cats (tie): The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Curse of the Cat People (1944)


So many cats. So, so, so many…

Best in Dogs: Village of the Damned (1960)

Best in Dogs (runner-up): The Uninvited (1944)

Most Dogs: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960)

Most Unfortunate Dog (tie): Candyman (1992) and The Lobster (2016)

Best Camel: The Lobster (2016). I mean, obviously.

Biggest Waste of Hollywood Cred: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013)

Five Films I Can’t Recommend
Bachelorette (2012)
Beat the Devil (1953)
The Black Cat (1934)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
White Zombie (1932)


I wanted to like this film noir parody, I really did, but Beat the Devil fails on almost every level.

For Vol. 2016, Issue 1, click here.
For Vol. 2016, Issue 2, click here.
For Vol. 2016, Issue 3, click here.

*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:

2016: The Accountant, Allied, Arrival, L’Avenir (Things to Come), Captain America: Civil War, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, The Fits, Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden), The Invitation, La La Land, The Lobster, The Love Witch, The Magnificent Seven, Moonlight, Rogue One, Rules Don’t Apply, 13th, Tickled

2015: The Wolfpack

Released prior to 2015: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Bachelorette, The Bad Seed, Beat the Devil, The Big Year, The Black Cat, The Bling Ring, The Body Snatcher, Bride of Frankenstein, A Bucket of Blood, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Candyman, The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Cat and the Canary (1939), Cat People, The Corpse Vanishes, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Crossing Delancey, Curse of the Demon, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Curse of the Cat People, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Exotica, The Fly, Frankenstein, Freaks, The Ghost Breakers, Horror of Dracula, House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, I Walked with a Zombie, The Invisible Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Island of Lost Souls, King Kong, The Leopard Man, The Monster, The Mummy, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Nosferatu, The Old Dark House, One Frightened Night, The Phantom of the Opera, Real Women Have Curves, Saving Face, Secret of the Blue Room, Son of Frankenstein, The Thing from Another World, The Uninvited, The Unknown, Vampyr, Village of the Damned, White Zombie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, The Wolf Man, Zero Effect

Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.

Opera 101—2016 Figaro Awards



Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.
(Without the freedom to criticize, there is no true praise.)

Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

For the sixth year in a row, I hereby present my annual Figaro awards for the best (and worst) operatic moments of the year. All operas seen at the San Francisco Opera in 2016, both in the summer (Jenůfa, Don Carlo, Carmen) and in the fall (Andrea Chénier, Dream of the Red Chamber, Don Pasquale, and Věc Makropulos) are eligible for these beauties. [Side note: I also saw Akhnaten at the L.A. Opera—which was glorious—but, since I have yet to write it up formally, I’ve decided to restrict these awards to the operas I saw in San Francisco.]

Production I would most readily see again: Jenůfa. This was a tough call. Don Carlo was almost my selection here, but ultimately the set design did not impress and the opera is just too darn long. Jenůfa really blew me away, particularly Karita Mattila’s performance, but also Jiří Bělohlávek in the orchestra pit, a role I admittedly don’t usually pay much attention to. The rock metaphor was a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise the spare sets fit the opera’s mood.

Malin Byström (Jenůfa) and Karita Mattila (Kostelnicka Buryjovka) in Jenůfa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Malin Byström (Jenůfa) and Karita Mattila (Kostelnicka Buryjovka) in Jenůfa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best ensemble: Don Carlo. This was truly an ensemble piece, from Michael Fabiano in the title role to the strong baritone and bass roles played by Mariusz Kwiecień and René Pape respectively. I’ve never heard male duets as beautiful. The women were no slouches either, from the regal Ana María Martínez as Elisabetta to the feisty Nadia Krasteva as Princess Eboli.

Valentina Simi (Countess of Aremberg), Ana María Martínez (Elisabetta), Nadia Krasteva (Princess Eboli), René Pape (King Philip II) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Rodrigo) in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Valentina Simi (Countess of Aremberg), Ana María Martínez (Elisabetta), Nadia Krasteva (Princess Eboli), René Pape (King Philip II) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Rodrigo) in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best ensemble (runner-up): Don Pasquale. Although the structure and plot of this opera are ridiculous, the casting made this the most enjoyable opera of the fall season. Maurizio Muraro was a lively Don Pasquale and both Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto and Heidi Stober as Norina had impeccable comic timing. Rounding out the main players was Adler Fellow Edward Nelson who more than held his own as Dr. Malatesta.

Most improved warhorse: Carmen. While I always appreciate an opera in French, I can’t say I was thrilled about seeing Carmen on the schedule yet again. How wrong I was. Calixto Bieito’s take on this warhorse was distinctly refreshing and made me feel like I was seeing the opera for the first time.

Most disappointing production: Věc Makropulos. I considered not using this category for once because it was such a strong year; however, I can’t deny I had high hopes for this one that ultimately weren’t met. Everything was perfectly fine, but nothing stood out to me in this production after such a long string of hits.

Best set design: Tim Yip for Dream of the Red Chamber. These sets were glorious—detailed, dynamic, and absolutely in sync with the story being told.


Best set design (runner-up): Alfons Flores for Carmen. There were a few missteps in changing the set between Act I and Act II but otherwise I loved his choices, especially the Osborne bull.


Best costumes (tie): Jai Alltizer for Don Carlo and Tim Yip/Kristi Johnson for Dream of the Red Chamber. The costumes used in Don Carlo were pitch perfect, befitting the royal subjects and drama portrayed—velvety rich. The costumes for Dream were beautiful and the sheer volume (in both senses) was impressive.


Best lighting: Adam Silverman for Andrea Chénier. Lighting is not something I generally notice, but I did in the final act of this opera, where the lighting meant that the shadows of the prison bars were cast dramatically across the stage.

Outstanding performance (orchestral): Jiří Bělohlávek leading Jenůfa.

Outstanding performance (male lead): Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. This was a tough call in a year with great singing, but Kwiecień’s duets with Michael Fabiano were angelic.

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. Photo by Dan Honda.

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. Photo by Dan Honda.

Outstanding performance (female lead): Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Jenůfa. A stunning performance that made me kick myself yet again for not seeing Věc Makropulos the first time it came around.

Karita Mattila (Kostelnicka Buryjovka) in Jenůfa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Karita Mattila (Kostelnicka Buryjovka) in Jenůfa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Outstanding performance (couples skate): Irene Roberts as Carmen and Brian Jagde as Don José in Carmen. This couple really sizzled.

Outstanding debut performance (soprano): Malin Byström as Jenůfa in Jenůfa. While Karita Mattila was the star of the show, Byström superbly managed the delicate task of moving from a relatively innocent but passionate youthfulness to an emotional and world-weary angst.

Outstanding debut performance (mezzo) (tie): J’Nai Bridges as Bersi in Andrea Chénier and Hyona Kim as Lady Wang in Dream of the Red Chamber. Bridges impressed in a small role (and I was to enjoy her again as Nefertiti in Akhnaten) while Kim sunk her teeth into the juicy role of Lady Wang.

Hyona Kim as Lady Wang (left) in Dream of the Red Chamber and J’Nai Bridges as Bersi (right) in Andrea Chénier. Photos by Cory Weaver.

Hyona Kim as Lady Wang (left) in Dream of the Red Chamber and J’Nai Bridges as Bersi (right) in Andrea Chénier. Photos by Cory Weaver.

Outstanding debut performance (tenor): Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto in Don Pasquale. How Brownlee maintained such an incredible tone through all the physical comedy required in this production I’ll never know.

Outstanding debut performance (baritone): George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard in Andrea Chénier. Though basically the third wheel in this opera, Gagnidze outshone his colleagues on opening night, especially with his delivery of “Nemico della patria” in Act III.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard (left) in Andrea Chénier. Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto (right) in Don Pasquale. Photos by Cory Weaver.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard (left) in Andrea Chénier. Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto (right) in Don Pasquale. Photos by Cory Weaver.

Outstanding performance (Italian): Maurizio Muraro in Don Pasquale. Muraro had quite a bit of spoken text as Don Pasquale and it was refreshingly to hear it from a native Italian.

Outstanding aria: “La mamma morta” from Andrea Chénier, sung by Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena.

Adler Fellow of the year: Edward Nelson in Carmen and Don Pasquale. In Carmen, he elevated the role of Moralès, one I don’t typically notice. In Don Pasquale, where I was looking forward to Lucas Meachem, Nelson more than delivered.

Favorite program cover: Andrea Chénier. How could I not pick this one? Despite the fact that this Delacroix painting depicts the Trois Glorieuses (July Revolution) of 1830, this was a perfect choice for an opera about the French Revolution. Plus, it may prove to be remarkably prescient for our times.


The Charlie Brown award for most rocks: Jenůfa. While I loved this production, the rock metaphor was the most heavy-handed thing I’ve seen in a long time.

The Charlie Brown award for most rocks (runner-up): Dream of the Red Chamber. Seriously what was it with rocks this year?

Pureum Jo as Dai Yu in Dream of the Red Chamber. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Pureum Jo as Dai Yu in Dream of the Red Chamber. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The Big Sleep award for most nonsensical plot: Don Pasquale. Why does Dr. Malatesta set up Don Pasquale for a fall? Why does he decide to help Ernesto? When exactly did Norina and Malatesta hatch their scheme? And why is Ernesto not in on it? Why does Pasquale still agree to the wedding once he sees what they’ve done? Even by opera buffa standards, this is ridiculous.

The Big Sleep award for most nonsensical plot (runner-up): Věc Makropulos. Sure, the plot as explained in program notes basically makes sense, but it is not explained in the opera very well so consider yourself forewarned that this is not an opera you want to go into blind.

The Jacques Prévert award for best use of leaves: Dream of the Red Chamber. A lovely bit of stagecraft in Dream was women literally sweeping changing colored falling leaves across the stage to indicate the changing seasons.

The Claire Denis award for most appreciation of the male body: Carmen. Operas in general aren’t known for a tremendous amount of skin, but Calixto Bieito’s production put the male body on display at multiple points. In the opening, a man literally runs circles around the soldiers’ camp in his underwear and at the entr’acte a lone, naked toreador (discreetly shadowed) performs a ritual dance. [Shout-out to L.A Opera’s Akhnaten for being a bit more forthright, with full-frontal front and center.]

The L. Frank Baum award for best Cowardly Lion impersonation: Qiulin Zhang as Granny Jia in Dream of the Red Chamber. Once La Maratonista pointed this out to me at intermission, I just couldn’t control myself every time she sang in the second act.

The Duchess of Cambridge award for best coats: Jenůfa. I coveted the coat on the mayor’s wife, but Quinn also looked quite sharp in his fur-lined number.

Best crowd control: Carmen. Too often, the blocking of the chorus in operas is, well, blocky. Here it was very fluid and natural. Of particular note was the bullfight crowd in the final act where the blocking emphasized how the action between the two leads is simply a mirror of what is happening offstage in the bullring.


Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty surrounded by the ensemble in Věc Makropulos. Photo by Cory Weaver.

And so the clock runs down on another year and another round of Figaros. Given the strength of 2016, I certainly look forward to what the summer season will bring in 2017.

As always, a big shout-out to La Maratonista for being such a great opera companion.

Feel free to comment or argue for your favorite (and not-so-favorite) moments of the season below.