By Kelly MacConomy
‘Tis the season to see movies! Fa La La La Land promises to put out its best and brightest films as a gift, compensating for lackluster summer blockbuster offerings and a slow start to the fall film festival roll out of Oscar and major award contenders.
The reliably glittering star-studded Middleburg Film Festival, held at the fabulous, swanky horse country retreat Salamander Resort and Spa, never fails to be a barometer for the best films of the year, particularly those in consideration for the various Hollywood high-fiving events beginning in December. The annual festival in its sixth year showcases select independent and major studio film productions well before theatrical release. In the past they have screened top-honored films such as Best Picture 2015 Spotlight, almost, for a minute, Best Picture 2016 La La Land, BP-nominated Loving and Manchester by the Sea among numerous others.
This year’s film festival favorite was Green Book. At Z Movies predicts it will lead the award nominations and wins. Sheila Johnson, founder of the Middleburg Film Festival and owner of the Salamander retreat, gave Green Book her own two thumbs up as not only the best film of the festival but likely the finest of 2018. At Z Movies couldn’t agree more.
Viggo Mortensen gives the performance of his career. No stranger to Best Picture box office standouts, Mortensen starred in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Best Picture of His humorous yet poignant portrayal of a somewhat brutish Italian-American New York huckster hired to drive a poised and erudite concert pianist, played by Mahershala Ali, on his tour through the segregated Deep South, is certain to earn him a few gold and glass trophies.
Mahershala Ali’s elegant, understated portrayal of Dr. Shirley is pure perfection. Under the surprisingly subtle direction of half the brotherly comedy duo, Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Stuck on You), Mortensen and Ali shine equally making the Best Actor versus Best Supporting Actor nomination determination a genuine quandary. Ali studied film appearances by Dr. Shirley in the 2011 documentary Lost Bohemia about the artists who resided in studios above the storied Carnegie Hall including Enrico Caruso, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Marilyn Monroe – all said to haunt the venerable halls. Hopefully Dr. Shirley entertains them still, bedazzling the ivories.
The film is not merely Driving Miss Daisy meets Dumb and Smarter on the road to Oscar.
It’s so much more. The true story behind Green Book is a relic of a shameful past in American history. Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker created The Negro Motorist Green Book, popularly called the Green Book, in 1936 as a guide for African American travelers navigating their way through Jim Crow America. Accommodations, dining, shopping, garage repairs, beauty salons, beaches in addition to buses, bathrooms and water fountains were segregated well into the 1960’s.
While the pervasive humor makes the film all the more engaging, the context of the racist origins of the film title is never lost. Not once. Based upon the true friendship of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Dr. Ron Shirley the screenplay, also by Peter Farrelly along with Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son) and Brian Hayes Currie, weaves a complex relationship that transcends time and race. Tony and Dr. Shirley remained devoted friends for the remainder of their lives, passing five months apart in January and April, 2013.
Viggo Mortensen and Peter Farrelly were present at the screening of Green Book in Middleburg to the delight of the film festival fans. It was disarming to see the King of Gondor seated next to the man who brought us Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. Green Book is a timely, diverting buddy/road-trip comedy with gravitas. It’s got heart. And a lot of soul.
Another awards season notably outstanding film is Boy Erased. Veteran supporting actor turned leading man Joel Edgerton (Great Gatsby, Loving; Red Sparrow) took the helm of this passion project- directing, writing, producing and starring in the film. The gifted and ubiquitous acting newcomer Lucas Hedges stars as a young man confronting his sexual identity being forced to comply with his parents’ (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) wishes that he participate in a conversion therapy program. Based upon the true story and book by Garrard Conley, who along with Joel Edgerton attended the screening, speaking to the film audience who had embraced Boy Erased enthusiastically, the film received a standing ovation second only to Green Book in sustained applause.
The festival kickoff screening was a preview of Roma, a black and white foreign film masterpiece by Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar-winning director of Gravity. This epic retelling of his boyhood in Mexico City revisiting the drama surrounding his parents’ relationship amid the tragic pregnancy of his caretaker is a cinematic must-see tour-de-force. A Best Foreign Film certainty with a potential Best Picture nod. Roma is a filmmaker’s film. You will either love it or you won’t get it. As Joel Edgerton told the film aficionados gathered to hear him speak about filmmaking…… “Roma is incredible! If someone out there didn’t love it be warned, I’m gonna have to hurt you.”
Another film festival favorite was The Frontrunner starring Hugh Jackman as the scandalized 1988 Democratic Presidential candidate Gary Hart. Director Jason Reitman hosted the screening in Middleburg, giving a standing-room only fireside chat to rapt festival goers in the Salamander library much as Joel Edgerton did the day before. Hugh Jackman delivers a thoughtful, passionate performance as the man who would be king. In the context of today’s political circus and media morality plays, the story has profound resonance and timeliness.
Free Solo, the National Geographic documentary, was also screened at Middlelburg and is sure to be a favored feature-length documentary at the awards events. The Widows, directed by Steve McQueen of Best Picture 2013 Twelve Years a Slave fame, proves that the year of the woman ain’t over and heist films with a femme fatale twist can prevail- even kick die-hard film critic butt. Also watch for Oscar winners Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz getting some recognition for their tempestuous rivalrous cat fighting in The Favourite, opening Christmas Day.
A film shown at the MFF that may prove to be a sleeper with members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts is At Eternity’s Gate starring the always brilliant William Dafoe as the tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh. Sure to be nominated for his convincing Vincent- the resemblance is uncanny- DaFoe crafted a plaintive portrayal of Van Gogh, capturing his anguished genius with incomparable veracity. DaFoe was virtually possessed. He channeled Vincent’s persona, painting many of the canvases depicted in the film along with the über artist Julian Schnabel. DaFoe and Schnabel also assumed producer roles under the mantle of veteran Jon Kilik of the Hunger Games film franchise, who is a good friend of Schnabel and himself a distinguished collector of modern art.
Schnabel not only wrote, directed and recreated the iconic Van Gogh masterpieces but he composed and performed the haunting elegiacal score. The film is groundbreaking. Hand- held camera filming techniques and curtain drop cut-to-black voiceover breaks for narration by DaFoe quoting the anguished visionary paint a portrait of the artist as an agonized man with mesmerizing hypnotic focus. Oscar Isaac makes a compelling almost upstaging cameo appearance as Paul Gauguin. At Eternity’s Gate is mind-blowing, gut-wrenching and astonishing filmmaking at its finest.
Looks like Santa is making his Oscar predictions list and is checking it twice with more notable films to come for the holidays. Stay tuned as awards season kicks off this month in Ho Ho Hollywood. Meantime see you at Z movies!
Note: If you haven’t caught Bohemian Rhapsody go now! Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen, with substantive supporting back-up (It’s great to see Joe Mazello- Tim from Jurassic Park- mugging for the camera again) gives a transformative performance. He’s a contendah!!!
Bohemian Rhapsody is currently showing at AMC Hoffman Center 22 Theater. All screened films are rated PG-13 or R for language, mature themes and some nudity.