As an undergraduate, David Edelstein ’81 could often be found at The Harvard Crimson, fine-tuning his very first film reviews. Today Edelstein reviews movies for New York magazine (as chief film critic), National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” and “CBS Sunday Morning.” Ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, we asked him about his favorite films of the past year.
GAZETTE: What was your best film for 2017?
EDELSTEIN: Some years it’s really a struggle when my magazine says, “What’s the best film of the year?” Sometimes it’s between two, sometimes it’s between three — except for this year. This year by leaps my favorite film was “The Florida Project,” and it was completely passed over except for [best supporting actor nominee] Willem Dafoe, who will lose, unfortunately. … I thought it was as close to a masterpiece as anything I have seen in the last five years. And to me the fact that the voters in the Academy didn’t get it is a very sad judgment on them.
GAZETTE: Is there a performance that was totally overlooked by the Academy this year?
EDELSTEIN: There was a movie about Emily Dickinson, “A Quiet Passion,” by Terence Davies, who is just a brilliant English filmmaker. I didn’t like the script of the movie at all, but I thought what Cynthia Nixon did with Dickinson was transcendent, and that’s a word I use very knowingly based on my courses at Harvard about what the Transcendentalists meant and what Emily Dickinson meant. … Nixon is a miraculous actress. Everybody knows how good she is, but nobody seems to know how great she is.
GAZETTE: Aside from your top 10, can you name two or three movies that people probably haven’t seen but should?
EDELSTEIN: Documentaries sometimes do get recognized for Academy Awards, but they don’t cross over. When you see a movie like “Last Men in Aleppo,” or another movie that got overlooked, “Nowhere to Hide,” you see we are so cut off from the impact of our bombs, literally and metaphorically.
GAZETTE: What is the Oscar category that gets the least attention but has the biggest impact on a film?
EDELSTEIN: It really depends on the film. Different directors utilize different contributions. A lot of times really, really great editing is editing that you don’t see. Music can haunt you in ways that you aren’t even aware of — you are not conscious of how the music is working on you.
It extends to performances. What wins the award for performances is acting you can see — it’s impersonations, it’s Meryl Streep, it’s people playing mentally or physically disabled people, transforming themselves according to some biopic idea, as in “Darkest Hour,” the Winston Churchill movie. It’s very rare that they will come along and give an award to acting that is just kind of behaving, what Willem Dafoe does in “The Florida Project.” You can’t see the acting but it’s all there. Forty years, 50 years of brilliant work on stage and in film. Some of it’s very theatrical, some of it’s very clairvoyant. He’s in that performance and yet it doesn’t register as “great acting.”
Streep is very often brilliant, very often deserves all the love, but it’s not my favorite kind of film acting. Actually an actress who I am surprised has the kind of the love that she does is Saoirse Ronan because with her you can’t see the acting. She’s just perfect. She has never given a less than brilliant performance. And I am very happy she is getting attention.