Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Best Films of the Aughts (60-69)

69. Talk to Her - dir. Pedro Almodóvar (2002)

"A woman’s brain is a mystery, and in this state even more so. You have to pay attention to women, talk to them, be thoughtful occasionally. Caress them. Remember they exist, they’re alive and they matter to us. That’s the only therapy. I know from experience."

68. Sherrybaby - dir. Laurie Collyer (2006)

"Lord please please please please please hear my extra prayer tonight. Forgive me my weaknesses and my mistakes. Give me the strength to take life one day at a time and take care of my daughter again. Amen."

67. The Savages - dir. Tamra Jenkins (2007)

"People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building. Right now! It’s a fucking horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and landscaping is just trying to obscure the miserable fact that people die and death is gaseous and gruesome and filled with piss and shit and rot and stink."

66. Lost in Translation - dir. Sofia
Coppola (2003)

"Let's never come here again because it will never be as much fun."

Spotlight--65. Erin Brockovich - dir. Steven Soderbergh (2000)

"Well, um, seeing as how I have no brains or legal expertise, and Ed here was losing all faith in the system, am I right? I just went out there and performed sexual favors. Six hundred and thirty-four blow jobs in five days... I'm really quite tired."

It's a serendipitous and wonderful thing when a movie star is celebrated for a star turn, deserving of all accolades and hyperbole, that seems to steamroll through all awards season precursors all the way to the podium on Oscar night. So rarely does it happen this way, particularly in the Best Actress category. There often seems to be a finely tuned mix of people's actual response to said performance and another, hard to pinpoint x-factor of "something else" that leads to people winning the Best Actress trophy.

Why have I begun my write-up of 2000's Erin Brockovich by bringing up the Best Actress race? Because (and I may be misreading the climate) it seems to be a widely held view that Julia Roberts coasted to an easy victory that she didn't deserve, or at the very least should have been met with more resistance (out come the Ellen Burstyn fans, complete with their torches and pitchforks). Eleven years later, I am proud to throw my full, weighty support, not just behind Roberts's radiant and accomplished turn, but the film itself. I worry that even fans of Julia's work here may write off the film as a feel-good trifle/bloated whistle-blower picture, all the while completely ignoring how richly Roberts and the film serve each other.

We open with a wonderful sequence of finely spliced together monologues by Erin (Julia Roberts), who is on the painstakingly difficult hunt for a job. In those early moments, we learn nearly all we need to about Erin Brockovich to warrant serious investment in this character. A little self-effacing, but intelligent. Wry, yet totally aware of the seriousness of her circumstances. It's quiet, unfussy and consistently on-character work in these first minutes that allow for the big meaty moments later on where Erin lets her frustration/lack of practical training get the better of her. On paper, all of this could read incredibly obvious and facile, but Roberts layers all of the elements beautifully, never forgetting one, when the scene mostly calls for the other. She has never been better, before or since. I say that not to denigrate Julia Roberts, who I actually like. I think that for any performer, her turn in Erin Brockovich is a tough thing to top. Her string of roles after this stunner don't really seem to be utilizing her talents appropriately, though the missteps are certainly understandable (Closer aside, in which I actually think Mike Nichols got some very interesting notes out of her). Her post-Brockovich directors, even Steven Soderbergh himself, seem content to saddle her with either large, external affectation (Charlie Wilson's War) or attempt to play on her stardom and her public persona in ways that are transparent in how commercially minded they are (Eat, Pray, Love). What I love about what Steven Soderbergh gets out of Roberts here is that he enhances so much about what already works about her as a performer--her comedic undertones, her sassiness, her accessible beauty and her warmth--while still fashioning a fascinating character that feels neither cloying nor obtusely against type.

Erin Brockovich is predictable, make no mistake. Even without knowing the details of the "true story" of how a plucky legal secretary took down a major corporation, one can probably guess with great accuracy where the film is headed. What we have here is an example of how dedication/investment in the craft of filmmaking can elevate even the most simple and seemingly rote of stories. Take, for example the scene of Erin describing her past as a beauty queen to George (Aaron Eckhart) in a fun, yet character-deepening scene of post-coital conversation. Would one have read that scene on the page and seen the frisky, creative editing or how the camera knows exactly during which moments to get close to Erin and George?

Not to take anything away from Susannah Grant's script, which is accomplished and serviceable and filled with great one-liners to boot ("Bite my ass, Krispy Kreme!" It just rolls off the tongue...). But I can't help but feel that there a more pedestrian version of this film could have easily existed, perhaps made for television, perhaps directed theatrically by the likes of Ron Howard, Stephen Frears or Tom Hooper. If we must have biopics and straight-down-the-middle narratives (and from Hollywood's output, apparently we must) why can't they all be as specific and well-crafted as this?

64. The 40-Year-Old Virgin - dir. Judd Apatow (2005)

"You know when you, grab a woman's breast and it's...and you feel it feels like a bag of sand when you're touching it?"

63. Paranoid Park - dir. Gus Van S
ant (2008)

"I just feel like there's something outside of normal life. Outside of teachers, breakups, girlfriends. Like, right out there, like outside - there's like different levels of... stuff."

62. The Class - dir. Laurent Cantet (2

"I'm Souleymane. I have nothing to say about me because no one knows me but me."ˆ

61. Once - dir. John Carney (2007)

"During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize. I play these song at night or I wouldn't make any money. People wouldn't listen."

60. The Bourne Ultimatum - dir. Paul Greengrass (2007)

"It was difficult for me...with you."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Best Films of the Aughts (70-79)

79. WALL-E - dir. Andrew Stanton (2008)

"Computer. Define 'dancing'."

78. Fish Tank - dir. Andrea Arnold (2009)

"You dance like a black. It's a compliment."

77. Reprise - dir. Joachim Trier (2008)

"We're supposed to write and read. And if we feel the urge we'll practice deviant, fetishistic sex with prostitutes."

76. Million Dollar Baby - dir. Clint Eastwood (2004)
"Mama, you take Mardell and JD and get home before I tell that lawyer there that you were so worried about your welfare you never signed those house papers like you were supposed to. So anytime I feel like it I can sell that house from under your fat, lazy, hillbilly ass. And if you ever come back, that's exactly what I'll do."

75. The Cell - dir. Tarsem Singh (2000)

"My World. My Rules."

Spotlight--74. Raising Victor Vargas - dir. Peter Sollett (2003)

"Listen. I'm a private person. What we do is between me and you. You still want this loving, right?"

Peter Sollett's jolting, vibrant and energetic tale of adolescent love and folly abounds with discovery nearly at every turn. Nearly every one of the principle players (with the exception of under-the-radar Indie queen Melonie Diaz) makes his or her feature film debut here. Peter Sollett announced himself as a powerful and interesting new cinematic voice. An aside: I have yet to watch his 2008 follow-up, the relatively high profile Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. Should I?

At first glance, this would appear to be exactly the type of cinematic outing designed to bore the shit out of movie-watcher who complains about what is perceived to be the current trend of meandering, navel-gazing independent cinema, heralded as brilliant and cutting-edge by the flannel clad temp at your office (stay with me). I sympathize with this frustration, often siding with it. In my brief write-up of Winter's Bone, I talked about an air of human truth that's sometimes hard to pinpoint, but adds such richness to a great movie. There wasn't a moment of Raising Victor Vargas that felt false or playing to my very contrary, untested perceptions of twenty-first century life in the Lower East Side for these characters.

Victor Vargas (a fabulous Victor Rasuk) speaks the line quoted above. It is one of the first lines uttered in this film and it lets you know that you are in capable hands. Victor Vargas drips with a confident, slightly insular teenage male bravado that permeates everything from his words to his gestures. But what, if anything, is it masking? And why is Judy (Judy Marte), the wise girl he chases after seem more put off by Victor than any of the other boys in her neighborhood? Especially given that one young man candidly offers Judy anal sex in a manner that can only be described as less than chivalrous. These are questions that are answered by last frame. Victor is confident, yes. But the confidence he wears is something akin to a fancy pair of shoes worn by a newborn baby. Shiny and new, certainly. But Victor is still forming, still growing, still becoming himself and he may discover one day soon that his own self-perceived greatness may not fit the person he ultimately becomes. And Judy, for all of her womanly wisdom, for all of her desire to be anything but just another notch in the bedpost of one of the many boys who wish to bed her, really does like Victor. Sounds like your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, doesn't it? Perhaps it does. But Raising Victor Vargas is anything but.

I spoke, very briefly, about Melonie Diaz. Like many of the actors in the film, she shares her character's first name. In a storyline that exists almost completely parallel to everything else in the film, Melonie (Judy's best friend) falls for one of Victor's chums, the sweet but somewhat cocky Harold (Kevin Rivera). Melonie and Harold's courtship is different than that of Victor and Judy. She is resistant and he is persistent, but not in the same ways and not for the same reasons. Melonie keeps what becomes a very deep, meaningful relationship with Harold a secret from Judy for most of the film. She is desperate to avoid Judy's judgmental stares and comments, not because they would influence her greatly, but because with a look in her eyes and a small gesture, Diaz lets you know that Melonie knows exactly how it's going to turn out and she's already kind of rolling her eyes. I've noticed this consistency in many of Melonie Diaz's performances. She seems naturally aplomb at playing that character who "gets it" just a little bit more than all the other characters around her, who are a a little slow on the uptake. It is a small performance that betrays how integral Diaz's watchfulness and knack for conveying teenage conflict is to the film.

While the Lower East Side of Manhattan has become somewhat of a gentrified hipster haven, that is not the Lower East Side presented in this film. That being the case, it's rife for poverty porn, but Peter Sollett wisely resists the urge to make this a story about a group of minority youths trapped by their circumstances. Or rather, he resists to urge to tell that tired story in the rote, pedestrian fashion that has become all too familiar. The neighborhood is replete with life and there is a youthful innocence and a playfulness that runs throughout Raising Victor Vargas. These are not wealthy people, but, like all young people, they live in and engage with their surroundings.

A key element that lets the viewer know that this is not a typical story of inner-city youths and strife is Victor's grandmother, Altagracia (played by Altagracia Guzman). She is hard on Victor, constantly demanding he set a good example for his younger brother and younger sister. She gifts the movie with soft, maternal humor that is steeped in obliviousness and a clinging to the old guard. At one point, she takes Victor down to social services, probably just to scare him, with the stated intention of turning him over to foster care as punishment for his wild ways and misbehavior. Why? Because she has caught Victor's brother Nino (Victor Rasuk's real life younger brother, Silvestre Rasuk) masturbating and she is almost certain he picked up this vile habit from Victor. Nino is far too sweet and innocent to have learned it elsewhere. Social services of course turns Altagracia away, stating that it is illegal to abandon children for no good reason. There is obviously a sweet humor in the sad ridiculousness of this situation. The subtext may also be that for all of his outlandish behavior, Victor is, at his core, a good kid. Furthermore, given the universe these characters inhabit, there are problems worse than masturbation where a teenage boy is concerned that Altagracia very well could be, but thankfully doesn't have to deal with.

In the end, Victor's conflicted relationship with his grandmother still remains, especially in a key scene near the end where the realities of his relationship with Judy are laid bare and everyone is forced to feel the way they feel. The last frame of the film doesn't offer an entirely tidy conclusion. But it's a lovely, subtle and graceful note to end on. One that doesn't lay out the paths of these characters for very long beyond the narrative, but also doesn't leave you unsatisfied. And in a film about teenage love and discovery (an honest one anyway) this is the truest way to leave it.

73. Zombieland - dir. Ruben Fleishcer (2009)

"You are like a like a giant cock-blocking robot. Like, developed in a secret fucking government lab."

72. Head-On - dir. Fatih Akin (2004)

"If you want to end your life, end it. You don't have to kill yourself to do that."

71. Inglourious Basterds - dir. Quentin Tarantino (2009)

"Not so fast, Willi. We only have a deal if we trust each other. A Mexican standoff ain't trust."

70. The Darjeeling Limited - dir. Wes Anderson (2007)

"I wonder if the three of us would have been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people."

Next: 60-69

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Best Films of the Aughts (80-89)

89. Wendy and Lucy - dir. Kelly Reichardt (2008)
"You can't get an address without an address. You can't get a job without a job."

88. Morvern Callar - dir. Lynne Ramsay (2002)

"Fuck work, Lanna. We can go wherever you like."

87. Mystic River - dir. Clint Eastwood (2003)

"Their daddy's a king. And a king knows what to do and does it. Even when it's hard. And their daddy will do whatever he has to for those he loves. And that's all that matters. Because everyone is weak, Jimmy. Everyone but us. We will never be weak. And you, you could rule this town. And after Jimmy, let's take the girls down to the parade. Katie would like that."

86. Match Point - dir. Woody Allen (2005)

"I never got along with her, but this is just tragic."

85. Moulin Rouge! - dir. Baz Luhrmann (20
"What's his type? Wilting flower? Bright and bubbly? Or smoldering temptress?"

84. Stevie - dir. Steve James (2002)

"You expect me to say something when my fiancee's sitting right here? So I can get in trouble with her? I know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em."

83. Vera Drake - dir. Mike Leigh (2004)

"That's not what I do dear. That's what you call it. But they need help. Who else they got to turn to? No one. I help them out."

82. Prodigal Sons - dir. Kimberly Reed (2009)

"I've told people about myself. They've stood up and walked out of the room, never to talk to me again. There's one sentence I can tell people that can make them never want to talk to me again."

Spotlight--81. My Life Without Me - dir. Isa
bel Coixet (2003)

"Hey my buddy, Penny. I'm not going to be at your birthday party, but there's nothing I'd like more in the whole, wide world. I bet Grandma's made a special birthday cake just for you with your name on it in big chocolate letters. Penny, I want you to know that the day you were born, I held you in my arms and that was the happiest day in my whole life. I was so happy I couldn't even speak. I just stroked your little feet and cried with happiness. Without you, I could have never found out that lions eat pancakes or that the bed could be a raft. Try and look after Patsy, okay? I know it's hard 'cause sometimes she makes you mad and everything. I know it's not easy being the big sister, but I know you can do it. Mommy sends you millions and millions of kisses."

What a deplorable, unpleasant and implausible premise Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me begins on. Ann, a young woman in her early twenties (a fantastic Sarah Polley) who lives in a trailer with her unemployed husband and two young daughters discovers that her days our numbered. Stricken with ovarian cancer, she has two months to live. Rather than disclosing this information to her family, Ann decides not to burden them and instead records audio tapes for her daughters for each of their remaining birthdays until they turn eighteen and tapes for her husband as well. As if this character couldn't seem any more detestable and selfish, she also finds it prudent to sleep with another man (she's only ever slept with her husband) just to see what it's like. She meets Lee (Mark Ruffalo) and the two begin an affair. What a horrible person! Who on Earth would want to spend 100 minutes with this woman, watching her playing the admittedly shitty hand she's been dealt, doing the wrong thing at every turn. I'm not being facetious. I'm simply marveling at how the way I reacted to the premise of My Life Without Me was wholly different from my reaction to the film itself.

Isabel Coixet has crafted a lovely, airy and evocative piece of filmmaking. As abhorrent as the logline seems, it can also read as a setup for something much more maudlin, sanguine and Lifetime Movie of the Week than the result we are given. The subject matter is prickly and unpleasant. The film does not pretend that what Ann is doing is commendable and based on some kind of all-knowing altruism. Sarah Polley is a pitch perfect as Ann. She seems to have such a knack for internal psychology, something that not all actors can claim. The scene in which Ann first learns of her illness is played very interestingly, and it's quite thrilling to watch the choices Polley makes. She doesn't underplay the moment which, given the sedate nature of the narrative, would have felt at once obvious and forced. Nor does she blow it up into a big exercise where she can chew the scenery. She starts off with humor, then goes in for the kill like a shark in the water. "What the fuck is wrong with me?" she asks the doctor, an abrupt shift after cracking wise for a beat. Her face registers the shock and she conveys a woman who is collapsing in on herself. Between her performances here, in The Sweet Hereafter, hell, even in Splice, a film's determined to strip a mildly interesting premise of its sheen in service of a telling an incredibly lame, by-the-numbers thriller, Polley seems to pack an actorly wallop. Even going back as far her days on Road to Avonlea, she always presents a very subtle, intriguing maturity. I understand, on the most basic level, why Polley's ratio of high-profile roles, even in smaller character pieces, seems disproportionate to her talents as an actress. She seems quite loyally stationed in the Canadian film scene, so in a way, that limits the number of projects we'll see her in. She's pretty, but not breathtaking and some might even say that she has an otherwordliness about her fact (much like Samantha Morton, Emily Watson and even Tilda Swinton) that limits the number of roles casting directors are willing to imagine her inhabiting. And lastly, and most intangibly, she always seems to read as very prickly and complicated. But the fact that she is always so interesting to watch still causes me to selfishly want more of her. I'm not so naive as to imagine a Katherine Heigl level of visibility, but I wouldn't mind a Michelle Williams-style career from Sarah Polley.

This is by no means a perfect film. It sometimes meanders, though never in ways that are not compelling. Mark Ruffalo, who I mentioned in my write-up of You Can Count On Me does seem best at playing the selfish manchild, but it doesn't always serve the narrative. While fine here, he does contribute (maybe adversely) to the film's misanthropic nature, but it doesn't sink the film and I'm still not convinced, after several viewings, that Ruffalo was miscast. He serves as the perfect foil for Ann's husband, Don (Scott Speedman). Don is sweet, stupid and satisfied. There aren't many notes to play, but Speedman seems to understand the character perfectly. Imagine Ryan Gosling's Dean in Blue Valentine, with better hair, less beer in the morning and more baffled than openly hostile about his wife's emotional wanderlust. Interesting side note: My Life Without Me and Blue Valentine would make for a fascinating (albeit very depressing) double bill. Despite all of the aforementioned limitations, I found myself enthralled with My Life Without Me. The characters are observant and flawed. The dialogue is unfussy and believable. The same, I suppose, could be said of Isabel Coixet's more heralded 2008 offering Elegy, which I enjoyed well enough and would hardly recommend passing over on one's Netflix watch instantly queue. But there was a certain artifice and sheen about that film that left me admiring much, but ultimately feeling little by the last frame. I felt My life Without Me and I couldn't take my eyes off of it.

80. United 93 - dir. Paul Greengrass

"Hi mom, it's me... this really kind woman handed me the phone and told me to call you."

Next: 70-79

The Best Films of the Aughts (90-100)

Better late than never. Here are the top 100 films of the 2000s as determined by yours truly. Just a

100. You Can Count on Me - dir. Kenneth Lonergan (2000)

"I cleaned the whole fucking house just so it would look nice for you! I had no idea you were just broke again! I wish you'd just send me an invoice!

99. Crank - dirs. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (2006)

"Don't talk to him like that! My boyfriend kills people!"

The Maid - dir. Sebastian Silva (2009)

"I've things to tell her too! You're just the maid!"

American Psycho - dir. Mary Harron (2000)

"I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don't know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip."

Marie Antoinette - dir. Sofia Coppola (2006)

"Oh, you were not what was desired, but that makes you no less dear to me. A boy would have been the Son of France, but you, Marie Thérèse, shall be mine."

Kill Bill Vol. 1 - dir. Quentin Tarantino (2003)

"Your name is Buck. And you came here to fuck."

. Gone Baby Gone - dir. Ben Affleck (2007)

"When I was young, I once asked my priest how you can get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God told his children: 'You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.' "

The Piano Teacher - dir. Michael Haneke (2002)

"Schubert's dynamics range from scream to whisper, not loud to soft. Anarchy hardly seems your forte. Why not stick to Clementi?"

A Mighty Heart - dir. Michael Winterbottom (2007)

"I just wanted to say something to everybody. I want to, I want to thank you for all of your work and all of your effort and your kindness and I know how much you wanted to find and bring Danny home. You did not fail, you know? Danny's dead, but the kidnappers, their point is to terrorize people, right? I am not terrorized. And you can't be terrorized. I am very grateful to all of you. Very, very grateful. So thank you. So, please, let's eat."

Long Night's Journey Into
Day - dirs. Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid (2000)
*A documentary film about post-Apartheid South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Amy Biehl murder. This film is currently unavailable to rent on Netflix, nor is the DVD available for purchase on Netflix. I can't offer up any other useful advice other than to seek it out.

Sideways - dir. Alexander Pa
yne (2004)
"I like to think about the life of wine. How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the years the grapes were growing. How the sun was shining, if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes and if it's an old wine how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve. Like, if I opened a bottle of wine today, it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive and it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is until it peaks--like your '61 and then it begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good."

Next: 89-80

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Best Picture Rules...Desperation is Not Becoming

Two years after changing the rules so that ten rather than five films would be nominated for the coveted Best Picture Oscar, it would appear that the bastion of slightly elevated middlebrow establishment masquerading as top-drawer cinematic aesthetic--the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--is at it again.

They have determined that in order to receive a Best Picture nomination, five percent of a film's votes have to be number one votes on the ranking weighted ballot. This means that the number of nominees will no longer be fixed. From year to year (as long as they keep this policy in place, mind you) the number of films nominated for Best Picture can now range anywhere from five to ten.

I'm not going to talk about how this diminishes the Academy's integrity as a distinguished voting body. That argument has been raised already, by people more eloquent than I with more of an inside baseball perspective. Also, I've long ceased getting all precious about the Academy and the choices they make. They are, after all, just a group of people weighing in on the matter. I do, however find myself wondering what exactly they think it is this move is going to accomplish. And I also wonder about the implementation of such a change following this past particular Oscar year.

What was it about last year that made the AMPAS panic? A year that boasted seven 100 million plus grossing Best Picture nominees and three modest financial successes when one takes relative scale and budget into account. Was it the fact that the Oscar telecast had lower ratings than the previous year, whose Best Picture roster included An Education, A Serious Man and District 9, a veritable "Who's Who" of films your Aunt Martha from Lansing, Kansas has never heard of?

I've already given my thoughts at length about the 83rd Annual Academy Awards telecast, but one thing I neglected to mention was how 2010's crop of nominees were practically gift-wrapped and placed on a silver platter for the Academy. Monster box office? Check. Audience interest? Check. No real stinkers, even by the most lenient, Gene Shalit-y of standards? Check. With so much goodwill going into the ceremony, the producers of the telecast really just had to make it not terrible. Easier said than done, I know. But it's my want, like all internet people, to pass judgment. Still, it should have been like taking an open notes test in school. If you've at least been halfway paying attention and have somewhat of a clue, there's only so much you can fuck it up. Yet everything about the ceremony, from the intriguing but ultimately disappointing choice of host(s) to the confoundedly perplexing/putrid production choices made it a real stinker.

I'm going off on a tangent, but my point is that many of these decisions regarding the tinkering of the Best Picture race are in some way or another related to the telecast. Even while having no real qualms about this particular tweak (more on that later), that simple fact leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. After The Dark Knight (and arguably WALL-E) were not nominated, the list was expanded to ten. Contact me personally if you still think this is a coincidence because I doubt whatever reality-altering medication you're on is over-the-counter and I do enjoy my fun.

With these new rules, we would have likely seen The Kids Are All Right and 127 Hours dropped from last year's roster, leaving us with eight films nominated for the top prize. Some have made the argument that Winter's Bone would have fallen by the wayside as well, but the way Martin Scorsese and Kathryn Bigelow were both thumping for it makes me think it still would have been there. Winter's Bone is precisely the type of film that gets into the race BECAUSE most of it's votes are number one votes. But back to my original question, which is what does this accomplish? Would having The Kids Are All Right or 127 Hours or even Winter's Bone absent from the lineup really have changed anything? Not really. Since October of 2010, the race had been framed as being between The King's Speech and The Social Network. And the producers did their darndest during the telecast to act as if Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right didn't exist anyway, so I'm not sure why this change was made. More often than not, we know who's going to win the top prize months before the race is done and no film that's seriously in contention is going to be affected by this switch.

One thing I hope this does accomplish is a return of the lone director nominee, which the ten Best Picture system was threatening to make extinct. I guarantee that although Fernando Meireilles, Pedro Almodovar and David Lynch each received lone Best Director nominations that neither City of God, Talk to Her nor Mulholland Drive would have had enough number one votes to make the Best Picture cut under this newly implemented system. The Academy probably hopes to wind up with a group of Best Picture nominees that people are genuinely excited about rather than six or seven passion projects and three or four ho-hum filler nominees. I can understand, at least on paper, how the decision makers thought that this new policy was the best way to accomplish that goal. But we don't have to look back too far in history, when the Academy nominated only five films, to find sore thumbs like Finding Neverland, Ray, Seabiscuit, Frost/Nixon, Chocolat and The Cider House Rules. These titles all share the dubious distinction of films I can't imagine anyone in a million years being passionate enough about to put at the top of their ballots for Best Picture nominations. And yet there they were...and in years of five, no less. My apologies to anyone who absolutely loves any of the aforementioned titles. I'm not making fun of you. I just didn't know you existed.

I'd be surprised to see this policy last beyond five years. It's nice to stretch and try new things, but reputable organizations, especially those as old as the Academy thrive on consistency. A rotating number of nominees in any category is so...Broadcast Film Critics Association. And I don't think the Academy wants to be the Broadcast Film Critics Association. While a fiscally naive sentiment, I think the Academy should simply embrace the fact that they have their tastes, which are sometimes anomalous and strange to lay outsiders like us. Moves like this almost always read as an apology to the public for the Academy's cinematic proclivities, which isn't what the Oscars are about. Or at least, it's not what they should be about. I've said it many times, but it bears repeating. It is a show, like the Tonys, which is about honoring something that a small segment of the viewing population is interested in/knowledgeable of. That's fine. But I hope the Academy never ceases to consider the people in the room who they're honoring, who the show is actually for. Most people can smell desperation and it's a scent that few are attracted to. So, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences I say stop scrambling. Relax. Take a breather. And, most importantly, make it about the movies.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Some Random Thoughts on the Academy Awards And My Final Thoughts on 2010 in Film...

Warning: Extremely stream of conscious

The Superficial:
Regarding the presentation itself, I'll keep this brief, as the hosts, the rhythm, the writing, etc. have all been discussed ad nauseum. I'll just say the following: I'm not so naive as to be clueless that a lot of decisions (if not all) are driven by money. Yes, it's true there is a sizable chunk of the Academy Awards viewing audience who don't watch or care about movies and are simply tuning in for the spectacle. These people are real. I've met several of them. I'm sure they are perfectly decent people. But (and here's where the pretension kicks in) they are not an audience that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences should desire to please or even want anything to do with. The Oscars should take a cue from the Tony Awards, The Independent Spirit Awards and even your local industry specific trade show honoring the best in automotive and farm equipment. That is, actually make it about the people in the room you're honoring rather than desperately, transparently, unappealingly and unsuccessfully trying to cater to the lowest common denominator. That is all.

The Winners/Nominees:
An extremely scatter-shot year where the Academy seemed to spread the wealth. But I want to be effusive for a moment and talk about the acting winners. Reading various blogs and awards pundits, I understand there are varying opinions about the merits of Christian Bale, Colin Firth, Melissa Leo and Natalie Portman. For my money, this is the first year in a long time where each of the four acting categories were awarded to both good and iconic performances. I can easily see each of the four actors being remembered for their turns in their respective films. Let me elaborate. Even in years like 2008, which awarded four worthy performances, there were one or two that seem destined to become forgettable. Kate Winslet was fine in The Reader, but that will not be the performance she is remembered for in her career retrospective. If not for the fact that she won an Oscar for it, I bet The Reader might have joined Little Children as one of Winslet's roles people have a hard time remembering twenty-five years from now when sounding off each of her Oscar nominated performances. But Colin Firth's Bertie, Natalie Portman's Nina, Melissa Leo's Alice and Christian Bale's Dicky are all accomplished turns (to varying degrees) and memorable ones as well. What's more fantastic is that my vote would have only gone to one of these performers (Bale) if I actually had a ballot. It was gratifying to watch Natalie Portman, for instance--a limited actress who gave what was easily the weakest performance in her very strong category--win for a very accomplished, tricky turn, also her best to date.

Poor Tom Hooper. The guy is now saddled with winning a Best Director trophy on his first nomination and the backlash is brewing. It's analogous to Ron Howard beating Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, David Lynch and Robert Altman in 2001, which I hope the Academy looks back upon with the appropriate level of embarrassment. Luckily, Tom Hooper doesn't seem nearly as self-important and fatuous as Ron Howard, but I do wonder what his incentive is to try at this point, since he's been so hastily rewarded for such a pedestrian effort. Fincher, Aronofsky and Russell each created singular pieces of work, without the slightest hint of ambivalence to their direction. The dubious distinction of least deserving among the directing nominees is pretty much a toss-up between Tom Hooper and the Coens. I firmly believe that had No Country for Old Men not won three years ago, we may be have been looking at a True Grit love fest this year. Nonetheless, Hooper unseated some seriously visionary filmmakers to get the win and the look on his face during his acceptance speech (or am I imagining things?) tells me that he seems at least partially aware that the nomination without the win probably would have been better in the long run for his career. Ask Sam Mendes about that one. As the dust settles on 2010, Hooper's win won't smell so fresh, even more so than The King Speech's Best Picture win. He will join the ranks of Carol Reed, John G. Avildsen and Richard Attenborough as anomalous best director winners, regarded with some measure of head-scratching, given that at least two or three of the also-rans in their respective years would have made more interesting and historically resonant alternatives. None of this is to say that I think the guy is a bad filmmaker. He may well surprise in the years to come. I hope I'm wrong. Your move, Hooper.

Back to Best Actress for a moment. I adore Michelle Williams. I'm so glad she exists and I really like what she's giving cinema in terms of prickly, complicated performances in interesting, striking films that are neither commercial nor critical slam dunks on paper. Here she sits with her second Oscar nomination in five years, Busy Phillips still loyally at her side (love that friendship) and wearing it with a mix of clear affection for the work, but mild befuddlement for its recognition. I suspect that had Brokeback Mountain not been her debut nomination, she may have won. Not to take anything away from Rachel Weisz, but 2005's crowning of her lead work in The Constant Gardener as the Best Supporting Actress performance of the year reads as a clear example of what lack of consensus can breed. I suspect the reasoning that year went something like this. "Michelle Williams was great, an Oscar to a "Dawson's Creek" alum? Let's let her prove herself a little more. Amy Adams in Junebug? Who the hell is Amy Adams? And furthermore, what the hell is Junebug? Catherine Keener? I like her. She's nominated for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, right? Capote? Nah...not enough theatrics. Frances McDormand in North Country? thanks. Didn't see that movie. Rachel Weisz...she kind of looks like Kate Winslet. She's British, so I'm sure she's good. Plus, I heard the movie's really serious and world conscious. Tic." And scene. Watching the trailer for Meek's Cutoff earlier today, I'm convinced that Michelle Williams will be nominated again in the near future, if not necessarily for that film. She seems committed to making the kinds of films that cinephiles love, even if they leave audiences and most critics cold. I also suspect that she may never win, which is totally fine. Looking at her filmography, it seems that Brokeback Mountain may be as close to Oscar's wheelhouse as she's willing to get. I applaud her choices and it's nothing short of miraculous that her work in Blue Valentine got cited.

What about Jennifer Lawrence, who I've heard referred to as the Carey Mulligan of this year. I hope Lawrence secretly takes umbrage that comparison, given how slight An Education is when propped up against Winter's Bone as a film swept into a ten wide Best Picture field by its central performance. Despite having had no chance to get up on stage and deliver a gushing speech, I still think Lawrence, in the few interviews I saw has made the season work better for her than Mulligan did a year ago. I'm not sure if either will ever see a nomination again (a little over half of first time acting nominees don't), but Lawrence is in a good position right now. She's the acting nominee whose next move I'm most awaiting with bated breath, X-Men: First Class notwithstanding (I'm sorry, that movie just looks silly and I am a huge X-Men fan).

I am less curious about Natalie Portman's next career-move. I say this not to slight her. As I've stated, her performance in Black Swan is handily her best work. It's preferable by a mile to most of the recent Best Actress winners going back as far as Charlize Theron (easily the best of the 2000s winners). That being said, Portman's Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan feels less like a great actress finally getting her due (Kate Winslet) than it does a limited actress with clear strengths and weaknesses finally finding a director and a vehicle that plays to her assets as a performer (Hilary Swank, the first time). This idea that Natalie Portman is overdue for a win and that her laurels for Black Swan are the culmination of a great career is an idea I've heard floated all season from casual and literate movie-watchers alike. Being comfortably familiar with her filmography and looking at what she has coming down the pipe, this is a narrative that I just do not understand, even while having no real qualms about her winning Best Actress for this particular performance. Over at The Film Experience, on a recent podcast, the idea of which Oscar nominated performers could play which of the other Oscar nominated roles was discussed (a fun hypothetical to consider). Natalie Portman's possible inability to play something as naturalistic and stripped down as Michelle Williams's part in Blue Valentine was discussed. I agree wholeheartedly and I'll further submit that Williams, also capable of petite, frail and shrinking, could quite possibly have given us a completely different, but no less captivating Nina Sayers. Nicole Kidman, fabulous in Rabbit Hole (and in general) is an actress who I could also see bringing something interesting to the role, had the project been made fifteen years ago. And though Jennifer Lawrence remains relatively untested, the way she avoided all of the scenery-chewing cliches that could have made her turn in Winter's Bone more showy, sure, but less interesting makes me think we're bound to see a career with real range. I'm not sure Natalie Portman could convincingly play any of the other four Best Actress performances. I'm less sure that she'll ever top her turn in Black Swan and almost certain that she's not necessarily interested in doing so. She seems very content at shrinking away, not just from public life, but from acting in general, so in that way (and many others) it's good she was rewarded for this performance.

I've heard enough griping about The Social Network's wins in both editing and original score that I feel it prudent to address both. First of all, I take issue with the notion that elaborate editing is an automatic catch-all for good editing. In the tech categories, it often seems that best equals most, as evidenced by Alice in Wonderland's baffling Oscar for Best Costume Design and, even more infuriatingly, Best Art Direction. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall did a marvelous job on The Social Network, juggling three or four different timelines. Flashback and parallel narrative structure i.s really hard to pull off well and The Social Network weaves it all seamlessly and in a way that serves the narrative. 127 Hours, which is much flashier fare, could have done with less cuts (and less obvious cuts), especially in the cave. And hats off to the Academy for recognizing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's superb work in the original score category. It's kind of flabbergasting the number of people I've heard gripe about this win who I've never heard comment one way or the other on the a film's score. Atmospheric, minimalist, instantly recognizable and sure to become iconic. At once, everything that an Oscar winning score should be and the type of score they overlook too often.

How I wish I had stuck to my instinct that Roger Deakins wouldn't win for his work in True Grit. Even I fell prey to the groupthink that surrounded the notion that the overdue lenser would finally land a statue, though my gut told me Wally Pfister would get it. If I had my ballot to make over again, I'd probably replace Deakins (who I cited) with Yorick Le Saux for I Am Love or the evocative, unfussy work of Michael McDonough in Winter's Bone, a film which I loved (and love more each time I rewatch), but ultimately won no gold medals in my year-end rewards. Deakins work in True Grit, while tailor made for awards consideration on paper, isn't terribly exciting and I'm fine with his loss here.

In my review of The King's Speech, I stated that both the effusive response of the audience at the theater and the demographic of said audience told me that it would definitely give The Social Network a run for its money. Actually, what I knew in my heart, but probably didn't want to admit at the time, was that it was definitely going to win Best Picture. Ultimately, I'm surprised by how much the outcome didn't really upset me. This is, after all, quite similar to 2005 when Brokeback Moutain lost to Crash in that Best Picture was actually within grasp for my favorite film of the year, but was then given to my least favorite of the nominees. Maybe it's because I saw The Social Network's loss coming and was able to steel myself, whereas Crash's victory over Brokeback Mountain was out of nowhere and still remains unprecedented. And now, five years later, I do think that in a twisted way, appreciate Crash's Best Picture win, if only because of what it revealed about the Academy and what it said about the climate at the time. The King's Speech winning Best Picture for 2010 does not indicate a backslide, but rather says a lot about the cinematic landscape in 2010. Regardless of my misgivings about Bertie and his wacky pals, it was simply too successful in its modest goals and too comfortably within the Oscar wheelhouse to lose. The idea that The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker represented some changing of the guard at the Academy is a falsehood. It's always about what's going on in each given year. And lest we forget that in 2008, Slumdog Millionaire, a very traditional film with traditional narrative tropes (albeit wrapped in a flashy package) won Best Picture, smack dab in the middle of this supposed new trending towards darker, more forward-thinking and visionary Best Picture winners. If we want to get reductive and talk about The King's Speech equivalent in the years of The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker, you'd probably be looking at The Queen, Atonement and An Education, all of which were pre-ordained, sight-unseen Oscar bait of various quality and none of which were beloved enough by audiences or the Academy to do as well as The King's Speech did. Will history look kindly on a Best Picture win for The King's Speech? I'm almost certain that it won't. But one can't know for sure. Take The Hurt Locker, which I cited as my favorite (at the time) of the 2009 Best Picture nominees. Even though I'm happy it won, if pressed, I have to admit that I seldom think about the The Hurt Locker a year after the fact. If I had a ballot to cast today, Inglourious Basterds would probably get my vote as the more robust and resonating piece of cinema. It's anyone's guess which 2010 films will rise and fall in terms of my own esteem. I can already tell you that Black Swan and The Fighter, two films I loved in my initial viewings and still admire greatly, have started to experience the dreaded fade. Ungodly numbers of subsequent viewings of The Social Network and Winter's Bone have only made me love those titles more. But for 2010, the Academy has spoken. The King's Speech will be remembered as the film they loved and that, as they say, is that.

Closing Thoughts
Another Oscar year has come and gone and really...what is there left to say? Well, if you've been following my blog, there's plenty. I've been more terse about the Oscar race than I have in the previous two years that I've been operating this blog. Full disclosure (and I'm violating my own policy of not getting delving into my personal life on this blog), my personal aesthetic has gone through a sort of renaissance these past few years. I'm seeing more movies and really discovering, not so much what my tastes are (which has actually changed very little), but I'm developing my own language and vocabulary to communicate those tastes more effectively. I'm so glad I embarked on the Big Pretentious Movie Summer last year. Even if I didn't finish the list, which I ultimately plan to do, it was such a leap forward in my appreciation of filmwatching for its own sake, completely divorced from awards and box office. I watched movies like Interiors, Naked, Midnight Cowboy, Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, Days of Heaven, Breakfast at Tiffany's, none of which I had seen before and now can't imagine what life was like before having seen them (all the while appreciating them on very different levels). And that being the case, I've learned that the Oscars really must be taken with a grain of salt. I'm not just talking about The King's Speech unseating my favorite film of the year, The Social Network in both Best Picture and Best Director, which I contended on this very blog was likely and very possible, respectively. It's a catch-all. Even when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences crowns one's favorite film or performance, they are still a just a group of people weighing in on things. Their opinion is not gospel. Never has been, never will be. And that's not a knock on them, because truth be told, no one's opinion is gospel. The Social Network remains, to me, the best film of 2010 as does Hunger the best film of 2009 and Rachel Getting Married of 2008. None of those films won Best Picture and two of the three weren't even nominated--a fact that diminishes none of the immense joy and cinematic discovery I've experienced on repeat viewings of each of these titles. And isn't that what movie watching is all about? As Nathaniel over at The Film Experience wisely states, "A great film is its own reward."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

2010 Pretentious Film Awards - The Winners

Here is my list of winners for the 3rd Annual Pretentious Film Awards. Here's hoping 2011 is another great year for movies!

*Denotes Winner
**Denotes Runner-Up
***Denotes Second Runner-Up

Best Picture

Black Swan
Blue Valentine**
The Social Network*
Winter's Bone

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan
Derek Cianfrance - Blue Valentine**
Yorgos Lanthimos - Dogtooth
David O. Russell - The Fighter***
David Fincher - The Social Network*

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Aaron Eckhart - Rabbit Hole
Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network**
James Franco - 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling - Blue Valentine*
Tahar Rahim - A Prophet***

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole***
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
Lesley Manville - Another Year*
Tilda Swinton - I Am Love
Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine**

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale - The Fighter*
Andrew Garfield - Never Let Me Go**
John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right***
Miles Teller - Rabbit Hole

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Dale Dickey - Winter's Bone
Melissa Leo - The Fighter***
Mia Wasikowska - The Kids Are All Right
Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom*
Dianne Wiest - Rabbit Hole**

Best Original Screenplay

Animal Kingdom
- David Michôd***
Another Year - Mike Leigh**
The Fighter - Keith Dorrington, Eric Johnson, Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy
Blue Valentine - Derek Cianfrance*
Toy Story 3 - Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

Best Adapted Screenplay

Never Let Me Go
- Alex Garland
Rabbit Hole - David Lindsay-Abaire**
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright
The Social Network - Aaron Sorkin*
Winter's Bone - Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini***

Best Editing

127 Hours
- Jon Harris
Black Swan
- Andrew Weisbaum**
Blue Valentine - Jim Helton and Ron Patane***
Inception - Lee Smith
The Social Network - Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall*

Best Cinematography

127 Hours
- Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle**
Black Swan - Matthew Libatique*
Enter the Void - Benoît Debie
The Social Network - Jeff Cronenweth***
True Grit - Roger Deakins

Best Original Score

- Hans Zimmer***
The Illusionist - Sylvain Chomet
The King's Speech
- Alexandre Desplat
Never Let Me Go - Rachel Portman**
The Social Network - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross*

Best Original Song

For Colored Girls
- "La Donna in Viola" (Performed by Andrea Jones-Sojola and Karen Slack)
The Illusionist - "Chanson Illusionist" (Performed by Sylvain Chomet)*
Never Let Me Go - "Never Let Me Go" (Performed by Rachel Portman)**
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - "Threshold" (Performed by Sex Bob-Omb)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - "We Are Sex Bob-Omb" (Performed by Sex Bob-Omb)***

Best Costume Design

Black Swan
- Amy Westcott**
The Fighter - Mark Bridges
I Am Love - Antonella Cannarozzi*
Inception - Jeffrey Curland
True Grit - Mary Zophres***

Best Achievement in Art Direction

Black Swan
- Tora Peterson and David Stein**
Dogtooth - Elli Papageorgakopoulou
I Am Love - Nadine Herrmann*
Inception - Guy Hendrix Diaz, Larry Dias and Doug Mowat
The King's Speech - Judy Farr and Eve Stewart***

Best Visual Effects

Black Swan**
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Best Makeup/Hair

Black Swan*
A Prophet**
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Best Sound Mixing

127 Hours**
The Fighter
The Illusionist
The Social Network

Best Sound Editing

Black Swan*
Toy Story 3**
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

The Social Network**

Top Ten Films of 2010

1. The Social Network
2. Blue Valentine
3. Dogtooth
4. Winter's Bone
5. Black Swan
6. The Fighter
7. Another Year
8. Animal Kingdom
9. The Illusionist
10. Never Let Me Go