A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
The cast and crew of La La Land were just beginning their acceptance speeches when it became clear that something was amiss: the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture had been wrongly announced. ‘We lost,’ said Fred Berger, one of La La Land’s producers. ‘This is not a joke,’ co-producer Jordan Horowitz confirmed.
The team behind the winning film – Moonlight – were ushered onto the stage of Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre. Moonlight’s director Barry Jenkins summed up the chaos that saw his epiphanic odyssey triumph: ‘Even in my dreams this could not be true. But to hell with it, I’m done with dreams – because this is true.’
The error was blamed on accounting firm PwC, which had handled the voting process for 83 years in order to avoid such a blunder. The wrong envelope was handed to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and the mistake not corrected quickly enough once the incorrect announcement made.
Both films had been recognised as frontrunners for the Oscar, although they represent very different sides of the movie coin. La La Land is director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his whirring, whizzing Whiplash, a film about an ambitious young jazz drummer. This time Chazelle has taken his fascination with artistry and beat to its conclusion and produced that rarest of beasts in contemporary cinema: a musical. Ryan Gosling stars as a musician, Sebastian, who comes to LA to fulfil his dream of setting up a jazz bar; once in the city he falls for Emma Stone’s wannabe actress, Mia. Their first, unrecognised, encounter is the film’s kaleidoscopic opener: drivers and passengers stuck in a traffic jam spill out onto the freeway for a joyful, undeniably uplifting number, which immediately sets out the film’s stall.
Inevitably referencing that greatest of all Hollywood musicals – Singin’ in the Rain – with Jacques Demy’s primary colours and even a dash of later Woody Allen, the film works best in its musical scenes. In between, as Seb and Mia struggle to make a success of their relationship as aspiration and career pull them apart, it is Stone who provides the sardonic wit to leaven this sweet confection and, ultimately, give it some heft.
It would be unfair to define La La Land as a superficial experience, but Moonlight is certainly a weightier affair. The rightful winner of the main prize at February 2017’s 89th Academy Awards depicts three ages of a gay African-American man who grows up in Miami and ends up in Atlanta, ‘presented… like the panels of a triptych’ according to the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.
In contrast with La La Land’s eye-popping palette and poppy score, Moonlight is shot to look like an Old Master painting, the film’s rich cinematography seemingly at odds with the drug taking and dealing at its heart, underpinned in this case by Nicholas Britell’s lovely score – this is unexpectedly epic, old-fashioned movie-making that explores contemporary themes. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play the central character known chronologically as Little, Chiron and, finally, Black. Born to a drug-addict mother, played by Naomie Harris, Little is a bullied child who develops into an outsider, unable to express his love for classmate Kevin, until he finally lashes out with all his repressed rage, and is jailed. He emerges as a dealer, inspired presumably by the only father figure in his life, a drug baron unerringly portrayed by Mahershala Ali who, incidentally, became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, taking the best supporting actor statuette for his role.
Running Moonlight and La La Land close was a third leading contender for the prize: Manchester by the Sea, another of director Kenneth Lonergan’s self-penned wonders, to stand alongside You Can Count on Me (2000) and 2011’s Margaret. There is the usual felicity of expression and puckish humour, despite mining one of the darkest moments that life could throw at anyone. Casey Affleck is Lee, a monosyllabic janitor who is pulled back to his eponymous Massachusetts home town by the death of his brother; as Lee struggles to take care of his brother’s teenage son, the story of Lee’s unhappy relationship with the town, and with the burden of affection, is gradually revealed. It’s heartbreaking.
Lonergan was rewarded with the best original screenplay gong and Affleck won the Oscar for best actor; best actress was La La Land’s Emma Stone. Her Oscar competition included two intriguing nominations: French star Isabelle Huppert for Elle and Natalie Portman for her engaging portrayal of Jackie Kennedy.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE
Jackie is Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín’s (No) first English-language film and follows Kennedy in the days following JFK’s assassination. Previous attempts to capture the photogenic, enigmatic Jackie have floundered under the weight of historical expectation – plus the demands of her chic wardrobe – but Larraín’s intimate portrayal encapsulates Kennedy’s raw grief, alongside male political machinations of the time, all scored by composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin).
It is sedate and accommodating, something you’ll never get from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Black Book), whose Elle is possibly the year’s most challenging offering and certainly one of the oddest. Sometimes cold and distant, here Huppert is feisty, funny and beautiful as a successful video-game company founder who is raped at home by a masked man; she receives anonymous threats but, as the daughter of a notorious serial killer, she declines to involve the police.
The film has misleadingly been characterised as a ‘rape-revenge black comedy’; its instincts are darker, more disturbing and perhaps even deranged. The result may also have afforded Huppert her greatest role thus far, outstripping her performance as an academic coping with the break-up of her marriage in Mia Hansen-Løve’s wonderful Things to Come, which played on UK screens in September 2016.
It’s worth recalling, too, Huppert’s delicious line at the BAFTA ceremony in February 2017, when called upon to present the outstanding contribution award to Curzon Cinema: ‘Can I just say that after receiving most promising newcomer in 1978, I really had no idea I’d be back so soon.’
Despite its craftsmanship, there was no place for Elle among the Oscar nominations for the year’s best foreign-language films, nor for Spanish perennial Pedro Almodóvar’s splendid Julieta, adapted from three short stories by Alice Munro. Described by the director as a ‘return to the cinema of women’, it’s also a welcome return to form: missing her daughter, the title character (played by Emma Suárez) reflects on her own freewheeling youth when she – now played by Adriana Ugarte – falls for a Galician fisherman. Trademark melodrama, camp humour and rich visuals are matched with a sense of mystery for a deeply satisfying drama.
There was space, however, for another of the year’s strangest films: Toni Erdmann, German director Maren Ade’s comedy starring Peter Simonischek as an oddball teacher. Disorientated by the death of his dog, he makes an announced visit to his daughter, who seems no happier in her business-consultant job in Romania. Their odd-couple relationship takes on increasingly surrealistic tones. The category’s Academy Award was won by Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, loosely inspired by Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, which features in the film. A Tehran couple who dabble in amateur theatre are forced to move home, where a shocking event derails their middle-class calm.
In the wake of US president Donald Trump’s January executive order blocking visas for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Farhadi announced his boycott of the Oscars. London’s astute mayor, Sadiq Khan, quickly announced that the city would host an open-air screening of The Salesman in Trafalgar Square on Oscars night. ‘This will not only be a celebration of film and the power of great cinema, but a celebration of London – who we are as a city, our culture and our amazing creative industries,’ he wrote in the Evening Standard newspaper.
Marking a sea-change in the established studio-led dynamic, four Academy Awards were won by streaming services: Amazon Studios invested in both Manchester by the Sea and The Salesman, and its biggest rival, Netflix, won in the best documentary short category.
No science-fiction film has ever won the Academy Award for best picture; this year director Denis Villeneuve’s diverting Arrival was nominated in eight categories but only took home one technical award, for best achievement in sound editing. Arrival is an excellent addition to the genre and stars the formidable Amy Adams as a linguist whose skills are required when spacecraft bearing pairs of incomprehensible alien ‘heptapods’ land on Earth. Alongside Jeremy Renner’s physics professor, it is essentially a two hander, with 14 legs. Despite delving into the intricacies of linguistic theory, Villeneuve nevertheless delivers a mystical slice of entertainment.
A couple of other mentions among the technical winners: Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (best sound mixing), based on the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), who performed feats of extraordinary bravery on a Second World War battlefield. And in the costume-design stakes, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them scored the first Academy Award for a film in what is known as J. K. Rowling’s ‘Wizarding World’. Fantastic Beasts takes its title from and riffs upon a textbook in the Harry Potter universe; cast out from Hogwarts wizarding school, the book’s author, ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), ends up in 1926 New York, where witches and wizards are trying to keep their pointy hats under wraps, until some of Scamander’s menagerie escape from his suitcase and chaos ensues.
Director David Yates has previously been entrusted with four films in the Potter franchise, and delivers a suitably magical ecological fable. Necessarily he has to rely on special effects for his fantastic beasts, but he engenders particularly engaging performances from the film’s main stars: Redmayne, Dan Fogler – as a baker who joins in the crazy creature chase – and Katherine Waterston, playing a witch who becomes embroiled with the duo. Four further instalments in the series are awaited with anticipation.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is another spin-off from the venerated series. Set before the events of the very first movie (1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), it features British star Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) as Jyn Erso, the daughter of a scientist forced to work on designing the Death Star. Jyn soon becomes part of a renegade team who set out to steal her father’s blueprints.
The rebels are a multicultural pack, including Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También), Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) and Donnie Yen, as a blind warrior. Directed with considerable verve by another Brit, Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters), the film arguably outstrips the last film in the Star Wars saga proper – The Force Awakens – for drama and characterisation. Released just before Christmas 2016, Rogue One became the second-highest grossing film of that year, after Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War.
Meanwhile Doctor Strange became the 14th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and features Benedict Cumberbatch as one of the comic stable’s lesser-known superheroes. Created in the 1960s, Strange is a slightly trippy character rooted in his time, but this unconventional outing proved a success critically and financially, and no doubt augurs more outings for Cumberbatch in the red cape.
Another Marvel oddity is Guardians of the Galaxy – an ironic, retro space-ride led by the diverse attractions of a raccoon bounty hunter (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a monosyllabic talking tree (Vin Diesel) and Chris Pratt’s interstellar scrap collector, who is determined in April 2017’s Volume Two to uncover the secret of his alien ancestry. The wisecracking, pop culture-heavy script is by James Gunn, and a third and final instalment is his – and the audience’s – inevitable reward.
Hugh Jackman returned in March for the third and final solo Wolverine film – and the tenth in the X-Men series – Logan. In a future where mutants are illegal, Jackman’s Logan has wound up as a limo driver, and as a carer to his aged mentor Professor Xavier (poignantly played by Sir Patrick Stewart). The arrival of Dafne Keen’s Laura signals that Logan must himself become a mentor to a new generation of mutants. At the time of writing, it was one of the top-ten highest grossing films of 2017.
THE FATEFUL EIGHTH
Near the top of the charts, inevitably, was the eighth instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise: The Fate of the Furious, starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Michelle Rodriguez. Diesel’s Dom has settled down with Letty (Rodriguez) when cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) intervenes. There is a cameo, too, for Helen Mirren, as Jason Statham’s mother. The film proved so irresistible that it landed just outside the top ten of the highest grossing films of all-time, behind another newcomer: Beauty and the Beast, the latest live-action reboot of a classic animation from Walt Disney Pictures. This time Harry Potter grad Emma Watson is Belle to Dan Stevens’ (Downton Abbey) Beast. As well as riffing on the 1991 original – including that ballroom scene – the film nods towards other big movie musicals, including The Sound of Music and Les Misérables.
In December 2016, Moana became Disney’s latest addition to its rich animated catalogue: an ancient Polynesian princess (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) must join forces with beefcake demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to lift the curse on her island home. Sailing delicate cultural waters, it boasts stunning visuals, the requisite catchy tunes, and the obligatory animal sidekick in the form of dumb chicken Heihei.
WOMEN AND WARTIME
The biggest female lead in the period under review, however, was undoubtedly Gal Gadot’s turn in Wonder Woman. The first female-led superhero movie since 2005’s misfiring Elektra, the film is directed by Patty Jenkins, who became the first woman to helm a feature with a $100m+ budget. In the event it recouped that figure on its first weekend in US cinemas alone in June 2017. Princess Diana of Themyscira and her fellow Amazonian warriors have been isolated from the humans, until Chris Pine’s pilot-spy crash-lands with news of the Great War, and Diana must enter the ‘world of men’. Unusually for a superhero film, 52 per cent of its audience was female; some had attended female-only screenings, events that were denounced in much the same way that Jodie Whittaker’s arrival in the Tardis on Doctor Who was decried by some online (see Media: Television).
In Their Finest, Gemma Arterton is plunged into her own male arena in wartime as Catrin Cole, a character inspired by the real-life Ealing screenwriter Diana Morgan. Hired to turn out ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue – for a film about Dunkirk, she charms the film’s ageing star, played as winningly as ever by Bill Nighy, and its head writer (Sam Claflin, My Cousin Rachel). Director Lone Scherfig pulls the strings of a charming script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel by Lissa Evans, delighting in the magic and artifice that cinema provides.
Nowhere is that more to the fore than in Dunkirk itself, summer 2017’s blockbuster from Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight; Inception). The director’s own script chronicles the ten days in 1940 when 400,000 Allied troops were trapped in the northern French coastal town by advancing German forces. Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy star respectively as a naval commander and Spitfire pilot tasked with protecting the men while Mark Rylance is one of the civilian boatmen who set off to rescue the likes of Cillian Murphy and One Direction’s Harry Styles. Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) is the cinematographer for this 70mm presentation, and Hans Zimmer the composer.
In cinemas concurrently was War for the Planet of the Apes, the final part of the prequel trilogy. Since 2011’s opening reboot, directors Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves have applied careful logic and haunting motion-capture technology to their 1968 source, starring Charlton Heston. This time, Andy Serkis’ Caesar is out to rescue fellow apes held prisoner by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, in a film that confidently references Westerns and war movies, encapsulated by the ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’ piece of graffiti glimpsed on screen.