Call this my "Let's Guess What Will Get Oscar Nominations" post.
Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017). Icarus is only the second feature (and first documentary) directed by Bryan Fogel. Fogel is, among other things, an amateur cyclist who decides to try performance-enhancing drugs to increase his chance of winning a big amateur race. His scheme leads him to Russian Grigory Rodchenkov, who is the real star of the movie. He has charisma, he has a backstory (he was the head of Russia's anti-doping lab, where he worked to help Russian athletes escape being caught using drugs), and he is the gateway for an examination of Russia and doping that leads, cliche or not, right to the top, i.e. Vladimir Putin. This would make a good one-hour documentary, even 90 minutes if you include the unreliable narrator aspect of Rodchenkov's presentation of himself. But Icarus runs two hours, with Fogel wasting far too much time on the setup, in which he is, of course, centrally involved. If Fogel had spent a couple of minutes explaining how Rodchenkov enters the scene, he'd have a more focused (and shorter) movie. Instead, Fogel, purposely or not, puts himself at the front of the narrative more than is necessary. Icarus is a solid film, but it's no classic. 7/10.
Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Here we have a "based on real life" historical drama about England, Churchill, and World War II, set in May 1940. Wright doesn't make any mistakes about who is the center of his movie: the larger-than-life Winston Churchill (with an interesting performance by Gary Oldman, who stops just short of hamming it up in creating a believable Churchill). Darkest Hour is close enough to the real events that it's mostly nitpicking to point out where it deviates. Ultimately, your reaction to the movie may depend in large part on your opinion of the real-life Winston Churchill. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make sure to include just enough unlikable details to forestall any criticism that they have created a hagiography ... Churchill drank all the time, he smoked stinky cigars all the time, none of his fellow politicians liked him. But we get nothing of his imperialist tendencies, and I suppose it could be argued that this not a movie about that, but nonetheless, I liked the film less because Churchill was the hero, and I distrusted the film a bit because, well, because Churchill was the hero. I might feel differently if I were British ... it is certainly true that Churchill was vital in leading Britain during the war. Suffice to say that the Churchill family apparently likes the movie.
There was one scene I found objectionable, and I'd think most would agree with me, except Owen Gleiberman called it a "showpiece sequence". At a crucial moment, Churchill decides to take the subway, and ... well, I'll let Gleiberman explain:
He introduces himself to the citizens, communing deeply with each one of their names, and asks them whether Britain should stand tall against tyranny. The answer comes roaring back, from citizen after shining-eyed citizen: Yes! Stand against tyranny! The scene culminates with Churchill offering words of Macaulay that are completed, in a flawless quotation, by a vibrant black Londoner. It’s all so rosy and multiculti and inspiring that you feel like you’re seeing a remake of “My Beautiful Laundrette” directed by the ghost of David Lean.
Of course, that’s what’s utterly fabricated and even eye-rolling about it. It’s a scene that’s — transparently — too good to be true. Yet it plays as Oldman’s Oscar-clinching moment: the clip that was made to be shown, in triumph, on the telecast. It’s the best scene in the movie, or the worst. Or maybe both.
Count me on Team Eye-Roll. The black guy ... the only black guy on the subway car, pretty much the only black guy in the movie ... he's the one literate enough to complete Churchill's quotation. He's a concoction designed simply to show that Churchill listened to all of the people, even the black guy. Churchill, the man who famously said, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."
So you have a lead performance worthy of an Oscar in an interesting movie that, when it falters, fails miserably. 7/10.