The Best Pictures that I’ve seen this year

Last week I was in Taiwan — more on that to come — and thanks to jet lag, I only made it through half of the Oscars on Sunday night. I recorded the rest, but when I woke up at 4 a.m. the next day, Facebook spoiled me for the big awards. Ah well.

I’m happy for all of the winners, but having now seen 4 out of the 8 Best Picture nominees, I do think Selma was snubbed in several categories, and I can’t for the life of me understand why.

Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. Sigh.

Anyway, in the awards season spirit of honoring great storytelling, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the “Best Pictures” that I’ve seen this year.

The Imitation Game

The-Imitation-Game-Poster-5

I actually mentioned this one earlier. Basically: it’s solid and well-made in every way, and I appreciated the historical context.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a good job differentiating Alan Turing’s social obliviousness and vulnerability from the social indifference and snobbery of Sherlock Holmes. I never quite forgot that Keira Knightley was Keira Knightley, but she portrayed Joan Clarke well nevertheless. Matthew Goode was both excellent and dashing. Why is he not in more things?

Grand Budapest Hotel

the-grand-budapest-hotel-posterCaught this one on cable. I find Wes Anderson to be interesting but a bit overrated, and Grand Budapest Hotel did nothing to change that impression for me. The movie is amazingly crafted, every detail impeccably styled. But for all its prettiness, the story seemed a bit pointless to me. It’s a bromance, I guess? And it makes some sort of commentary on an old-fashioned sense of honor and doing things the “right” way? I dunno. The plot and themes seemed to be afterthoughts, simply there to justify the aesthetic.

Selma

I was afraid Selma would be out of theaters by the time I got back from Taiwan, so between errands and packing, I squeezed in a weekday matinee.

Selma was, in a word, powerful. David Oyelowo deftly carried the weight of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, but he was also supported by a superb cast. In particular, Carmen Ejogo shone, along with Stephan James as the young civil rights activist and future congressman John Lewis, and Keith Jackson (from Short Term 12) in the heartbreaking role of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

SELMA-movie-poster2-800x800

At this point I would say that Dr. King is known for his idealism and inspiring speeches, but I loved seeing the strategic side of his movement too — as well as having that balanced out by people who didn’t fully support him, and understanding why. In addition to being moved to tears many, many times, I felt liked I learned.

For better or worse, I had the entire theater to myself, so I was able to capture a couple of my favorite quotes on my phone:

No citizen of this country can call themselves blameless for we all bear a responsibility for our fellow man.

Boyhood

Andy and I watched this one together on the flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo. Thank you, Delta in-flight entertainment system.

Boyhood-movie-poster

The production of this film is a fascinating story all on its own. Filmed during one month of every year for 12 years, with an overall arc in place ahead of time, but with specific scenes being written each year based on how the lead actor has grown and on what had come before. A unique and ambitious project, for sure.

I liked the idea of following a character through such a formative period in his life — and there was definitely something special about it being one young actor growing up before our eyes, as opposed to casting multiple actors to play the same character at various ages.

In some ways, nothing really happens. There isn’t some big plot to follow. It’s just life. But in spite of that — or maybe because of it — Boyhood is strangely compelling.

Also, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both outstanding.

12 Years a Slave

urlLast year’s Best Picture winner. Better late than never.

I watched this one by myself, on the flight from Tokyo to Detroit. At first I didn’t enjoy how the beginning jumped around in time, but then I thought about the way it reflected Solomon Northrup’s longing for home, and his precious memories of his family and freedom, and I decided it was a good device.

All of the performances were pretty stellar, especially Lupita Nyong’o. Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch might actually have been the weak spots, which is both unusual and not that bad of a problem to have. Chiwetel Ejiofor was his usual awesome, understated self, and Michael Fassbender (who I will no longer call my Hollywood Boyfriend, because I’ve outgrown that phase) was his usual creepy, unhinged self. I’m not sure what it says about him that he always takes these roles, or that he always does them so well… Hopefully nothing!

I actually watched several other movies and TV shows traveling to and from Taiwan (36 hours each way!) so you may be reading more about them in the near future. Right now, though, I have a manuscript to get back to. And jet lag to combat. And a million loads of laundry to tackle.

Week in review (Feb 3, 2015)

As an experiment, I’m doing away with the bullet points, even though they’re like a security blanket for me. “Oh, this is just a list, not a real blog post.” But what does that even mean, lol? What’s a fake blog post? And why do I have to take everything so seriously?

transparent-posterTransparent

Like Jane the VirginTransparent jumped to the forefront of my attention after its Golden Globes wins. I binge-watched all ten episodes on Sat, Jan 24, thanks to Amazon making them free to stream for that day. (Normally the series is only available to Amazon Prime members.) And just so you know that I’m not a total slug: I was cleaning while I watched.

Transparent felt like an HBO show to me — a bit like Girls, actually — in the sense that it’s well-written, well-acted, and well-produced, but not something that would probably appeal to the mainstream. Not because the topic is niche (though I suppose some would argue that it is…) but rather because the tone of the show just isn’t easy to swallow. It’s a dark comedy (meaning there’s humor, but not the kind that makes you laugh out loud) starring a fairly “unlikable” family. They’re all messed up and abrasive, and they make a lot of bad decisions.

That said, you do sympathize with them, because they love each other, and they’re doing the best they can. The acting is excellent, and there’s interesting storytelling at work too. Flashbacks that parallel the present storyline, or enhance it with revelations. Unreliable narration, or arguably magical realism, depending on your interpretation. Also, the sets are kind of old-timey and gorgeous.

For the most part I do enjoy the show, but I wish there were at least a couple well-adjusted characters. Partly because it would just be a nice contrast, but mostly because I worry about the (false) implication that a trans person can’t have a “normal” family. That by being trans — even (or especially) when she was closeted — Maura irrevocably damaged the people who she loves. I know that isn’t what Transparent is trying to say, but I fear that (so far) the show is sort of saying it anyway.

Krohn Conservatory

On the same day that I was streaming Transparent, an old friend came into town, so I took a break and we went to see the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired garden show at Krohn Conservatory. It was small, but smelled amazing. Wasn’t too bad to look at, either.

Small but beautiful exhibit at Krohn Conservatory, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A photo posted by Kristan (@kristanhoffman) on

Note to self: Get a plant. Something green and alive to freshen up your home.

MV5BMTI0NjEwNDgwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTI1NTA3._V1_SX640_SY720_Mona Lisa Smile

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Dead Poets Society, but I know the gist of it, and I’m pretty sure Mona Lisa Smile is the female version. Forward-thinking teacher inspires brilliant but hesitant young minds? Check!

Personally, I very much enjoyed the movie and its overtly feminist messaging. I also liked the entire cast, including the somewhat divisive Julia Roberts. (You either think she’s gorgeous or has a toothy horse face. I am in the former group.)

There aren’t any surprises in this movie, but that’s okay. It’s about character. My favorite moment, hands down, is when a heartbroken Betty (Kirsten Dunst) viciously lashes out at Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for being a slut with daddy issues, and Giselle just gathers her screaming, crying friend into her arms, and they hold each other.

Broomball

Usually Andy and I just play flag football from Sep to Nov, but this year the team wanted to try a few other sports in addition. Right now it’s broomball, which is like hockey without skates. And “brooms” instead of sticks. And a ball instead of a puck.

orange iguanas broomball

Yeah, it’s weird. But also surprisingly fun!

Writer Unboxed & the Super Bowl

Speaking of sports… Since my latest Writer Unboxed post fell on Super Bowl Sunday, I decided to spotlight 3 football players and share what I’ve learned from them about pursuing dreams.

“Talent, Perseverance, and Hard Work: Lessons on Writing from Football”

Fred Jackson may never end up in the Hall of Fame, but he’s got heart and soul, and he’s the reason I fell in love with football again. Although the odds of him making it to the NFL seemed grim, he had faith in himself, and passion for the sport. He is living his dream because he looks at every step of the process as an opportunity to improve and impress.

That’s the kind of writer I want to be.

“You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.”

An amazing anecdote from Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series:

Previously viewed

The Hundred Foot Journey

An Indian family opens a restaurant in a small French village, much to the indignation of the Michelin star restaurant right across the street. A story of culture, cuisine, and romance. Based on a novel.

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterI saw this movie months ago and still remember it vividly. There’s a bit of a Disney feel to it, despite the lack of animation. From the dramatic opening, to the picturesque new setting, to the large cast of quirky, endearing characters. Maybe the pieces fit together a little too perfectly, but at least they’re charming.

The movie does a good job of spreading the spotlight around, but I would say that technically, the main protagonist is the younger son of the Indian family, who also serves as their head chef. His arc over the course of the film was great. I loved (and identified with) the way that he attempted to bridge two cultures. Tried to please them both. And the way he pursued his passion to the highest levels.

The ending felt a bit rushed, relative to the luxurious pace of the rest, but it’s so pleasant and satisfying that I couldn’t help forgiving it.

Dear Mr. Watterson

A documentary about the much beloved comic strip “Calvin & Hobbes,” its impact on a generation of readers, and its semi-reclusive creator Bill Watterson.

dear-mr-watterson-2013-posterI loved comics as a kid. Garfield, Zits, Foxtrot, 9 Chickweed Lane… But most of all, Calvin & Hobbes. I have all the books. Those thick, beautifully drawn and cleverly written collections taught me important philosophies on life without my even realizing it. Like most kids, I thought I was just reading about a mischievous, imaginative little boy and his tiger best friend.

I enjoyed learning about Watterson’s background and inspiration. (Apparently he has a Cincinnati connection, having reluctantly inked political cartoons for the local paper here.) I also admired Watterson’s championing of artistic integrity. He never wanted to “sell out” or commercialize Calvin & Hobbes beyond the books themselves.

At the same time, I’m reminded of Andy’s devil’s advocate argument to me whenever I go off on one of my “purity of the art” tangents: Sometimes pandering to the masses is the very thing that allows you to reach them.

I guess it’s a fine line — or a spectrum — and every artist much choose to sit where they feel comfortable.

bill watterson quote

Olive Kitteridge

A four-hour HBO mini-series based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories by Elizabeth Strout, which I loved. My “Reading Reflections” post can be found here.

olive-kitteridge-poster-405x600No surprise: HBO did a nice job. The mini-series is a beautiful and thoughtful adaptation. I think anyone who enjoyed the book would enjoy watching. (Even though they did leave out one of my favorite subplots.)

Interestingly, I showed the first episode to my parents (who have not read the book) and they found it depressing. I guess I can understand their reaction — Olive is a harsh woman, her husband is kind of dopey, and the townspeople face death, depression, drug abuse, and more. But even upon re-examination, I just don’t find Olive Kitteridge to be a downer. To me, it’s an unflinching look at love and life and yes, sometimes the damages we do to each other. But also the resiliency of the human spirit, and the vastness of the human heart.

That’s not depressing, it’s just real.

(And at times, there is beauty and joy.)

Nebraska

An old man believes he has won a million dollars and must go to Nebraska to collect it. His son reluctantly decides to take him.

large_vlCumulVFh1go4rrTcJ6MQNDUj5One could view Nebraska and Olive Kitteridge as two sides of the same coin. They both reflect on small town life, aging, and disappointment — but where Olive Kitteridge is sharp-edged and unapologetic, Nebraska is… if not exactly soft, then at least humorous. You are meant to laugh at the crazy old guy and his mean wife. You are meant to laugh at their two well-meaning but lackluster sons. And you are definitely meant to laugh at all the over-the-top family members and townspeople who come out of the woodwork when they believe a million dollars might be within their reach.

I don’t know why exactly this 2013 film is in black and white, but it’s an interesting choice that kind of shifts your brain into a different gear. That, combined with the dusty drama of the Middle America landscapes, makes the movie feel particularly out-of-time and introspective. Also, the intermittent laughs are accompanied by moments of great emotion, and the development of a deeper understanding between father and son.

I guess it’s no wonder my parents have watched this movie 3 and 4 times each.

Admission

Tina Fey and Paul Rudd star in this rom-com about a Princeton admissions counselor, the son she gave up for adoption, and the teacher that brings them together.

admission_xlgNot a holiday story exactly, but light-hearted fare. Paul Rudd is adorable as ever, and Tina Fey has her special brand of humor that appeals across generations. (True fact: My dad is a 30 Rock fan.) There are some odd bits — like Lily Tomlin’s character, and the imaginary high school seniors petitioning for their place at Princeton — but overall the movie lives up to expectations. Fun and sweet, with a dash of New England charm.

Week in review (Nov 23, 2014)

  • Quick Longmire update: Netflix picked it up for a 4th season, yay!
  • On Sunday, I posted over at Writer Unboxed about the two things that I’ve been doing recently in order to maintain a healthy mindset towards writing: “Rising Expectations, Daily Pages, and Having Fun.”
  • once musical logoAs part of our attempts to become more cultured, we went to see the musical Once. I loved how minimal the set and script were, allowing the music to really be the focus. I’ve loved the song “Falling Slowly” ever since I heard it on the Oscars years ago, but it was a special treat to hear it live.
  • Andy’s sister had her baby! Now we can all spoil this little jellybean rotten.
  • We also saw Interstellar, which was intricate and imaginative even beyond my expectations. There were a few developments that I predicted, but still plenty that took me by surprise. Most of all, I loved the theme of love being the one thing we humans perceive/experience that transcends time and space. (That said, I probably would have changed the ending a bit.)
  • And oh yeah, it was my birthday.