Oscars and Reflections on Cinema, 2011 Edition

When you look at the films that are expected to glean Oscar nominations, this year would be considered a disappointing one for movies. But most years are when taken in this context. Occasionally, Oscar rewards worthy films (Million Dollar Baby, American Beauty, No Country for Old Men), but more likely than not, they go with the safe choice (The King’s Speech), the cliched choice (Forrest Gump), the self-aggrandizing choice (Crash), the overblown, epic choice (Titanic), the pull your heart strings choice (Terms of Endearment), the happy ending, romantic choice (Slumdog Millionaire), the it’s about time choice (The Departed), and the oo, I am a populist filmmaker turning serious choice (Schindler’s List). Am I saying that this list of films is comprised of terrible movies? No. I don’t think the Academy has ever chosen a truly “bad” movie for its top prize. What I am saying is that for a prize that is supposed to symbolize the “greatest” of the year, they usually get it wrong. Take the three films I have cited as being award “worthy.” Was Million Dollar Baby better than Bad Education or Kill Bill Vol. 2? Was American Beauty better than Being John Malkovich or Boys Don’t Cry or Magnolia? Was No Country for Old Men better than Superbad? This of course boils down to personal taste. The difference being Million Dollar Baby was an Eastwood film, long an Oscar darling and American Beauty was an assured debut with a unique script – that pushed boundaries, but not as far as its listed peers – and incredible performances, and No Country for Old Men was a way to honor the Coens for their continued contributions to cinema that have been slighted in the past. This year will be no different.

The Artist will win Best Picture. And I am fine with this. It is a glorious film. But like the previous examples, The Artist will prevail because the real Best Film of the Year will not even be nominated.

I am referring to The Tree of Life.

It is not entirely surprising that The Tree of Life has been forgotten. It is a difficult film, a cerebral film, a non-chronological, non-narrative film. Like Terrence Malick’s previous works (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World), The Tree of Life relies – and relishes – upon its visual superiority (Emmanuel Lubezski stands shoulder to shoulder with Gordon Willis as the Greatest DP of All Time), its grandiose themes (how should we live our lives? what does it mean to be human?) its cryptic voice over narration, and its singular vision by one of the most polarizing filmmakers ever to get behind a camera. You either sign on for Malick’s World. Or you don’t. It is a slow moving universe, full of philosophy, religion, and unsentimental melodrama glared at from a distant omniscient figure, always giving you the feeling of a detached observer who is trying his best to relay emotion by way of monotone recitations of life’s routines. The only filmmaker that can even be compared to Malick is Kubrick, which makes The Tree of Life his 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films display their maker’s clear technical mastery and deal with such grand themes as man’s place in the universe. Tree of Life gives us the Creation of the World; 2001 gives us the Future and our relationship with technology; both films give their own version of AfterLife or ReBirth, whether through a desertous Heaven or as a reincarnated Star Child.

Other fabulous films that will lose out on a spot in the Ten – or six, or seven, or however many Harvey Weinstein can buy – are Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (another difficult, thought provoking, unique movie that has the misfortune of being in a foreign language) and Weekend (a love story between two men that has the misfortune of not starring straight A-Listers that can be touted as being “brave”). Below are the films and performances I believe will be nominated:

Best Picture:

The Artist – A daring novelty, pulled off with a flawless, assured hand.

The Descendants – George Clooney. And it’s tragic! With a heartwarming ending.

Hugo – A film about film with a legend at the helm.

Midnight in Paris – Another “return to form” as people constantly say about Woody. Plus, it takes place in one of the most beautiful cities and is full of colorful characters and performances, which appeals to the Academy’s largest branch: the actors. And an Allen film hasn’t been nominated since 1986.

The Help – The Academy loves films where black people get to be stereotypes and white people save the day.

The Ides of March – A political yarn with an all star cast directed by the biggest movie star in the world.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Taps into the young, arty, cutting edge demographic that just may well be 5% (see below). Plus, David Fincher has been nominated twice in the last three years. And should have won last year. This also gives him the edge for that Fifth Director slot.

Films that will not be nominated and shouldn’t be:

War Horse – An overblown, pointless film that trivializes war and divides viewers and critics, despite its pedigree.

Films that won’t be nominated, but should be:

Bridesmaids – Due to Oscar’s new rules for Best Picture, a film must receive 5% or roughly 250 first place votes to make the list. I doubt that many people will name it as #1 and even with the spill off rules of over abundant votes going to 2nd/3rd place choices, I believe most people will put this somewhere around 4 or 5 or not include it at all. Despite the immense amounts of attention and love this film has gotten, it is a rare thing that the Academy chooses laughs over tears.

Best Actress:

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) – A performance 20 years in the making. And a sexually confused, cross dressing one at that.

Viola Davis (The Help) – See description of The Help.

Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) – Duh.

Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) – She’s playing the most iconic female movie star – and one of the sexiest women – ever. The Academy loves this shit.

Rooney Mara/Tilda Swinton (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/We Need to Talk About Kevin) – If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gets nominated, so will Rooney. If it doesn’t, they will go with Tilda.

Best Actor: 

George Clooney (The Descendants) – How unfortunate that one of the coolest guys around and the Cary Grant of the 21st Century will win for such a boring, provincial film.

Jean Dujardin (The Artist) – See The Artist and you will know why.

Michael Fassbender (Shame) – A sex addict played by the hottest newcomer of the year.

Brad Pitt (Moneyball)  – People have called it his “best performance”. Clearly, they didn’t see The Tree of Life or Burn After Reading.

Ryan Gosling/Leonardo DiCaprio (The Ides of March/J.Edgar) – If The Ides of March makes it, Gosling will make it in (also as a way to honor Drive); if not, they will go with DiCaprio for playing a real, controversial person.

Best Supporting Actress:

Berenice Bejo (The Artist) – Ditto Dujardin.

Jessica Chastain (The Help) – Co-starred in seven movies this year. And her role in The Help is big and over the top.

Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) – A way to honor the movie. And she is fucking funny as hell.

Octavia Spencer (The Help) – Ditto Davis. Plus, she is fat, sassy, and black.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) – The category for children. Especially if they are snarky. And the film will be nominated for numerous awards.

Best Supporting Actor:

Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) – Plays Olivier. The parallels between the two are obvious and have been noted over the years.

Albert Brooks (Drive) – Comedian turns dark.

Jonah Hill (Moneyball) – See Albert Brooks.

Christopher Plummer (Beginners) – Legendary actor who has never won. And straight plays gay.

Nick Nolte/Max von Sydow (Warrior/Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) – Neither film has any other love from the Academy, but they are both, like Plummer, legendary actors, senior citizens, who have never won and only been nominated once each. I think von Sydow has the edge.

Best Director:

Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) – A day I never thought would come again. Congratulations!

David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – See above.

Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) – As Alexander Payne said, he made the movie everyone was afraid to make.

Alexander Payne (The Descendants) – Well respected filmmaker who made a well respected safe movie.

Martin Scorsese (Hugo) – Elevated 3-D to an artistic form. Taps into his preservationist’s efforts and his love for the cinema. Maybe his most autobiographical film.

ALL SAFE, EXPECTED CHOICES – some good, some great, some WTF – IN OSCAR BAITING FILMS.

….now my choices.

Before I continue, below is a list of films I have not seen. Consider them in your judgement of my decisions if you so choose:

Shame, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, My Week with Marilyn, We Bought a Zoo, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy. Unless otherwise noted, assume I have seen the rest of the “contenders” as well as films that no one has seen, but should have.

Best Picture:

I have decided to include ten, even though, as you have seen, I only believe the Academy will nominate seven. In descending order of greatness:

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) – As noted above.

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) – A suspenseful tale of sexual identity, obsession, and possessiveness over another person’s life

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius) – Everything amazing about cinema and film’s power to enchant and charm.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey) – Goddamn. An unnerving tale of motherhood that never lets up for a second.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) – Another notch in a long line of the greatest filmmaker’s great movies

Weekend (Andrew Haigh) – Gay people can be portrayed as real humans without tragedy?

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig) – So much fun it should be illegal. Finally, women get to be dirty and funny. And respected.

Another Earth (Mike Cahill) – Subtle examination of karma and redemption.

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi) – An overt film about Christianity that isn’t preachy or starring Kirk Cameron?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt) – Proof that all remakes/relaunches don’t blow.

Best Actress: 

Ellen Barkin (Another Happy Day) – The sex pot of the 80s turns over the top, always on the verge of a nervous breakdown provincial mom.

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) – Insular. Insular. Insular. What devotion to stay with a character this long.

La Streep (The Iron Lady) – Terrible, convoluted film that sees Oscar’s darling age 50 years. Turns what could have been a caricature into a real woman, losing her mind. What is it going to take to give her a third Oscar. Jesus!

Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) – Christ! I don’t even know how to explain her brilliance. Just see the damned movie. And see it alone.

Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) – How do actors not know that comedy is harder than tragedy!? Wiig is fearless.

Best Actor:

Antonio Banderas (The Skin I Live In) – Creepy, sexy, mad scientist working with his old master.

Tom Cullen (Weekend) – A lost soul reaching for love. Subtle and romantic. And beautiful!

Jean Dujardin (The Artist) – YES!

Mel Gibson (The Beaver) – He may be a racist and a first class douche, but the man acts completely through a puppet. Awesome.

Hunter McCracken (The Tree of Life) – Kids can act! He holds his own against Brad Pitt and stands out – mostly by acting only through his eyes – in Malick’s singular vision.

Best Supporting Actress:

Berenice Bejo (The Artist) – : )

Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) – She’s great in The Help, but again, mostly through her eyes, she creates the portrait of a 50s housewife trying to raise her boys in the ways she sees fit

Marion Cotilliard (Midnight in Paris) – Charming!

Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) – Hell, fucking yeah.

Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) – Close’s confidante and anchor of the film.

Best Supporting Actor:

Paul Giamatti (The Ides of March) – Shady strategist with the best monologues.

Chris New (Weekend) – The outspoken, brave half of the love duo. Again, we are real people!

Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life) – Pitt is a character actor in a leading man’s clothes. His performance here is so strong and outside of what we think of when we say “Brad Pitt”.

Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) – Motion capture doesn’t mean it is a performance created by a computer.

Kevin Spacey (Margin Call) – One of the best actors, playing a relevant character with his signature strength and style.

Best Director: for reasons all previously noted; how can the Best Films not also be the Best Directors?

Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)

Pedro Almodovar (The Skin I Live In)

Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Lynne Ramsey (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

TUNE IN TOMORROW MORNING AT 5:30 am PT/8:30 am ET FOR THE ACADEMY’S CHOICES.

THANKS FOR READING. Enjoy. And Discuss.

Good Cinema: Margin Call (Dir: J.C. Chandor, 2011)

So we know the economy is in the shitter. So we know the details of how we got there. So we know who is to blame. And now we have another movie about it.

There seems to be countless documentaries on the subject, not least of all the Academy Award winning Inside Job and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. How many PBS specials has Frontline tackled? Then there are the fictional films that are about the people affected by the crisis (The Company Men, Up in the Air). There is even the well-received HBO docu-drama Too Big to Fail based on real life players Henry Paulson, Ben Bernake, and their ilk. So what could Margin Call possibly have to offer? More than you think.

How nice it is for a movie about the zeitgeist not to be preachy. Sure there are moving speeches too well articulated to be from the mouths of people not acting, but J.C. Chandor’s first screenplay gives us a portrait into the Greed is Good school of thinking, mixed with the human components of what that entails. I would love to see him take it to the stage.

Chandor gathers a dynamite cast including Oscar winners Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey, as well as dependable actors Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore. The music is subtle or thankfully non-existent (how easily something this catastrophic could have been scored like John Williams) and the camerawork is sufficient without being too “arty” (how easily this could have been laced with “directorial touches” to make his debut stand out – something Sam Levinson could have held back on in his debut, Another Happy Day). The editing is slow without being draggy, something that gives it a theatrical feel (in the best way possible), allowing us to stay with characters and scenarios long enough to become engrossed in the drama (unlike many “issue” films that have way too much information to cover in two hours). Again, this strength must be attributed to Chandor’s direct screenplay that expects its audience to fill in the real-world details and effects without being didactic about how the market rises and falls.

On his way out the door from his lay-off, Risk Manager Eric Dale (Tucci) passes off a USB drive to his main analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary “Spock” Quinto) with a warning: Be careful. Peter, in a precautionary effort to keep from losing his job, looks over the data. What he finds threatens all of civilization.

No it is not a virus or the code to nuclear weapons. It is math. Math where 1+1 = 3. For years, their company has been creeping towards a time when the red outweighs the black. That time has come. Two weeks ago. Once this information hits public knowledge, they – and the interconnected wheels of capitalism – are in for serious windfall.

CEO John Tuld (a cool, calculated Irons) asks the executives of his company: “How to be the best? Be the smartest, the first, or cheat. I don’t cheat, I didn’t get this job for my brains, which means we have to be first.” They of course are playing a fictionalized version of Lehmann Brothers on the eve of their collapse. Cut the losses, sell the company, and salvage the scraps.

Head of Sales Sam Rogers (a great Spacey) has been with the firm for 34 years and hates to go down with the rubble. He won’t have to. Tuld has thrown Head of Risk Sarah Robertson (a perfectly cast Moore) under the bus instead.

The film doesn’t need to expand any further; we all know where history goes from there. Instead, Chandor punctuates the plot with a metaphor for an end to an era: Rogers burying his dead dog in his ex-wife’s lawn.