My Nephew Emmett: Writer-director Kevin Wilson Jr. captures the dread before the horror.
Ten years ago, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to No Country for Old Men — a solid choice, even though I would have gone with There Will Be Blood. (Not that you asked.) These are the Best Pictures from the years that followed: Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, and Moonlight.
Reader, ask yourself: how many of those do you consider to be great movies lo these several years later? Some, perhaps; greatness is a notoriously slippery notion, almost as slippery as “Best.” But certainly not all. Some of them probably aren’t even memorable. A few are downright baffling.
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One thing is certain: the Academy sure does like movies about movies (The Artist, Argo, Birdman). So is another thing: the Oscars are marketing masquerading as aesthetics. Everybody knows this; it’s almost too commonplace to mention. But I’m mentioning it, if only to salve my conscience for jumping into the fray. Or at least, the very remotest edge of the fray: the short-film category, currently on display at the Landmark Ken.
What Will Win: My Nephew Emmett, writer-director Kevin Wilson Jr.’s oblique portrait of Mose Wright, one of the heroes to emerge from the awful moment in American history that was the Emmett Till murder. Till was a black teenager from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi, including his Uncle Mose. After he was accused of whistling at and propositioning a white woman, he was taken from Wright’s house by two white men, brutally beaten, and murdered. Till’s mother famously insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son, and a photograph of the corpse became an icon of the civil rights movement. Wright, for his part, was the man who identified Till’s abductor in court, an act of astonishing bravery. He also recorded his account for a newsreel, and that’s the moment that ends Wilson’s short. What comes before is a skilled exercise in mood and mounting fear, from the moment Wright (L.B. Williams) hears tell of the whistling, through his late-night vigil with a shotgun in his lap, to the moment he is roused from bed (but not sleep) by a pounding on the door. Wilson knows he has a great face in Williams and he makes the most of it, especially through minimal, thoughtful lighting — Mose is a man overshadowed by dread. The final, futile confrontation between Wright and the murderers bears a smudge of Hollywood drama, but it is quickly erased by the sight of Wright on his porch, staring in broken horror after the vanishing pickup.
What Should Win: Surprise: My Nephew Emmett. The other real contender is Katja Benrath’s Watu Wote — All of Us, which dramatizes the story of the 2015 Al-Shabaab bus attack in Kenya. Jua, a Christian woman who has lost both husband and child to Muslim terrorists, boards a bus full of Muslims to go visit her ailing mother. Needless to say, she is feeling less than neighborly. The police escort breaks down, but it turns out that civilization consists of something more than the rule of law. The storytelling isn’t subtle, but considering the heroism that eventually goes on display, maybe it doesn’t need to be. The acting helps, too.
Really, the acting is solid all ’round, even in the lesser entries. DeKalb Elementary uses the school’s main office as a stage for its two players: a secretary of unusual composure and compassion and a mentally unstable schlub with an assault rifle. It turns out that it, too, is based on a real incident, but the rest of reality was the enemy here: I couldn’t stop thinking of all the shootings where conversation wasn’t even possible, where the shooter arrived and started firing and didn’t stop until stopped. It isn’t often that I think a film should start with “Based on actual events” — this might be an exception.
The Eleven O’Clock is a delightful adventure in insanity, as a psychiatrist meets with a patient who believes he is a psychiatrist, undermined by a failure to think its scenario all the way through. And even The Silent Child, which turns out to be a PSA in support of sign-language education in schools, begins promisingly with its presentation of a loving, high-achieving family that doesn’t mean to fail its most needy member but does anyway.
What Will Win: Dave Mullins’ Lou, the story of a sentient Lost & Found collection at a school playground and its efforts to rehabilitate a budding bully. The creature is adorable, all springs and socks and discombobulated resourcefulness. And the message is admirable: bullies may themselves be victims of one sort or another, and the best way to remove a vice is through opposing acts of virtue. Sure, it feels like a happy fantasy of childhood, but that’s what Pixar’s all about, right? No? Pixar made its bones by getting at the sad truths of childhood? Well, I guess things change.
What Should Win: Florian Babikian and Vincent Bayoux’s Garden Party, for its gradual reveal of setting, for its almost uncomfortably lifelike frogs, and for its sly tribute to the circle of life.
As for the rest: the animated treatment of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes feels like one of those instances where an idea that was original when it first appeared in print (a dark twist on a shared fairy-tale universe) feels sadly and weirdly derivative when it finally shows up onscreen. Think John Carter of Mars or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Negative Space is an extended sweet ’n’ sour joke, and Dear Basketball feels like a Kobe Bryant vanity project, even though it probably isn’t.