Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar Predictions -- 2015 Edition

As the Hollywood elite are in the midst of primping and cleansing for tomorrow's big event, I shall run down the categories and over assorted prognostications. Unlike the past several years, where the top categories seemed fairly predictable (save for Best Director in 2012, when Ang Lee surprisingly won), there are several categories this year that seem like toss-ups between two favored films. Then, there are a handful of categories where there is no question who will win. Thus, we could have a night with several surprises, or afterwards we will all shake our heads and say, "well, I saw that one coming."

Best Picture: Birdman 

Boyhood was clearly the front runner in this category just a month ago. It had won a slew of critics' awards and also the Golden Globe. At the Globes, Birdman's solitary prize was for screenplay. Then, surprisingly, the guilds awards all went for Birman. The PGA, DGA, and SAG all honored the hectically paced backstage drama about a washed-up action star. Although Boyhood could still eke out a win here, it seems as if Birdman has momentum behind it. But there is another wrinkle to this: with the preferential ballot system for Best Picture, I wonder if these two could divide the vote in such a way that The Grand Budapest Hotel or Imitation Game wins the big prize. I assume that American Sniper has no chance here, but I thought the same for Crash in 2005, so I could be wrong yet again.

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Although González Iñárritu is nipping at Linklater's heels for this prize, I do believe that Linklater's scope and tenacity in bringing this production to fruition will ultimately win.

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Julianne Moore will easily triumph in this category. This is her fifth nomination and she is well respected in Hollywood. My only twinge of sadness about this stems from the fact that Moore will not win the award for some of her truly seminal work in films such as The Hours, The End of the Affair, Far from Heaven, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Moore is fantastic as a Columbia linguistics professor facing the diagnosis and encroaching symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's, but the film is marred by a terribly pouty performance from Kristen Stewart as her whining daughter who longs to be taken seriously as an actress. I wish this win was for Far from Heaven 2: Loving the Gardener, again. 

Best Actor: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne is clearly the leading contender for this prize, having already won the Globe, SAG, and BAFTA for Best Actor. I am personally biased against Redmayne (I just don't like him), but I am resistant to giving the award to such an Oscar-baiting performance. it just all seems so obvious: he is playing a real-life crippled, tortured and unlucky-in-love brilliant scientist. Can't we give it to something that isn't so obvious. The layers of Keaton's performance and the numerous gestures towards his own life, creates this complex performance of signs (signifiers and the signified) and even the notion that Keaton himself is the far-off referent in all of this.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Whiplash wowed the crowds at Sundance last January and, in a very limited release, created some serious word of mouth. Ultimately, it shocked everyone for some big nominations at the BAFTAs and Oscars, including Best Picture. The film narrates a struggle between teacher and student that is anchored by two great performances from Miles Teller and Simmons. Simmons, being the longtime character actor, familiar from Law & Order, Juno, and those Farmers Insurance commercials, will get some respect from his peers tomorrow night, for a performance everyone believes deserves it.

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

I have been flummoxed by some of the critical reaction to Arquette's performance. Most critics have noted how "brave" she was to allow herself to expand (in terms of her weight, not her craft), age and wrinkle before our eyes in this film. That misses the point that Arquette has created a performance that fights against the very androcentric gaze of this film--it's called boyhood, for god's sake. Arquette's mother fights for recognition, love, and respect, as she makes mistakes, fails, and, in the end, triumphs. Although I have a bit of a desire to see Keira Knightley win here, I am fully on board with the Arquette bandwagon.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

This may be Imitation Game's only chance for a big prize--or any prize, in fact--but the bizarre story around Chazelle's screenplay may have garnered it enough attention to win the Oscar. Channel films a piece of his screenplay in order to raise financing for the production, but because of this brief filmed piece that was used to shop the screenplay around the writers' branch deemed the screenplay adapted, even though the screenplay was written first! A similar situation occurred to Billy bob Thornton with his Sling Blade script.

Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Two months ago, I was convinced that Birdman would only win one big prize and it would be in this category. Now, that seems not to be the case, and I think Anderson's well-liked and successful trifle that depicts love, baking, hoteliers, among the rise of totalitarianism to win his first Oscar.

Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Since Lego Movie is not nominated and the Dragon sequel won the Globe and BAFTA, I assume it will win here, too. The first film was inventive and charming; I found myself lost in the sequel (though I enjoyed the addition of Cate Blanchett), but since Big Hero 6 has no momentum, this has to win.

Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour

Laura Poitras' look at Edward Snowden will premiere on HBO on Monday night, so I have yet to see it. The film has rave reviews and seems to offer the fullest portrait of our NSA leaker, since Glenn Greenwald's work.

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida 

Leviathan, a Russian film about small-town corruption, may win here, but I want this beautiful Polish film about a young novitiate search for answers to what happened to her family during the Holocaust (spoiler alert: they died) is one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous films of the year.

Best Song: "Glory" from Selma

Wouldn't it be nice for a truly good hip-hop song win in this category that doesn't have pimp in the title, or isn't written by a white dude? I think it would be. It would also give Selma a chance to shine, after being willfully ignored by the Academy in every other category, save Picture.

Best Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Icelandic composer, Johann Johannsonn, created a lush string-filled score for Theory of Everything, and that may win here, but Desplat's careful work that has garnered him eight nominations (with zero wins, and two nominations this year), I think should finally compel the Academy to award him this year.

Best Costume Design, Make-up/Hair and Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The costumes and sets for Anderson's delightful romp will do a repeat of Great Gatsby and win these prizes handily. What was done to Tilda Swinton will win the award for Makeup.

Best Cinematography: Birdman

This may be the most difficult category for me to call. It is filled with nominees who are all serving. Roger Deakins, who has made a career of working with the Coen Brothers, has yet to win. Mr. Turner  and Ida are two gorgeous films; Grand Budapest continues Anderson's aesthetic project of juxtaposition of numerous shooting styles to create a vibrant tableau. I assume because of the technical mastery required to film the precisely choreographed scenes of Birdman will bring Emmanuel Lubezki his second consecutive Oscar, after winning for Gravity last year.

Best Editing: Whiplash 

This prediction may seem to be out of left field, especially since Birdman and Boyhood seem to be the two obvious choices here. Boyhood had 12 years of footage to sift through. Birdman had to be edited so carefully that it appeared there was no editing. However, Whiplash's musical sequences are so wonderfully filmed and carefully edited that I, like the BAFTAs, want this film to be awarded here.

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash

To ensure that the drumming was heard loud and clear, and didn't simply fade into the background required quite a bit of technical mastery. If I am correct, Whiplash may be one of the biggest surprise winners of the evening with four awards.

Best Sound Editing: American Sniper

I am willing to give the Eastwood jingoistic flick this award, and that is all.

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Nolan's latest sci-fi epic faltered a bit at the box office, and there was some serious criticism leveled at the film about its gender and racial politics, but the powerful worlds created by Nolan's team were imaginative and impressive (even if the sound mixing in the movie was terrible).

Best Animated Short: Feast 

Feast was the Disney short ahead of Big Hero 6. It is about a dog's love of food, so why not?

Best Documentary Short: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

HBO's documentary about working on a suicide helpline for Veterans is harrowing and powerful, and calls for much-needed resources to be sent towards the mental health of returning combatants from our decades-long wars.

Best Live Action Short: The Phone Call

Another film about suicide hotlines, but this time with Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. It is rare to see major star power in a short like this, and it could garner some attention from Academy voters due to that. The other contender in this category appears to be Butter Lamp which is a loosely confederated set of images of Tibetan nomads.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Best Films of 2014


1. "Selma" -- On Thursday morning, we awoke to the shocking news that "Selma" was nominated in only two categories and its director, Ava Duvernay, and its stars, David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, were locke out of nominations. The only other nomination it received was for its song, penned by Common and John Legend. The last time a film was nominated for Best Picture and was not nominated in a large top-five category, such as for acting, directing, or writing, that I have determined is 1944 when "The Ox-Bow Incident" was nominated solely for Best Picture. There seemed to be issues with distributing screeners, and there may be "racial fatigue" among Academy voters since they awarded "12 Years a Slave" last year; however, this does seem to represent a serious travesty, since no film this year has aligned so well with the political discourse of our moment. As protests have swept the country over events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, it seems appropriate for a major film to be made that addresses the hard-won fight to enfranchise African Americans in this country and demonstrates that work is still not complete. Some have criticized the film for historical inaccuracies, but, in fact, the film has done a rather refreshing job of portraying the competing factions of the civil rights movement. On the question of LBJ, I am rather convinced that in January of 1965, Johnson did not want to engage in another civil rights bill, when he had passed a large bill that previous summer. Regardless of these criticisms, "Selma" succeeds on a powerful script and impressive performances. This is a film that benefits from a communal viewing in a theater.

2. "A Most Violent Year"--In just a handful of years, J.C. Chandor has created three well-reviewed films, "Margin Call," "All is Lost," and now, "A Most Violent Year." None of these has succeeded quite at the hoped for level at the box office, but Chandor is now poised to become a major force in Hollywood. Chandor's strength lies in his commitment to create films that have crisp and clear stories with complicated characters who are somehow still sympathetic. In "A Most Violent Year," Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain run an oil-distribution business, and have run into a rather delicate financial situation. Refreshingly, this married couple has its passive-aggressive moments, but they are portrayed as a partnership and, lo and behold, they do not appear to be unfaithful. Unlike our current fetishization of dark characters making poor choices, Chandor's flick revolves around a sympathetic character who is trying to make the right decisions.

3. "Grand Budapest Hotel"--If people are convinced that Wes Anderson cannot make a commercially successful film, you can point those individuals to this film that took in almost $60 million at the domestic box office. Many pundits, including me, were convinced that by releasing this film in March, it would lose all hope of securing a single nomination. Fortunately, it remained on critics' top-ten lists and in the minds of audiences and garnered nine nominations, including Wes Anderson's first as Best Director. This light romp actually confronts serious issues of warfare, totalitarianism, and terror, while focusing on a set of eccentric characters. Yet again, Ralph Fiennes, who has made himself into one of the most dependable character actors of the last two decades, was overlooked yet again for an Oscar nomination. That may be as big a snub as failing to nominate Oyelowo.

4. "Whiplash"-- Damien Chazelle's directorial debut was a tight, rollicking film about a drummer in a music conservatory facing an enemy in the guise of a teacher. With a standout performance from Juno's dad (J.K. Simmons), "Whiplash" succeeds as a morality tale of how much of ourselves we lose by attempting to achieve perfection. The film is worth watching for the superb editing and camerawork in its series of filmed musical performances.

5. "Ida"--It is hard to recommend a bleak Polish Holocaust movie. The film follows a young nun, as she attempts to uncover what happened to her parents in the war (spoiler alert: it was the Holocaust; they died horrifically). Powerful performances coupled with the superb Oscar-nominated cinematography takes this bleak tale and transforms it into a transcendent film about how the past continues to haunt succeeding generations.

6. "Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance"-- Iñàrittu's film about a man who sounds a lot like Michael Keaton attempting to make a comeback, starring Michael Keaton, has become one of the most successful films from Hollywood about actors. The long takes, coupled with precise and complicated dialogue and choreographed camerawork, set a fast pace for a piece that grapples with notions of failure, artistry and the search for validation.

7. "Imitation Game" -- Benedict Cumberbatch has secured his place as the go-to actor for intense, mildly autistic white man. In fact, much of this year has seen films where mildly autistic white men are celebrated for their very lack of social graces. White privilege certainly is powerful. But back to "Imitation Game": although its final monologue from Keira Knightley is beautifully filmed and performed, it is an anachronistic moment that marks exactly how we want to view the past and the history of sexuality. Keira can tell Benedict, with tears in her eyes, that damn the normal people, it is those who aren't normal that change the world for the rest of us. It is a beautiful sentiment, but no one in 1957 would have uttered such a speech. The film is marked by some wonderful performances and beautiful production values, but "Imitation Game" would have most likely have made more impact a decade ago when our consciousness had not been raised by films like "Brokeback Mountain," "Milk," or "A Single Man."

8. "Mr. Turner" -- Mike Leigh's films can sometimes feel inaccessible and a random string of inside jokes and improvised performances. Other times, he creates a work of art that is astonishing and beautiful. "Vera Drake" told the heartbreaking story of a woman who faces prison after she attends to a botched abortion in mid-twentieth-century Britain, and "Mr. Turner" tells a simpler tale of the British Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner. Following the last 25 years of Turner's life, Leigh has constructed a film about art where Turner's vision and eye is at the forefront. With a standout performance from Timothy Spall, "Mr. Turner" allows its audience to experience the creation of an artist and his work.

9. "Boyhood"-- Linklater's work may be more interesting for the way it was filmed, rather than for its story. Although its directorial choices are clearly innovative, its story resembles the most staid family melodramas. By having his actors age over a dozen years, Linklater has provided the chance for Patricia Arquette to shine brighter than she has ever been allowed up to this time.

10. "Lego Movie"-- When I first heard that a movie was going to be made around legos, I was convinced this was the end of American civilization. How crass and cynical does it sound that a movie would be made about toys that are simply built? What would Marx say about this? He would be sickened. When I actually saw it, the film does a deft job of navigating around things Marx himself discussed, the fetishization of the commodity, and the concomitant loss of identity in an industrial society. In many ways, this is one of the more interesting Marxist films to gain such widespread viewings. And bosh to you if you claim there is no Marxism in this piece; I will ignore you and listen to "Everything is Awesome" one more time.

11. "Only Lovers Left Alive"--Jarmusch made a movie about vampires with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton? Why yes, he did. It is delightful and John Hurt plays a pitch-perfect Kit Marlowe.

12. "Gloria"-- Sebastian Lelio's bittersweet story about a middle-aged woman navigating the terrain of being single in Santiago, Chile, is simultaneously harrowing and beautiful with an intrepid performance from Paulina Garcia.

13. "Pride"-- A charming, if sentimental, story of a group of homosexuals driving up to Wales to help striking coal miners in 1984, "Pride" tells a little-known story about the power of alliances and coalitions. It may ignore a set of racial politics and tensions between these groups, the film succeeds as a heartwarming tale that did result in the adoption of a gay-rights platform within the Labour Party.

14. "Belle"-- Gugu Mbatha-Raw made a splash this year in both "Belle" and "Beyond the Lights." Her subtle performance in what I have termed the sweet version of "12 Years" shaded a complex historical figure of whom very little is known. By recreating the trial of the infamous Zong ship, Belle  portrayed a moment of prime historical import while framing it with a romantic and sentimental love story.

15, 16, 17. "Cake,""Wild," "Still Alice"-- I place these together as the handful of films that decided it would be a good idea to focus on a female character. Have you noticed that all but Selma of the best actor nominations focus on a straight white man who has some personality quirks? All of them. And Selma still has a man at the forefront of his film. Two actresses often dismissed as light and frivolous, J. Anniston and Reese, surprised critics with a pair of finely crafted dramatic performances. Julianne Moore seems to have locked down her first Oscar, after four other nominations, in a film about a linguistics professor losing control over her mind as she slips into Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, the film is hurt by the terrible casting of Kristen Stewart as a pouty teenaged daughter who wants to be a serious actress. Watching Kristen Stewart try to deliver the final monologue from Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" was truly disturbing. Couldn't we have hired Emma Watson instead?

18. "Theory of Everything" -- Eddie Redmayne is in the Oscar bait performance of the year: crippled, brilliant real-life character. I usually loathe Redmayne, ever since "My Week with Marilyn" irked me with its self-indulgent quackery, but what makes this movie shine is Felicity Jones' beautiful performance as Hawking's wife who finds that she cannot find happiness in a marriage where she is solely the caregiver. John Nash's wife actually divorced him, too, but Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman could not bear the thought of having Jennifer Connelly walk out on Russell Crowe. Fortunately, this film takes on a deeper shade of meaning by showing Jones' character struggling against the role she is supposed to accept graciously.

19. "Nightcrawler"-- I have said this time and again: losing or gaining a lot of weight does not constitute a great performance. I suppose Jake Gyllenhaal assumed he would not be taken seriously if he were too pretty. The movie does succeed as a tightly wound tale of intrigue within the world of journalism running to catch up with the morally ambiguous success of TMZ. I also enjoyed that two of the neighborhoods of LA that I know best were portrayed as crime-ridden hellholes, including a shootout at the Chinatown Express at 3rd and Western.

20. "Into the Woods" -- Someone should inform Rob Marshall that making a musical cinematic does not mean that every single song has to be shot in extreme close-up. The film loses a bit of steam in the second act, but Emily Blunt is surprisingly good as the Baker's Wife.

21. "Gone Girl" -- Fincher's revenge tale, penned by novelist Gillian Flynn, engages in some truly bizarre gender politics, but Rosamund Pike was finally able to secure herself a part that has made her into the star that she deserves to be.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Predictions for 2014!

Because the Oscars did not want to be put against the Closing Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, we have had a particularly long awards season. The Globes were over a month and a half ago; the Baftas a couple weeks ago. Are we in statuette fatigue yet? I am now compelled to say that the length of this season may lead to one of the most spectacularly predictable Oscars in recent memory. With L.A. still under a flood watch, this may prove to be Oscar's soggiest year.

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

McQueen's directorial adaptation of Solomon Northrup's memoir of 1853 (notice the date: before Dred Scott, John Brown or, even, Bloody Kansas) has been criticized, analyzed, praised. Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks had a rousing discussion about this movie, where Harris-Perry thought the film did and admirable job of exposing the daily brutalities of slave life, while hooks was convinced the film offered nothing for African Americans. I see the film as playing a particularly important role in the current political discourse, where the Right is firmly convinced that the civil War was not waged over slavery, where Obamacare is "a new form of slavery," a prominent libertarian can write jokingly that slavery and the Civil Rights Act are not that far away, and state legislators can tell African Americans that it is time "to get over slavery." Although Reconstruction ended in 1877, the American nation is still grappling with this past. Of course, the most heartbreaking moment of the piece is the brief written postscript that informs us that we are not sure as to the events of the last decade of his life, or even his exact date of death. McQueen's great intervention in making this film was to use the visual language of the glamorized South portrayed in Hollywood films, such as Jezebel or Gone with the Wind. This film is sumptuous and makes its statement in the same way that Cukor or Fleming would, creating his own equivalencies of this universe. With the breathtaking cast of Ejiofor, Sarah Paulson (in a particularly gruesome portrayal that exposes the limits of sisterhood), newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender, this film offers a biting critique of the mythology of the lost cause told in stunning technicolor.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Many have complained that Gravity is light on story and heavy on technical effects, but, oh what technical effects. The breathtaking vision we get of loneliness with a pacing that keeps one's knuckles white throughout is a technical feat of achievement that few directors can achieve. I would have, in fact, preferred even less back story for Bullock's character, and more moments of the sublime loneliness of space (something JC Chandor accomplished in his version of Gravity awash at sea, All is Lost). Films set in space changed drastically after Kubrick's 2001, and now after Gravity, no space film will be the same. 

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Writing the above words made my skin crawl. I should admit that I enjoyed Jean-Marc Vallée's piece about the debates surrounding AZT in the mid-1980's and the efforts of one man in Texas to try to combat the slow-going processes of the FDA. McConaughey showed a depth to his characterization that we have not seen and this may just be his annis mirabilis (Mud and True Detective have also garnered the drawler a mountain of praise). I just don't like him. He is going to ascend the stage and chant, "All right, all right, all right," and then I shall wretch. I would love to see Leo win instead, but the controversy around Wolf of Wall Street has hindered his chance at receiving his long-coveted award.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

For a brief moment, I wondered whether the renewed outrage over Woody Allen was going to affect Cate the Great's chances of winning, but it appears as if any such fears were misplaced. Her performance is so deftly layered, complex and campy that no one can compete with it. Blanchett has taken a character with so little empathy and somehow made her a touch sympathetic. Her delusions are so strongly held that by the last pathetic shot, the audience is convinced this woman will descend into complete madness. I have never left a movie theater wanting a stiff drink and shower so desperately. I must admit that I would love to see Judi win for an equally complicated performance (but far less showy) in Philomena, but Cate who lost the Oscar for both Elizabeth I and Bob Dylan will win her second this year.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

All I gotta say is that he is playing a drug-addicted transsexual dying of AIDS. If that role doesn't win you an Oscar, you're doing something wrong.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Please, dear Academy, I beg of you: do not give it to J. Law. Please. Please. I beg of you. Please. This may sound desperate because it is. Jenny from the block won last year, she is fine. Can we please award this to the ingenue who graduated from Yale Drama School and made her feature film debut in a searing critique of slavery wherein she serves as the moral compass of the movie. Please, as the ad campaign for 12 years says, "It's time."

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Spike Jonze has not yet won an Academy Award. Enough said. However, Her paints a portrait of a future LA that I would love to inhabit. No cars, nice burnt orange slacks, talking computers. There is a tinge of a complete dystopia on the horizon of this movie, but the lives we could carve out in this universe would be fulfilling for that brief moment in time.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Philomena

12 Years a Slave will likely win here, but I want to see the witty, charming adaptation of Martin Sixsmith's journalistic expose by Steve Coogan to garner the prize. A film that could have been overwhelmingly sentimental and bleak, instead, turned into a message piece with a light touch and deeply abiding sense of humor.

Best Foreign Film: The Great Beauty

Haven't seen it, but I adored Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo about former Italian PM, Andreotti. This was is in the top of my queue.

Best Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing

Some pundits argue that 20 Feet from Stardom (about back-up singers) will be the victor in a repeat of last year's victory for Searching for Sugar Man (about a forgotten singer who unknown to him was a cult favorite in South Africa). I believe the surreal masterpiece that is The Act of Killing will still triumph. This film, which in fact as an uncut version on youtube with a running time of over 3 hours, examines the massacre of thousands of purported Communists in the year following the collapse of Sukarno's government in Indonesia in 1965. These men who have been hailed as heroes by their nation are ecstatic about sharing gruesome details of each act, even going so far as to re-enacting their murders in the style of Robert DeNiro gangster films.

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Surprisingly, Disney has never won since this category was inaugurated in 2003. The first Disney animated film co-directed by a woman exploded at the box office this past year (it appears that it has a chance of grossing over $1 billion worldwide). The film that demonstrates that Aretha and Annie Lennox were correct and that sisters are doing it for themselves looks to have locked this category down.

Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Score: Gravity

With the technical expertise of Gravity, we shall hear a lot of thank yous directed to Cuarón durign that middle section of the awards. Even those handful of people who loathed this movie must admit that it is deserving in these technical categories.

Best Song: "Let It Go," Frozen

Pharrell's "Happy," which just ascended to the top slot on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, could be the big upset here, but "Let it Go" finalyl gave Idina Menzel her first top 20 hit, after two albums where she attempted the same by distancing ehrself from Broadway. Her retread of "Defying Gravity" (ironic with this year's nominees) will be a major crowd pleaser at the show on Sunday. Let's just hope that she can hit that high note.

Best Costume Design and Production Design: The Great Gatsby

You cannot deny that the film was pretty, even if the adaptation had a host of flaws. Everyone looked great and I need to get that tailor down the street to make me a couple of those suits.

Best Makeup: Bad Grandpa

Yup, I want the John Knoxville movie to win an Oscar.  Now hear me out on this: Bad Grandpa makeup designers actually came up with a new type of paper-thin silicone that would be translucent and reflect the movement of skin more accurately. Channels had to be carved out in the latex so Knoxville's sweat could be funneled off his face because silicone does not breathe. Over sixty sets of this facial makeup had to be produced because each day of filming required a new application of the make up. It is a truly technical feat. If voters are too creeped out by voting for this, they will go with Dallas Buyers Club.

Best Animated Short: Get a Horse!

Mickey Mouse makes his triumphant return to the big screen.

Best Documentary Short: The Lady in Number 6

This set of interviews with the oldest known Holocaust survivor (she passed away just a few weeks ago) is poignant and touching and perfect Oscar fodder.

Best Live Short: Avant que de tout perdre (Just before losing everything)

I encourage everyone to try to find a copy of this on the interwebs. It is a terrifying, minimalist horror film. I don't know if it will win (this category is difficult to predict because those who can vote actually have to attend a screening of them, making the voting pool an infinitesimal fraction of the actual 6,000 members of the Academy), but it should.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Best Films of 2013

There are, as always, a stream of foreign films that I should have seen already, but I have not (e.g., Farhadi's "The Past," "The Great Beauty," "Blue is the Warmest Color"), so take that into account when perusing what I feel are the best films of the past year. 2013 proved to be quite a strong year, with some great entries from some of our most talented directors.

1. "Only God Forgives"--You will see this movie on no one's top-ten list this year, I swear it. Nicolas Refn's bloody romp through the underworld of Bangkok received some of the worst reviews of the year. It was simultaneously booed and applauded when it premiered at Cannes this past spring. "The Guardian" posted diametrically opposed reviews of the film: one calling it revelatory, the other insisting it was mere revenge porn. The way I felt about this film was the way many fanboys felt about Harmony Korine's "Springbreakers:" I was in love and watched it 3 times in one 24-hour period. The film has no viewers who are ambivalent: it is either full-on fascination or disgust. What no one denies is that the film is gorgeous. Refn and his cinematographer Larry Smith have created an amazing succession of beautifully composed scenes. I would argue that you could pause the movie at any point and find yourself a wonderful tableau. Many critics have missed the wonderful use of camp in this piece. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a terrifying matriarch, who is clearly Lady Macbeth tinted with the spray tan of Kris Jenner. It is this character who has the most dialogue in the entire film, even delivering the fiercest Oedipal monologue you have ever seen. This universe is upheld and set in motion by the strange Thai Javert-like police lieutenant who says little, but delivers some stirring karaoke performances and beats the heck out of Ryry Gosling. It is available streaming on Netflix. Watch it now.

2. "Gravity"--Alfonso Cuarón's cinematic artistry has never been questioned, whether it was "Y tu mama tambien," or the 3rd Harry Potter, Cuarón has been able to inject a singular directorial vision into all of his work, even within the Potter universe. "Gravity" is thin on story; he fought with his studio to avoid placing flashbacks for Bullock's character that would have explained in a literal fashion her desire to be in space. But this avoidance to spell out the details leads to some of the tensest 90 minutes of cinema you will ever see. I realized partly way through that I had not let go of the arm rests of my seat because I was convinced that I, too, would go hurtling towards the earth, if I let go. Cuarón's technical feats, which are many, are complemented by the fact that he chose to cast a woman in the lead, rather than Clooney in the main role. In a day and age, when even I think to myself, I can wait for that to come out on Netflix, Gravity forced people out of their home entertainment systems and back out to theaters.

3. "12 Years a Slave"--bell hooks and other scholars have certainly criticized the sentimental aspects of this narrative, but I would argue that the sentimental structure of this piece helps lead to its political importance. By taking on "Gone with the Wind" with its own language, Steve McQueen has succeeded in creating a vision of slavery contained within the very universe of Scarlett and Rhett. The luscious cinematography and fine performances forces us to rethink the mythology of the "Lost Cause," simply because we can imagine the scenes of brutal oppression happening in the universe of Roots, GWTW, or Raintree County. This film demolishes any notion that women on a plantation could form alliances between races, mostly through the vital and powerful performances of Lupita Nyong'o and Sarah Paulson, who expose the various forms of oppression and misery on an antebellum plantation. Even the putative "kind" slaveowner is implicated in a gross system of continual denial of the humanity of its victims. I always think of the adjective "necessary" being appended to a description of a movie as hyperbole, but here I think it is fitting.

4. "The Act of Killing"-- Another real upper. This time we follow the lives of several paramilitary leaders in Indonesia who massacred supposed Communists after Sukarno's fall in 1965. In most such films, the director would have interviews where the alleged criminals would deny any wrongdoing, or a set of excuses that would range from Nuremberg to twinkie defenses. Not here; rather, these men celebrate their crimes, seeing them as necessary to the nation's security. They are excited to tell of their murders. When Joshua Oppenheimer does mention that they are being filmed and could be brought up on charges in The Hague, these men become even more excited, proposing to Oppenheimer that they re-enact their crimes, so it can be more like a De Niro gangster picture. It is a disturbing and important movie demonstrating how much work is to be done in the arena of human rights.

5. "Her"--Spike Jonze's film about a man falling in love with Siri on his 10th generation iPhone is a powerful meditation on how we fall in love with the reality we construct in our minds. Joaquin Phoenix's character has structured a deep, romantic relationship with a cyborg with whom he only speaks. When only one sense is involved, it allows that individual to imagine a reality that exists nowhere outside of his mind. All of us are susceptible to imagining our realities in such a way that they can never be achieved. This movie takes a powerful look at the dangers of trying to achieve that reality.

6. 'Philomena"--Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan collaborated on a movie that sounded like a Hallmark TV movie: an Irish widow goes searching for the son she gave up for adoption. Instead, this piece maneuvered very deftly the territory between tragedy and comedy, never losing its sense of humor in the face of very dark circumstances: Irish nuns actually sold Philomena's child, and many others, to the highest American bidder. Judi Dench has proven herself, yet again, to be one of the great actresses, in a performance of heartbreaking subtlety. Although Cate the Great's performance in "Blue Jasmine" is far showier, Dench demonstrates the very difficult terrain of resignation, hope and emotional solidity in the face of grand obstacles. No other actress could have pulled it off and kept you laughing when she says for the millionth time: "I wouldn't have imagined it in a million years."

7. "Blue Jasmine"--No other Woody Allen movie since "Interiors" has ended on a such dark note. As I said when I left the theater: 'That movie makes me want a strong drink, a Xanax and a shower." The entire film rides on Cate's powerful performance of a 21st-century Blanche Dubois, flittery and fey, unable to focus, but a victim of tragic circumstances. Cate's performance seems to fight against Woody's attempts to showcase the silliness of the character. Cate has committed to the tragedy of this woman, and somehow your sympathies are with her, something solely attributed to this powerful performance. I truly wish I could give Oscars to both Cate and Judi this year.

8. "All is Lost"--Correct, this is "Gravity" in water, but watching Robert Redford attempt to navigate his tiny yacht through the Indian Ocean as it slowly sinks makes for some powerful cinema. Unlike Zemeckis' "Castaway" that focused on the context of someone being lost at sea and the consequences of that separation on the loved ones once he returns, JC Chandor's film has no interest in backstory or context, he simply asks: how would someone try to survive? There is no volleyball to talk to, no one to miss and long for, it is an old man and the sea. Robert Redford has never been better, and yet again he was passed over for an Oscar nomination. This is not the first time: in 1985, Jon freaking Voight was nominated for "Runaway Train," over Redford in "Out of Africa."

9. "Saving Mr. Banks"--Another film that suffered in the avalanche of Oscar love that went to Russell's "American Hustle." Emma Thompson, who could have easily phoned in a performance that would have been good, was actually electrifying in her performance of PL Travers. Her emotional restraint covered her traumas that were revealed slowly and masterfully. John Lee Hancock's overly sentimental direction gave a bit too much time to his never-ending flashbacks, but Emma holds the movie together showing us a woman with little heart who gave the world a great literary character of depth and heart.

10. "The Wolf of Wall Street"--The film has been a lightning rod of discussion. Some have criticized its misogyny and its celebration of hedonism. I am not sure that Scorsese is advocating for either of those. In fact, Scorsese has given us an incisive and penetrating (in all senses of the word) representation of white male privilege. Jordan Belfort treated his women like valuable possessions to be showed off, and Belfort, after serving time in prison, returned to American society without much repercussion becoming a bestselling author, motivational speaker, and now the subject of a Scorsese biopic. That is the American dream, right there: fuck up and end up getting rewarded with a movie made about you. Of course, the great irony is that Belfort's dealings were small fry in comparison to the large systemic greed implemented by the financial giants at Goldman Sachs, AIG, Countrywide, Lehman, etc., leading up to our great crash of 08.

11. "Inside Llewyn Davis"--I am actually surprised that this film has underperformed in Oscar nominations and in commercial receipts. The film highlights the numerous traits of the Coen Bros.: their ability to gain sympathy for rather unsympathetic characters, their brilliant use of John Goodman, the creation of a lush T Bone Burnett soundtrack (along with the brilliance of "Please, Mr. Kennedy"). Somehow in as crowded a year as this, the Coen Bros. get ignored completely.

12. "Frozen"--Disney has not had an animated movie garner over $300 million at the domestic box office since the Lion King (barring Pixar movies). The movie has some problems: its marketing campaign made it seem like it was a tale about a snowman and a reindeer, it is a movie with musical elements but not a full-blown musical. When Frozen shines, it sparkles. "Do you wanna build a snowman?" is the most heartbreaking movie in animated cinema since the opening of "Up," while the snowman's aria is one of the most uplifting moments in cinema this year.

The rest:
13. "Nebraska"--I avoided this for weeks, but ended up enjoying it because of the fantastic June Squibb. "I loved her, but what a whore!" Best line of the year.
14. "Fruitvale Station"--Complex and complicated, ethical but not moralistic. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan will go on to great things.
15.  "At Berkeley"--I watched all four hours (!) of Wiseman's documentary about a day in the life at the famed California institution of higher education and loved it. If you have any interest in the operations of a university at its highest level of administrative (mal)functioning, this is a must see.
16. "Frances Ha"--Gorgeous cinematography, a deft performance from Greta Gerwig, and an ending that pays off the frustrations of the first hour.
17. "Before Midnight"--Although I think Ethan Hawke is no better than James Franco--pretentious, arrogant, not as talented as he believes--the third part of this trilogy shows the continued navigation that a couple must face as they continue to age and fight the inevitable growing apart that eveyr couple endures. 
18. "Museum Hours"--A charming tale of the sort of romance between a Dutch museum guard and an American tourist.
19. "Short Term 12"--The lead male character irritated me as the writer-director's own self-idealization, but Brie Larson's complex performance makes up for some of the problems in character delineations.

A word about "American Hustle:" I am in full Russell backlash mode, much like last year with "Silver Linings Playbook," or "The Figher," two years before that. Each time I have fallen for the hype, convinced I will view a vital, even necessary, piece of American cinema. For the first thirty minutes of a Russell movie, I believe that this time he has pulled it off, this will be his masterwork, but, inevitably, by the end I am confused, irritated and convinced that Russell has failed me yet again. No different with "American Hustle." Here we have two great actresses at the top of their game and the only brief scene they are given is to argue over a fat, bald Christian Bale. It was a failure of the Bechdel test at its most epic level. So much that was set up in the first act went nowhere: why was everyone contributing voiceover narration, only to vanish by minute 45; the only moment of tension dissipates over a rather comedic set piece. I did, however, love the wigs, thus I am surprised that it failed to get a nomination for makeup and hair.

All in all, this year gave us a crowded field. There are certainly ten performances in each of the leading acting characters that deserved nominations. A powerful set of films on the long list for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film. We will be catching up with our Netflix queues for several months.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oscar Predictions 2012

And time for my annual summation of what and who will win this year's Academy Awards

Best Picture: Argo--A pattern has emerged as to how likely winners for the Best Picture Oscar come about. There is a film that seems to be the insurmountable victor in early December (eg, Social Network, Descendants, Avatar), and by the week before the awards another film has all but sent that other movie to the poor house (eg, King's Speech, The Artist, Hurt Locker). This year's contestants in that race were Spielberg's Lincoln and Affleck's Argo. In December, after mountains of critical praise and surprisingly strong box office, it seemed that "Lincoln" would sweep all the award shows, but then Ben Affleck's little movie about the Iranian hostage crisis began to pick up steam, and now has won every single large prize out there, with only the Oscar left. Also, the Academy loves when good-looking actor types turn into critically respected directors (cf. Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Clint Eastwood, whose only awards have come as directors).

Best Director: Spielberg, Lincoln. There is a wrench thrown into this race: there is no Affleck nominated. He has won the DGA, the film has won the Golden Globe, BAFTA, PGA and SAG, but Affleck was shut out of the Director race, as was Tarantino, Bigelow, and Tom Hooper. Everyone seems to concur that Spielberg will receive his third award for "Lincoln," but without any other precedents there could still be an upset here. I don't believe Ang Lee or David Russell stand a chance, but there is a possibility that Haneke who directed this year's finest and most depressing film, Amour, could pull it out.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. Although he has already won twice, it really is a spectacular performance. He will triumph again.

Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour. I think many Americans think this race is pitting Jessica Chastain against Jennifer Lawrence. Although both are quite respected and Lawrence had that little movie called the Hunger Games, I think the Academy will go with the legendary French actress, who first became a star with 1959's Hiroshima, mon amour. She gives a breathtaking performance as a piano teacher felled by a stroke and she is a legend in France. She won the BAFTA two weeks ago, and the British awards have proven to be the clearest indicators of who will take home the Oscar (much more so than the SAG awards: see Marion Cotillard vs. Julie Christie; Meryl Streep vs. Viola Davis).

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained. Prognostications are all over the place for this category. Partly due to the fact that this is (I believe) the first time everyone nominated in an acting category has won before--the closest parallel I can think of was Best Actor of 2002, when everyone had won previously, except Adrien Brody, who ended up winning. Some say DeNiro will win his third, I truly doubt that Academy will give three threefers out in one night (along with Daniel Day and Spielberg). Many believe that part of what made Arkin great in Argo was John Goodman, who yet again failed to be nominated. Tommy Lee Jones hasn't won in twenty years, but his sourpuss face at the Golden Globes probably did not help. I will predict Waltz simply because he is the star of Django. He is in every scene and without him, you would have only had Jamie Foxx in the movie, which would have been painful.

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miz. Although I would love to see Sally Field deliver some off-color acceptance speech, it will not happen. Hathaway is considered the standout of the almost three-hour epic that is Les Miz, and this will be the film's largest honor on Sunday night.

Best Original Screenplay: Tarantino, Django. I am not completely convinced that this will happen, but Tarantino who was the enfant terrible of 1994 has grown into a bankable and respected director. He has not won since Pulp Fiction and this will be his chance to get some proper respect. He will probably make an insufferable speech, heads up.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Tony Kushner, Lincoln. Although critics are predicting that David Russell will win, I refuse to believe it. I refuse to award Russell (who by all accounts is a jerk of the highest degree) for writing a screenplay that ends like every single Drew Barrymore movie since 1994, especially if he would be beating one of America's most respected playwrights. I refuse to see that happen.

Best Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph. Although Brave made more money and won the Golden Globe, the best animated feature of the year (and one of the year's best films, period) was Wreck-It Ralph

Best Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man. The charming tale of a guitarist forgotten by the world, who somehow gained cult status in South Africa, is the feel-good flick of the year, and has relaunched Rodriguez's career. He just had his fifth tour throughout South Africa and will be appearing at Coachella in April. This category is always a pain because such different films are put up. This year, all are deserving: Kirby Dick's piece on sexual assault in the armed forces is stunning and devastating; The Gatekeepers provides the most incisive view into the world of the Israeli Defense forces; and How to Survive a Plague walks a fine line of incisive critique and a hopeful future.

Best Foreign Film: Amour. Michael Haneke was heavily favored to win in this category three years ago for The White Ribbon, but lost to the Argentinian film, Secrets of their eyes. His critically acclaimed film that won several prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, Cache, failed to be nomianted. This will be Haneke's night to triumph.

Best Cinematography: Life of Pi. I was not particularly enamored with this Ang Lee movie, but I must admit that there is an hour of the movie, which is one of the most beautiful and spectacular films that I have ever seen ever. It deserves this award without any qualifier.

Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi. See above. It is always nice to see a film use its visual effects for something other than blowing stuff up.

Best Editing: Argo. Part of Argo's success comes from its masterful pacing. Although you know the ending, you are on the edge of your seat for the last last half hour. Kathryn Bigelow is also a masterful director who thinks about editing, but Zero Dark Thirty will probably lose here, too. 

Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina. I only need to mention one thing: Fur hats with veils.

Best Production Design: Les Miz. The few built sets were keenly aware of historical details, including the famed elephant of the Bastille as Gavroche's hideout.

Best Makeup (and Hairstyling): Les Miz. Everyone looked dirty, even the extras. That takes a lot of time.

Best Score: Life of Pi. I would prefer to see Anna Karenina win here, but Mychael Danna's (God, even his name is pretentious) Orientalist score for Ang Lee's film has been the most predicted, so I suppose that will happen at the Oscars as well. sigh.

Best Song: Skyfall. Let's give an Oscar to Adele! This will be the first Bond theme song to win an Oscar, which is slightly shocking thinking of classics like "Moonraker," "Goldfinger," "Diamonds are Forever," and "Nobody Does it Better."

Best Sound Mixing: Les Miz. Even people who loathe this movie do respect the amount of work to layer the different sound levels required with the amount of live singing done during filming. 

Best Sound Editing: Life of Pi, I suppose.

Best Animated Short: Paperman. You can watch all of the shorts on youtube, this year. Disney's charming fable about animated paper, seems to be the clear favorite. I really appreciated the Up-like Head Over Heels, but Adam and Dog is getting attention from others. I have a feeling that its biblical overtone swill put off some Academy voters. It also drags, making its 15 minutes feel much longer.

Best Documentary Short: Innocente. Haven't seen any of them, but this apparently is the front runner.

Best Live Action Short: Curfew. Once again. I have seen none of them, but this is apparently the front runner.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

I write with this with the following caveat: I have yet to see PT Anderson's "The Master" or "Rust and Bone," two films that very well might make it onto this list. Here is the list as it stands without those.

1. "Amour" -- This may be the first time I choose a film that I don't like as the best of the year. This beautifully wrought and acted film is stunning and powerful, but I never want to see it again, nor have I been able to recommend it to anyone. I made the mistake of watching it Christmas morning, and the rest of the day I was in a state of existential angst. I wondered aloud to family members: why do we even bother continuing to live. Michael Haneke is famous for a series of dark, intense pieces that explore the underside of humanity. "Cache," "White Ribbon," and "Funny Game" are stripped of all sentimentality and pose the ease with which humans can fall into violent, aggressive behavior. The films border on the artistic, are always interesting, and never comforting. I believed "Amour" would be different. A movie called Love and focusing on a decades-long married couple in their 80's would just be heartwarming, bittersweet and heart-tugging. And thus how Hollywood has blinded me. If Spielberg had directed this film, "Amour" would have been "The Notebook, Part Deux;" however, Haneke's fascination with our dark side means that this pair of octogenarians will exhibit behaviors that are compelling but uncomfortable. The film unites two icons of post-World War II French cinema, Emmanuelle Riva from "Hiroshima, mon amour" and Jean-Louis Trintignant from "Z." They give career-capping performances that are brilliantly and subtly rendered. I am hoping that Riva can beat Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain for the Oscar. I would tell you to see this movie, but I just can't.

2. "A Separation" -- This film deservedly won last year's Foreign Language Film Oscar. I did not see it until this past March, so it will go on this list. Asghar Farhadi's eloquent tale of a couple seeking to divorce in Tehran captures the vibrant lives of families divided by class and gender. This is not a film about how awful the revolutionary regime is in Iran, nor will it appeal to those self-righteous people who believe that Iran is on the brink of destroying the world. Rather, this film explores how families live amongst the turmoil of a changing society. The brilliance of this work is that Farhadi is able to present four individuals who continuously make bad choices, but the audience never loses sympathy for any of them. There are no good/bad guys: they are four complicated people, and sometimes they screw up. Truly, this is an example of wonderfully structured character-driven drama.

3. "Argo" -- Ben Affleck came on the scene as a talented director with the release of "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007. The film received positive reviews, but had a rather meager box office. He went on to direct the commercially successful "The Town" in 2009, grossing over $90 million, and this year "Argo" became a critics' darling and surprise hit. For a film revolving around the Iran's 1979 Revolution to earn close to $115 million seems rather incredible. Most credit goes to Affleck's directorial eye that keeps the pace of this thriller to the end, even if you know how the story ended. With a final voice-over from Jimmy Carter during the credits, Affleck's liberal bona fides come through as he argues that this was a success of the Carter Administration. It is a story that would be laughable if Le Carre or Greene wrote it, but knowing our CIA, it is fully plausible. The only thing shocking is that the CIA's wild and crazy plans worked out positively for a change.

4. "Lincoln" -- Tony Kushner took four pages from Doris Kearns Goodwin's 750-page tome, "Team of Rival,"(pp.686-690, to be exact) focusing on Lincoln and his cabinet conspiring to get the requisite number of votes in the House to pass the 13th Amendment, and turned it into a two-and-a-half-hour movie. That is par for the course for Kushner, the surprise is that under the sentimental eye of Spielberg, transformational and transcendent performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gloria Reuben, and some beautiful cinematography this very stagey piece became one of the greatest successes of 2012. Unlike when Meryl did Thatcher, or Langella did Nixon, a viewer is never taken out of the film by thinking, "wow, that is good acting." It is hard to recognize this consummate method actor. As he constantly says, "I do not act, I am." He sure did that again.

5. "Anna Karenina" -- If this had been marketed as Tom Stoppard does Tolstoy, it may have done better than by the advertising campaign that basically read: Keira Knightley does another classic heroine with Joe Wright. In fact, this remarkable re-imagining of Tolstoy's epic love story was one of the most inventive and ingenious ways to stage the piece. Stoppard, in his usual profundity, pointed to the artifice that pins together so much of the realism and naturalism of the nineteenth century. The novel is literally staged with people walking off stage or back into the audience, which makes all those scenes with Anna and Vronsky in the theater, so very powerful and illuminating. And all of the fur trim and hats with veils, too!

6. "Les Miserables" -- Of course, Les Miz makes my list. Unlike the subpar cinematic version of "Phantom," where certain scenes seemed significantly less spectacular on screen than stage (e.g. that awful version of "Masquerade"), Les Miz succeeds as a film because it is just so big. The film's success lies in its ability to go from the grandeur of the barricades scene to the small, intimate moments where Fantine is stripped of all dignity. Having the actors sing live, with piano piped in through an ear piece, allowed them to act with each other, instead of a three-hour lip syncing fest. Even Russell Crowe didn't bother me, and that is saying a lot.

7. "Moonrise Kingdom" -- Some may not enjoy Wes Anderson's rather snarky takes on humanity, but he has one of the most well-defined aesthetics in current popular cinema. His colors are so precise; his camerawork lingers on his actors' faces. One cannot help but to want to frame screen captures from his films. In "Moonrise," a tale of forlorn adolescent love, Anderson combines much of his cynicism with a healthy dose of youthful idealism, the world as seen through two teenaged misfits. They may seem silly but we have all had those impulses and desires. Anderson may be one of the best directors of child actors out there.

8. "Wreck-it Ralph" -- Pixar's "Brave" disappointed this year; it was a rather stodgy retread of Disney's middling "Brother Bear" but set in Scotland, rather than the American West. One exotic people were traded for another. Disney's 'Wreck-it Ralph," however, was surprisingly successful. With a wonderful cast of vocal talent (Sarah Silverman, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, and Kenneth from 30 Rock), the story of the characters inside the 8-bit video games of the 80's and 90's came to life. The final scene where Vanellope embraces her glitch is one of the great tear-jerking scenes of the year.

9. "Bernie" -- Richard Linklater's homage to the new genre of mockumentaries is a witty take that somehow combines trenchant wit with a sure eye for cinema verite. With Jack Black as the fey funeral director of a small Texas town who strikes up a rather odd relationship with a widowed millionaire (played by the inimitable Shirley MacLaine, who has made quite a comeback this year), the narrative is interspliced wih interviews with the town's members. The most underrated film of the year.

10. "Django Unchained" -- It is difficult to love a Tarantino, but they are always interesting. His aesthetics of violence and universe where good guys always finish on top after destroying the baddies in the bloodiest fashion available create films that are often disturbing and uncomfortable. His take on slavery as told through the exigencies of spaghetti westerns and blaxplotiation films has proven controversial (especially premiering a week after the school shooting in Connecticut), and it should. His depiction can be rather facile at times, but with some brilliant performances from Christoph Walz, Leo, and Samuel Jackson, in perhaps his best performance ever, the film has become a crucial viewing piece for this holiday season.

11. "The Queen of Versailles" -- What an apropos film for 2012. The documentary follows a couple who have decided to spend their fortune made in timeshares to build the largest residential home in the nation (90,000 sq ft.!). Unfortunately for them, the 2008 meltdown hit them hard and the house was never completed. The documentary becomes a tale of the richest 1% falling on hard times. However, their hard times bear no resemblance to the hard times of countless other Americans. Jackie, the rather clueless matriarch, exposes her unflappable ability to misunderstand her situation repeatedly. In one particularly ghastly scene, she tells her son: "I would tell you what time it is, if I could afford a watch." The son stares at her and says: "You're going to say that while wearing a mink coat?" Modern Family could not have written a better line.

12. "The Sessions" -- This quirky comedy about a man crippled by polio who seeks to unlock his sexual potential succeeds almost entirely due to the superb performance by John Sessions. Sessions, who shined in Winter's Bone, was unfortunately passed over for a Best Actor nomination, which is a shame because his heartfelt, sincere performance was one of the year's best.

Things in films that I liked, even if the films had some issues:

Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" -- I found Benh Zeitlin's film rather disjointed and unsure of its tone, but the critics are correct in lauding the six year old who gave a breathtaking performance. She was fierce and proud, even if her circumstances were unimaginably dark and dire.

The visual effects in "Life of Pi" -- The film had some issues: the unnecessary framing device, the utter misuse of the brilliant Irfan Khan, but I have to admit that there was an hour of that film that was one of the most beautiful and visually enthralling things that I have ever seen on screen. So rent the Blu-ray and fast forward an hour and stop before the last thirty minutes, and you will enjoy quite the visual treat.

The plane crash scene in "Flight" -- If you are scared of flying, never (I repeat never) see this movie. Denzel's pilot is an alcoholic and drug addict who on a routine flight to Atlanta watches everything go wrong. The plane at one point is completely upside down, with a poor stewardess being thrown into an overhead bin. It is briefly righted only to crash into a field. The resolution of the film is far too precious, and the storyline of the female heroin addict whom Denzel befriends goes nowhere, but the first 30 minutes are indicative of what Robert Zemeckis can do best: heart-pounding action.

The first half hour of "Silver Linings Playbook" and the last half hour of "Zero Dark Thirty."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Rachel Maddow's "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power"

Rachel Maddow has become the adored authority of the American left. With her charm, trademark black-rimmed glasses, infectious laugh, and other noted attributes, Maddow is our big sister who joshes us, and will serve up a killer cocktail, along with a brilliant zinger. Since the start of her eponymous talk show on MSNBC during the 2008 election season, she has combined a mischievous sense of humor, dry wit and exhaustive research to become a cable news host very different from those either on her network or those on the right from FoxNews.

AS Jon Stewart noted when he interviewed Maddow recently, it seems that she has written a serious book  and invested a serious amount of research. She responded in passing, "I treated it as a second job." In Stewart's droll way, he said, "Well, you are making all of us look bad." When you look at the books from other talk-show hosts, the title usually resembles: "Why and How ____ (One political party) is Destroying America" or any of the vitriolic, hyperbolic titles of Ann Coulter ("Godless," "Treason," "Slander," "If Democrats Had Any Brains..."-- truly, titles that will provoke constructive and interesting debate). Bill O'Reilly's recent book on the assassination of Lincoln has been ridiculed by historians who have pointed out numerous factual errors (eg O'Reilly frequently refers to Lincoln pondering his decisions in the Oval Office, except the Oval Office did not exist during Lincoln's presidency). The books of Sean Hannity, Coulter, or Keith Olbermann on the left do not make arguments, they simply yell, scream and argue. These polemical publications do nothing but sell copies, provoking no genuine discussion or thought. Maddow, however, constructs an argument based on evidence, logic, and reason, something that surprised Janet Maslin in her rave review in "The New York Times."

In her new book, "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power," Maddow employs a visual metaphor of American military policy set adrift in the ocean of twenty-first century foreign policy. The ship has set sail with no control, and, in her ominous tone, it sounds as if it is heading straight for an iceberg. The narrative begins in the age of Vietnam and how Johnson sought to deploy troops without calling up the National Guard or Reserves, because that would be too politically dangerous to the White House. (This was how G.W. Bush avoided any conflict during the war.) When Vietnam was beginning to wind down after 1973, Congress realized that they had been duped and their power, clearly laid out in the Constitution, had been sidestepped. The framers of the Constitution were clear in their desire to have war declared by the legislative body, not by the executive branch. A President, who could solely declare war, would inevitably become a tyrant, distracting from domestic issues in order to unite his citizens with a common, foreign enemy. By having Congress be responsible for declarations of war, this heady responsibility would be required to go through endless debate and be in the hands of many, rather than one. The clandestine operations that the US employed in the Cold War Era sought to avoid the political calamity of public debate. Mossadegh was brought down with the aid of the CIA in 1953. The Guatemalan president was deposed in 1954. Patrice Lumumba was killed in 1961, after Belgian and CIA operative funneled cash to his enemies. Che was assassinated in 1967. Congress did not authorize, nor even debate, a single one of these occurrences.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution Act sought to right a ship that had gone off course (to continue the usage of the naval metaphor). Under this act, the President must notify Congress within forty-eight hours of the deployment of military troops.  These forces cannot remain for more than sixty days, without Congress authorization or a declaration of war. Nixon and his Cabinet was apoplectic at such a law, which they believed mocked and humiliated the executive branch. Gerald Ford's cabinet, which housed later notables, such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, were further incensed by such Congressional chutzpah. However, this act simply reiterated what was stated in the Constitution. No serious challenge could truly be posed to this law and never was.

Things began to change during the Reagan administration. Reagan comes under the most sustained attack in Maddow's book. The Iran-Contra affair nearly brought the Administration to doom, and those of us on the left have always said that the charges laid at Reagan's feet were far more impeachable than lies about engaging in sexual congress with a consenting adult. Reagan's melodramatic imagination saw the world drawn along a Manichean division of good and evil. The evil Soviets were infiltrating anywhere and everywhere, especially in latin America. The honor-clad Americans with our liberty and freedom were the only ones who could defeat such nefarious enemies. What Reagan failed to see was the often illegal and morally suspicious tactics he utilized in order to weaken the Soviets (who at this point were weakened by years of non-productivity and failing infrastructure). Although Reagan came into office despising the Iranian regime for holding Americans hostage, he was able to turn around only years later and funnel large amounts of cash and weapons to them because it would help Nicaraguan Contras.

Under Clinton, the use of private sector contractors exploded. In order to have some involvement in the Balkan conflict that left millions dead from genocidal murder, Clinton found a way around the perceived political harm that could be done by committing troops to the region and instead supplied contracts to American companies. These contractors are supposed to save money, they don't. John McCain used to rail against the structure of military contracts (who knows if he does any more), because they were sucking money away from what the military actually needs.

The surprising aspect of the Maddow book is the lack of full-bodied discussion about the Bush II White House. For those of us on the left, 9/11 represents a significant turning point in many of these debates. The Patriot Act, Gitmo, the Department of Homeland Security hold an Orwellian place in our imagination. The intellectual maneuvering of John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales to allow the executive powers not guaranteed to it are frightening but find little place in Maddow's book. Does she demure on such topics because of their controversy (that seems unlikely)? Or, is it that authors have covered this material in depth (especially Jane Mayer and Naomi Klein)? However, covering this territory in the context of this book would have created a full appreciation to what this decade has done not just to unmoor American military policy but send it spinning out of control.

Regardless of the lack of another fifty-page chapter, what is present in Maddow's book is well worth reading. At times, her cutesy asides can detract from the intellectual rigor of her research, but it breaks the monotony of a rather withering account of the largest military (and largest organization, period) in the the world. If only, all talk-show hosts had Maddow's key talents, we would have a much firmer, fuller debate in this country about policy issues. But let's be honest, if all talk-show hosts had Maddow's curiosity and intelligence, Fox News would not exist. Sigh.