Friday, January 31, 2014

Ranking the Best Picture Nominees of 1973

1973 was a very strong year for movies – unfortunately, the Academy didn’t really follow through and nominate the best of the best that year. Yet two of these nominees are truly great films, two are very, very good – and only one is bad. Not a horrible ratio – but it could have been much better.

5. A Touch of Class
I’m not quite sure what the Academy saw in Melvin Frank’s would-be screwball comedy back in 1973 – they obviously loved it, as not only did it get nominated for Best Picture, it won Glenda Jackson her second Best Actress Oscar in just four years. The film seems somewhat schizophrenic to me – a would be 1930s screwball comedy, with a 1970s sensibility that never quite gels. Jackson does her best to channel the heroines of those classic movies – Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, etc. – and she mainly gets it right – she is excellent in what is a bad role. But George Segel – as her married lover – seems to be trying to be a more modern, 1970s type of guy. They two clash – and not just in the way the screenplay means them to. They don’t seem like they belong in the same movie, let alone as two characters who supposedly fall in love with each other. This isn’t even a case where you can say the Academy wanted a light option amongst heavy contenders – as two other films are fairly lightweight as well. Chalk me up as someone who just doesn’t get this one.

4. American Graffiti
George Lucas’ first hit film was this nostalgic look back at being a teenager in the 1960s. It was the Dazed and Confused of its day (and while we’re on the subject, can a filmmaker make a film as good as American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused about being a teenager in the 1990s now – thanks). Set all during one night, the film follows a group of friends on their various mis-adventures before some set off to college. The film is full of memorable performances – by Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Mackenzie Phillips, the Oscar nominated Candy Clark and many others. For what it is, American Graffiti is a hell of a lot of fun – and a sign of what Lucas could have done had he not been sucked into the vortex that was Star Wars just four years later.

3. The Sting (WINNER)
It’s not hard to see why the Academy was so taken with George Roy Hill’s The Sting. It has Robert Redford and Paul Newman at the top of their game as a pair conmen, Robert Shaw who is excellent as the mark, and is pretty much non-stop entertainment from beginning to end. Add this together with the fact that the Redford and Newman had co-starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Hill just four years before – a beloved film that didn’t win – and some would have felt that Hill and company were due a victory. As old school Hollywood entertainment goes, it’s tough to beat – a con movie done pretty much to perfection, and if it doesn’t go much deeper than that, it doesn’t really have to. If American Hustle was anywhere near this good, I wouldn’t bitch about it as much as I have this season.

2. Cries and Whispers
Despite having multiple films win or get nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and being personally nominated 9 times (3 for director, 5 as a screenwriter, once as a producer - here), and winning the Irving Thalberg award, this is surprisingly the only film of his to be nominated for Best Picture. While I wouldn’t put the film among his very best (like Smiles of Summer Night, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Persona, Scenes from a Marriage or Fanny and Alexander) it is still masterful drama about one sister who is dying, and two others who come to visit. Bergman’s use of color here is amongst his best work – the film is an emotionally draining film that in many years would have been my choice for the best of the nominees. It’s rather silly that the Academy has been around for 86 years now, and have never given the Best Picture prize to a film not in English, isn’t it?

1. The Exorcist

Even 40 years later, William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece The Exorcist retains the power to shock, surprise and scare the audience. The reason it retains that power is not just because Friedkin and company nail the big scare moments – but because they take as much care with the story and characters – that they make us like them, even while they are tormenting them. This is a serious movie about good vs. evil – God vs. the Devil – and it takes the questions of faith it raises seriously. It doesn’t hurt that the performances by Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller are all top notch – seriously, does anyone think that any of them winning an Oscar for their work (and none of them did – although all but von Sydow were nominated) would look out of place? The Academy has some obvious blind spots – Cries and Whispers highlights the foreign film blind spot this year, and The Exorcist highlights its horror film one. In 86 years, only The Silence of the Lambs can lay claim to being a horror film and a Best Picture winner. That should have changed nearly two decades earlier with The Exorcist.

What They Should Have Nominated: The did nominate Bernardo Bertolucci for Directing Last Tango in Paris and Brando’s iconic performance in it – but they should have gone all the way and nominated it for Best Picture as well. They could have and should have gone with some of the new generation of 1970s – Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Malick’s Badlands or Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. And for something completely different – how about Peter Yates’ excellent crime drama, with one of the best Robert Mitchum performances ever – The Friends of Eddie Coyle? And those are just my personal favorites and doesn’t even mention The Last Detail, The Wicker Man, Serpico, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid or The Day of the Jackal. There was lots of ways this could have gone better this year.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Movie Review: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Directed by: Jeff Tremaine.
Written by: Johnny Knoxville & Jeff Tremaine & Fax Bahr & Spike Jonze & Adam Small.
Starring: Johnny Knoxville (Irving Zisman), Jackson Nicoll (Billy), Greg Harris (Chuck), Georgina Cates (Kimmie).

Johnny Knoxville is a talented comedic performer who has never really found a vehicle in a regular cinematic vehicle. As soon as you script Knoxville, you lose the free flowing comedic energy that Knoxville brings to his best work. Perhaps because he ran out of ideas on how to hit himself and his friends in the balls, he decided to make Bad Grandpa – taking the old man character he created for the show and the movie, and put him on the road with an eight year old boy and filming the results Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat style. I actually think that Knoxville could probably make a good movie in this style – there are moments in Bad Grandpa that are hilarious. Yet Bad Grandpa is missing a few of things that made Borat, and to a lesser extent Bruno, work so well. For one, Knoxville doesn’t seem to have a point of view on anything. In Borat and Bruno, Baron Cohen’s goal was to expose racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. In Baron Cohen’s movies, the real people get mocked only if they expose themselves to ridicule, because they show their own prejudices. The real people in Bad Grandpa seem to be mocked simply for caring about a seemingly senile old man and a child. Second, he goes so far over the top at times, I found it difficult to accept that anyone actually believed Knoxville was a real old – not because of his performance, which is actually convincing under all that makeup, but because of the situations themselves. Did anyone really buy that he got his penis stuck in a vending machine, or that he was hauling around his wife’s dead body in the trunk of his car, or the giant fish with the huge balls and penis were real?

The movie does have the bare bones of a plot. Knoxville plays Irving Zisman – an 86 year old man whose wife has just died. At the funeral, his daughter and grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) show up, unannounced, and she tells him he needs to take Billy to his father across the country because she’s about to go back to jail. The father doesn’t want him – until he finds out he may be able to get some money for the government for taking him in. So Irving heads out on the road with Billy – getting into one crazy situation after another – which I won’t reveal here because for them to work at all they need to surprise you.

There are some things that deserve praise in Bad Grandpa. The makeup work on Knoxville is pretty outstanding – Knoxville is completely unrecognizable as Irving, and convincingly old man like. It doesn’t look like old man makeup. Knoxville is convincing as Irving as well – he doesn’t try to make him a dottering old fool, but into a slow moving, slightly senile old man. Jackson Nicoll is even better as Billy. The kid is fearless, and goes for broke in his every scene – whether its telling people about his mother’s crack addiction, or adopting random men on the street as his new father, or dressing like a girl for a pageant, the kid is a natural talent, and never breaks character. The kid is a star.

Overall though, Bad Grandpa just kind of moves from one similar scene to the next. Some of it is hilarious, but for the most part, I didn’t really find much of it funny. It was overly repetitive, and seemed too staged to be believed. Hidden camera movies and shows like this work best when the people who don’t know they are being filmed don’t seem like they are in on the joke. Here, more often than not, I think they sensed something was not quite right. It ruins the jokes. I think Knoxville could do a movie like this and make it hilarious – I just think he needs to scale things back a little and not try and be so outrageous in every scene. The best moments in Bad Grandpa show the kind of movie he could make if he wanted to. The worst scenes show that even though he is now 42, Knoxville still needs to grow up a little bit.  

Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie Review: Big Bad Wolves

Big Bad Wolves
Directed by: Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado.
Written by: Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado.
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi (Micki), Rotem Keinan (Dror), Tzahi Grad (Gidi), Doval'e Glickman (Yoram), Menashe Noy (Rami), Dvir Benedek (Tsvika), Kais Nashif (Man on horse), Nati Kluger (Eti), Ami Weinberg (Principal Meir), Guy Adler (Eli), Arthur Perry (Ofer), Gur Bentwich (Shauli).

Big Bad Wolves arrives in theaters having been anointed by Quentin Tarantino as the best film of 2013 – assuring a certain crowd of movie lovers will go in with high hopes. Personally, as much as I love Tarantino, I went in with trepidation. Tarantino does not precisely have the best taste in movies – remember when he “presented” Curdled in the late 1990s? Or his continued love for Eli Roth? Big Bad Wolves reminds me of Roth’s work in many ways. The filmmakers – Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado – say a lot of intelligent sounding things about the film – that they wanted to look at the effect of torture on both the torturer and tortured – much like Roth talked a lot about Abu Ghraib when promoting the Hostel movies. But like those movies, that all seems to me to be a smokescreen to disguise the filmmakers’ real intent – and that is to make a gory exploitation film with a lot of torture in it. You can make a film like this and be intelligent about it – the film shares many similarities with Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners from last fall, which I loved – but in order to do so, you have to take the questions you are raising seriously. I don’t think Keshales and Papushado do.

The movie opens with a creepy, slow motion (god, do I ever hate slow motion) game of hide and seek three pre-teens are playing. The seeker finds one of the hiders, and when they go to the place we know the other was hiding, they find it empty save for a shoe. Later, in a needlessly graphic and disturbing shot – we will see what became of that little girl – she was murdered and decapitated. The police have a lead – a religion teacher, Dror (Rotem Keinan) – but they go too far with him. They were supposed to keep him under observation, hoping that he would lead them to (at the time) still missing girl. Instead they confront him and beat him with a phone book in an abandoned industrial area – where a teenager with an iPhone captures it all and posts it on YouTube. The little girl turns but dead, Dror is let go because they have no evidence, although he also loses his job and the cop in charge of the “interrogation” – Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) gets demoted to traffic cop. The little girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad) is grief stricken – and buys a house in the middle of nowhere – but not before he has the real estate agent scream in the basement to see if he can hear her upstairs. You can see what’s going to happen, right? Eventually Gidi gets both Dror and Micki in that basement – Dror to try and torture a confession out of him, and Micki to help. Or perhaps be the fall guy – Gidi doesn’t seem too happy with the way Micki handled things, since it led to his daughter’s death.

The most problematic aspect of the movie for me was the character of Gidi. He seems demented from the beginning – so much so that the fact that he was apparently a normal guy before his daughter was murdered never really comes through – he seems like a stark, raving psycho from his first scene until his last. Contrast this with Jackman’s character in Prisoners – who does horrible things, but remains a believable person throughout, and whose actions seem consistent with who he was before everything went to hell. When his father shows up, he proves himself to be a slightly more restrained psycho, but there is no hesitation on his part either. If Micki is meant to be an audience surrogate – the man who is willing to do what it takes to get results, but only up to a point, that he fails as well because in his introductory scene he seems more like a thug than a cop. Perhaps we’re supposed to relate to Dror – there really is no evidence against him, and yet he suffers the most – but dammit, if the man doesn’t seem creepy from his first scene to his last one.

The ending of the film is supposed to be a gut punch to the audience, but feels like one more silly provocation on behalf of the filmmakers – and a confused one at that (does it justify what happened before? Decry it? Do the filmmakers even know?). The directors do play lip service to the themes they are apparently addressing – victims becoming victimizers – and they literally have an Arab show up on a high horse a few times to ensure you’ve had the message bashed into your skull.

Personally though, I would have been more comfortable with Big Bad Wolves if the filmmakers took the film – and themselves – far less seriously. They could have made a straight ahead exploitation film, but instead they try and have something to say about what they put on screen – as if having a serious message justifies everything they do. It doesn’t.

Movie Review: The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant
Directed by: Clio Barnard.
Written by: Clio Barnard.
Starring: Conner Chapman (Arbor), Shaun Thomas (Swifty), Ralph Ineson (Johnny Jones), Ian Burfield (Mick Brazil), Everal Walsh (Railway Man), Sean Gilder (Kitten), Lorraine Ashbourne (Mary), Elliott Tittensor (Martin Fenton), Rebecca Manley (Michelle 'Shelly' Fenton).
 
Clio Barnard’s debut film was The Arbor (2010) – a fascinating documentary about the sad life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar. That film mixed parts of Dunbar’s plays along with actors, lip-synching to interviews of real life people discussing Dunbar, her life and her work. It was an altogether daring film – and I’m amazed Barnard pulled it off. Her new film, The Selfish Giant, is just as dark, dank and depressing as The Arbor was – but also slightly more conventional – yet that doesn’t diminish its undeniable power.

The film stars Conner Chapman – an extremely gifted non-actor – as Arbor. Arbor comes from a dysfunctional family – to put it mildly – and although his mother loves him, she cannot control him. He rarely goes to school, and gets in trouble when he does. He is on medication for ADD – but his brother often steals it. Arbor is impulsive and reckless – doing things without considering the consequences of his actions until it is far too late. His only real friend is Swifty (Shaun Thomas) – who got his nickname ironically – one presumes anyway – as Swifty is not very swift. He is a sweet kid though – he comes from a large family that like Arbor’s is dirt poor. Swifty is a sweet kid though – gifted at dealing with animals. He gets sucked into Arbor’s schemes because there isn’t much else to do – and no one else seems to want to be his friend.

Arbor has many schemes – all of which involve him making money. His main one involves stripping copper wire from construction sites, and selling it to a local junkman – Kitten (Sean Gilder). Kitten is large and imposing – and like Arbor has a lot of moneymaking schemes. He doesn’t care where Arbor gets the wire, as long as he gets it. He also runs illegal horse races – and when the kid he has riding his horse smarts off one too many times, he enlists Swifty to ride for him. This makes Arbor jealous, and sets into motion the tragic final act.

The film is grim almost from beginning to end. There is very little hope for Arbor and Swifty when the film begins, and even less when things come crashing down at the end. Barnard matches the bleakness of the story with her visuals – I’m not sure we’ve ever seen England this dank and depressing looking before, and that really is saying something. Yet, Barnard draws us in from the opening frames of the movie mainly because she has so perfectly cast the two lead roles. Apart, Chapman and Thomas are great, together they are even better – creating an onscreen friendship that feels natural and unforced. They often don’t say much to each other, because they don’t have to. As the film moves along, we know all is not going to end well – it would be impossible for this story to have a happy ending – and yet when the end does come, it still hurts. By then, I had come to love these two – flaws and all.

The Selfish Giant confirms the potential that Barnard showed in The Arbor. It is not as easy film to love, but it is an honest one – amazingly well made and acted from beginning to end. Barnard, I can know comfortably say, is one of the best directors working in the UK right now.

Movie Review: The Past

The Past
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi.
Written by: Asghar Farhadi.
Starring: Bérénice Bejo (Marie Brisson), Tahar Rahim (Samir), Ali Mosaffa (Ahmad), Pauline Burlet (Lucie), Elyes Aguis (Fouad), Jeanne Jestin (Léa), Sabrina Ouazani (Naïma), Babak Karimi (Shahryar), Valeria Cavalli (Valeria).

I remember in the wake of  the success Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), which won the Foreign Language Film Oscar, there was talk of an American remake – which struck me as a particularly bad idea. A Separation was so rooted in Iranian culture and tradition, that while you could transplant to America if you wish, you would likely lose most of what was special about it in the first place. Farhadi’s new film, The Past, isn’t an American one, and isn’t a remake of A Separation, but I think it still proves my point. The Past is set in France, and while there are Iranian characters in it, it is still very much a French film. In many ways, it seems like Farhadi is trying to repeat the success of A Separation in a different location – once again there is a separating couple at its core, a dysfunctional family, and horrific secrets, and once again, we don’t get all the pieces to put together the puzzle until the end of the movie. Yet while A Separation was a devastating movie, The Past left me oddly cold – the whole movie feels manufactured and phony – like a Hollywood remake of your favorite foreign film.

 The film stars Berenice Bejo (best known for her work in The Artist) as Marie. She has already been married twice and has two daughters by her first marriage. The movie opens with her second husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) coming back to Paris from Iran after four years away in order to finalize their divorce. This is very important to Marie, because she has fallen in love with Samir (Tahar Rahim), and wants to marry him – which could be a problem since he is already married, although his wife is in a coma due to a suicide attempt. Nevertheless, she is living with Samir, his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), and her two daughters – moody teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and innocent little Lea (Jeanne Jestin).

A Separation hinged upon a miscarriage – that may or may not have been caused when the father in the movie threw their maid and care worker for his elderly father out of the house for allegedly stealing. What followed was a tense movie, as the couple at the core were already planning on separating, since she wants to leave Iran, and he refused. The film brought up interesting religious, moral and cultural issues. Such issues are not really touched upon at all in The Past – true, both of the men in Marie’s life that we see are Muslim – but other than a brief moment when Ahmad’s old friend tells him “I told you before, you have to be either here or there – you have to choose” – the fact that they are Muslim, and immigrants, is pretty much beside the point. It doesn’t help that both men are pretty thinly designed characters anyway – Ahmad isn’t so much a person in this movie, as a saint, coming back from an extended period of time, and trying to help this troubled family through some difficult times (that none of the kids are his, pretty much leaves him off the hook for everything – and you have to wonder why the hell he’s putting himself through this). Mosaffa’s performance helps bring out a few layers that don’t appear to have been there in a screenplay, but he can only do so much. Rahim’s Samir is a passive character for much of the time – we cannot tell until close to the end of the movie if he cares at all about his wife in a coma, or if she’s now just an inconvenience to her. Bejo – who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year (although, the fact that the Spielberg led jury took the unprecedented step of insisting the two actresses from Blue is the Warmest Color share the Palme D’or that film won, I think it’s safe to assume even they didn’t think hers was the best performance in the competition) fares much better than either of her male co-stars – because she’s given more to do. Having said that, even her character is fairly one note for much of the movie – unless she’s flying into teenage girl like rages. It’s a tricky role, and for the most part Bejo handles it well – or at least as well as it could have been handled.

The bigger problem with the screenplay though is the plotting. Everything in the movie hinges of the suicide attempt and coma of Samir’s wife – and Farhadi drops in revelations about what really happened like bombs through the narrative – just as everything seems to be settling down from one explosion, another one hits, and the movie is sent reeling again. It’s effective the first few times, but Farhadi uses the device far too often throughout the film.

I realize this review is probably sounds like I hated The Past – I didn’t really, although I don’t think it’s a very good movie either. The performances are as good as they can be – I was impressed with Bejo, who shows a completely different side of herself than the one she showed in The Artist (although I do think that Marion Cotillard, who was originally cast, but had to drop out would have brought even more to the role). Mosaffa brings a nice layer or regret and grief to his role as Ahmad – I still do not believe he would subject himself to what he does in the movie, but the performance itself cannot be faulted.

 But perhaps The Past is a victim of its predecessor’s success. A Separation was such a highly acclaimed movie – and was deserving of the praise it received – that expectations were high for this one. Since Farhadi decided to work in the same vein as last time out, comparisons are inevitable – and to me, the comparison between A Separation and The Past does the later no favors.

Movie Review: Mitt

Mitt
Directed by: Greg Whiteley.

If there is a reason to see Mitt – Greg Whiteley’s documentary about Mitt Romney during his run for President in 2012 – it is to see a more human side of Romney, who during his run for President always struck me as more than little robotic – as if someone, somewhere put together the seemingly perfect Republican candidate in a lab somewhere. This is not a film that is likely to change anyone’s mind about Romney – and I don’t think it even sets out to do so. Strangely for a documentary about a politician, the film is almost devoid of any actual politics. It doesn’t probe Romney on his beliefs, it doesn’t celebrate his politics nor does it demonize Obama. It does show the now infamous cell phone video where Romney says 47% of the country have their hand out and will never vote against Obama because of it. It also shows Romney talking about his reputation as a flip-flopper – both in 2008 and 2012 – but it doesn’t delve very deeply into those issues as well. The movie assumes you already know where Romney stood on the issues – and where Obama stood – and doesn’t try to convince you one way or the other. What it does do is to show Romney with his wife, his family, sometimes his staffers and the ups and downs of a campaign that was obviously tough on all of them.

This intimate look at Romney may have done him some good had it been released before the election – or if he was ever going to run for anything ever again, which he isn’t. In private, he seems like a much more genuine person that he did while on the campaign trail – someone who clearly loves his family, and can quote the Coen brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou from memory. As a candidate, Romney always struck me as out of touch with regular people – he had been born and raised rich, and never truly understood what many others go through – but in the documentary, it does seem like he understood more than it appeared he did – he just had difficulty getting that across.

This is one of the things documentaries do a far better job at than a dramatic movie would. Watching the film, I felt I got to know a little bit about Romney for the first time – and dammit, even like him a little. He seems genuine and friendly – he undeniably loves his wife, who made an easy target because of her show horses – and his children, who obviously love and idolize him. Whiteley was with the Romney’s for so long – starting in 2008 and then again in 2012 – that everyone seems to get used to him – one of Romney’s grandkids greets him by name at one point, and one of Romney’s sons gives him two answers to the same question – the answer for the “media” and how he really feels.

None of this convinced me that Romney would have made a better President than Obama or makes me wish he would have won. Many of his beliefs are still the precise opposite of mine, and I think had he been elected, America would have regressed instead of moving forward on many social issues. I still find much of what Romney stands for to be abhorrent – and so while even though Obama has struggled to get much of anything accomplished since the election, I’d still rather it be him in office than Romney.

But Mitt shows Romney in a more human light – something we really get to see about prominent politicians, who always seem to be “on” every time someone with a camera is around. Everything is a photo op, even seemingly “natural” family gatherings. Mitt shows the candidate and his family as actual human beings – and that’s something.

As a documentary, Mitt is hit and miss. There must have been a lot of footage, so some of the inclusions are puzzling – and at times, scenes run on way longer than they should, as no one says anything of interest for a few minutes at a time. I also think a more daring film could have addressed some of the political issues surrounding the election, without giving up the human element that director Whiteley clearly prized above all else. Yet, unlike last year’s Our Nixon, which used home movies to apparently show us a different side of Richard Nixon (and, I felt, ended up simply re-telling the same Nixon story we already knew – and in a less interesting way than normal) – Mitt actually does succeed in showing us a side of Romney that I had not seen before. I’m not sure if that makes the documentary truly good, but it at least made it interesting.

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey Question: Richard Linklater

Q: Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which premiered at Sundance to rave reviews, spans 12 years in the life of its characters, and an equivalent period in its director's career, which serves as a reminder of how many styles he's attempted in a career nearly twice as long. What's the best movie Richard Linklater has made, and what's the worst?

First, let me say that I cannot wait to see Boyhood – I’ve been hearing about it for years, and knowing it is finally coming out makes it one of my anticipated films of the year – the fact that it’s seem to be good is even better.

For me, Linklater’s best film is last year’s Before Midnight – which I thought was the best of the Before trilogy, and retroactively made the first two films in the series better because now we know what they were building too. At the time they came out, I liked both of the original Before movies, but they always felt like well-done fantasies to me – not quite as profound as others thought. But adding this latest film, which deals with the couple after they’ve spent 9 years together, makes all three films better – it’s almost as if Hawke, Delphy and Linklater knew they had to make this one to make the series truly complete. Runners-up would be Bernie – with it’s fascinating mixture of dramatic and documentary scenes – and great performances by Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey – and his two animated films – the strange, non-linear dream film Waking Life and the great Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly.

The worst film is easy – The Newton Boys. Linklater has gone mainstream with success at times – Dazed and Confused and School of Rock come to mind – but here, and to a lesser extent on The Bad News Bears remake – he shows why he’s more comfortable making indies. The Newton Boys is truly just a dull, boring film – full of interesting characters, bored actors and not very well handled action sequences.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ranking the Best Picture Nominees of 1963

For the next 5 weeks, I’m going to look back at the Best Picture lineups of 1963, 1973, 1983, 1993 and 2003. So let’s start with 1963.

1963

This has got to rank as one of the weakest fields in Oscar history – and yet somehow, the Academy still managed to pick the worst of the worst. Here is what they nominated in 1963 – from worst to best.

5. Tom Jones (WINNER)
Tom Jones is one of my least favorite best picture winners ever. How did it win? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because a year after Lawrence of Arabia – a big, old fashioned epic (even if it looks modern in retrospect), they wanted to go with something lighter. Perhaps it was just because the director’s branch threw the Academy for a loop by only nominating two of the directors of the Best Picture nominees - aside from Jones’ Tony Richardson, only Elia Kazan for America, America was nominated – and they didn’t feel like giving Kazan a third Oscar – especially since his controversial testimony to HUAC was already starting to look bad. But whatever the reason, this costume farce – about the sexual exploits of its title character – played, actually quite well by newcomer Albert Finney walked away with the Best Picture Oscar. The film looks hopelessly dated now – 50 years later – as Richardson throws in every “modern” technique he can think of. To me, the film is hopeless mess – a tired, boring one at that. Even in a year where the Academy picked very wrong, this one seems almost embarrassing now.

4. How the West Was Won
The old school Academy quite obviously was trying to hold onto some semblance of power back in 1963 – which explains why this epic film was nominated, despite the fact that it is largely square and kind of dull. The film is nearly 3 hours long, has five “chapters” – three directed by Henry Hathaway, one by an aging John Ford and one by George Marshall. The film spans 50 years, and 4 generations of a family as the travel West from New York to the Pacific Ocean from 1839-1889. The film advertised that it contains “24 Great Stars in the Mightiest Adventure Ever Filmed!” – and you at least have to admit that they do have some great stars – James Stewart, Karl Malden, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark and John Wayne all show up – some for extended periods of time, some as mere cameos. The film undoubtedly loses something when viewed on home video – it was shot in the three strips, Cinerama process, and when that gets converted to home video, it loses a lot. Still, other than Ford’s 15 minute Civil War segment, much of the film is simply dull. It was a huge hit back in 1963 – one of the last gasps of this type of studio epic.

3. Cleopatra

Speaking of last gasps of the studio epics, here’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 248 minute campy version of Cleopatra – with Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. The film was an epic bomb back in 1963 and was much maligned by critics even then – and its reputation hasn’t much improved in the years since. Still, when I watched the film, I couldn’t help but have fun with it – as riddled with flaws as the film is, you can still see almost every one of the $44 million (a huge sum back then) it cost to make the film up on screen. Harrison is actually pretty great as Caesar – and the film’s second half certainly suffers from him not being in it. Taylor digs into the role and goes wildly over the top – I’m not sure I’d call it a great performance, but it’s a memorable one. That pretty much describes the movie as well – not great, but memorable. I’m not sure it’s an objectively “better” film than How the West Was Won – but even though it’s about 90 minutes longer, I know which one I would rather watch again. Cleopatra may not be great – but it’s certainly something to behold.

2. Lilies of the Field
Sidney Poitier won his only Oscar for his work as Homer Smith – a drifter and handyman, who stops at a farm one day, and ends up staying for months on end to help a group of European nuns build a chapel in Arizona. Poitier often complained that he always had to play the “respectable black man” – but Homer Smith is at least slightly different. We never really learn where he’s coming from, or where he’s going – or why he stops and allows himself to be persuaded to help the nuns. He is a somewhat ambiguous character – who at the end of the movie departs with as little warning as he appears. Lilies of the Field is not a great movie – but it is a good one, and it is elevated by the simple humanity Poitier brings to the role. It would not have made my list of the best films of 1963 – but given the other films they nominated, this looks like one of their better choices that year.

1. America, America
 
Of the three epics nominated for the 1963 Best Picture Oscar, Elia Kazan’s America, America is far and away the best – and would have gotten my vote out of the five films nominated this year easily. Loosely based on the true story of Kazan’s Uncle, it tells the story of a young Greek man (played by Stathis Giallelis) living in Turkish Anatolia, who goes on a journey that will eventually lead him to America – and his family to a better life. The film is one of the best immigrant dramas ever made – and tells how hard they hard to work simply to gain passage to America. Giallelis goes through hell on his journey across his home country – he is robbed, ends up poor and starving on the street, finds few people willing to help him, but her perseveres and eventually accomplishes his goal. This was obviously a very personal story for Kazan – the film itself, a labor of love – and it shows in every scene. It isn’t a perfect movie, but in terms of the 1963 Best Picture race, it was clearly the best.

What They Should Have Nominated: You almost have to admit that the Academy was in a bad situation in 1963. Looking at my own list of the best films of the year, it is dominated by foreign films – Fellini’s 8 ½ is clearly the best film of the year, but there are other masterworks like Bergman’s The Silence, Visconti’s The Leopard, Kurosawa’s High & Low, Resnais’ Muriel, Polanski’s Knife in the Water and from England, Joseph Losey’s The Servant – and that doesn’t even mention Godard’s Contempt, of which I’m not as big of a fan as many. Among American films, America, America would rank just a notch or two behind Martin Ritt’s Hud – which somehow did not get nominated for Best Picture, despite winning both Actress and Supporting Actor for Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas, and getting a nomination for Paul Newman’s title character and Ritt’s direction (it would get my vote for Best American film of the year). The Academy also ignored Hitchcock’s late masterpiece The Birds – which dwarfs the reputation of anything they did nominate. I also loved Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor – although that was never going to get nominated, Orson Welles’ The Trial (was this even released in America that year?) and if they wanted pure entertainment – why not John Sturges’ The Great Escape? I guess what I’m saying is that 1963 has one of the weakest Best Picture lineup ever – but it was a great year for movies.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Movie Review: Devil's Knot

Devil’s Knot
Directed by: Atom Egoyan.
Written by: Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson based on the book by Mara Leveritt.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Pam Hobbs), Colin Firth (Ron Lax), Kevin Durand (John Mark Byers), Alessandro Nivola (Terry Hobbs), James Hamrick (Damien Echols), Dane DeHaan (Christopher Morgan), Bruce Greenwood (Judge David Burnett), Mireille Enos (Vicki Hutcherson), Elias Koteas (Jerry Driver), Amy Ryan (Margaret Lax), Rex Linn (Inspector Gary Gitchell),  Kristopher Higgins (Jessie Misskelley, Jr.), Seth Meriwether (Jason Baldwin), Jet Jurgensmeyer (Stevie Branch), Brandon Carroll (Bobby DeAngelo), Stan Houston (Det. Donald Bray), Stephen Moyer (John Fogelman).

Atom Egoyan is one of the greatest directors to ever come out of Canada. Films like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter are among the greatest Canadian films ever made, and he has a hand full of other films – The Adjuster, Felcia’s Journey, Ararat, and even the underrated Where the Truth Lies and Adoration that show him as a skilled director. But for whatever reason, his last two films have been utter failures. His remake of Anne Fontaine’s Chloe (2009) and now Devil’s Knot were projects that Egoyan did not initiate himself, and as a director for hire, Egoyan cannot manage to bring the same level of passion to the movies. Whether he cannot get more personal projects made, or is simply out of ideas, I do not know – but if he continues this way, his time as an excellent director may well be over.

Devil’s Knot, which is based on the infamous West Memphis Three case, where a triple murder of three young boys, in the small Arkansas town, was pinned on three teenagers who dressed in black and listened to heavy metal music. Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky ended up making three documentaries about the case – the Paradise Lost trilogy – and then Amy Berg made West of Memphis, a documentary in conjunction with the three convicted murders after their controversial release. With four documentaries about the case, in addition to multiple TV specials and books, it is legitimate to wonder if Egoyan and company had anything new to say on the case. Sadly, the answer seems to be no. Still, that’s no excuse for a movie as lazy as Devil’s Knot.

The film’s opening scenes are probably the best. It starts on the day of the murders, and focuses on Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the victims, who worries when her son doesn’t come on night. However, the movie quickly gets through these scenes after the bodies are discovered, and the focus shifts to Ron Lax (Colin Firth), the investigator who offers his services pro bono to the defense team, because he doesn’t believe that the state should be able to execute three teenagers. He quickly starts to see that the prosecution doesn’t have any actual evidence, aside from the confession of one of the defendants, and even that is full of holes and incorrect facts, and which he later recanted.

One of the main problems with the movie is that Firth’s Lax is the films least interesting character. Firth plays him as emotionally closed off to the point of being monotone, and seemingly bored. Witherspoon, who is good in the opening scenes, is then given an impossible task of playing Hobbs, who goes back and forth between being emotionally closed down, and almost unbelievably loopy. When the trial starts, she is then shunted to the background – and merely has to look surprised at each new revelation. It doesn’t help matters that Alessandro Nivola is horribly miscast as Hobbs’ husband Terry (who, for some, is the main suspect) does everything except twirl his ridiculous looking mustache.

Worse still, there are good performances around the edges of the movie that never get the opportunity to come to the forefront. Mirelle Enos is excellent as a local mother, who gets in trouble with the law, and gets her son to lie to the police, and then agrees to go undercover for them as a goth MILF to get information from the suspects. Dane DeHaan is very good as another early suspect, who does the same thing as one of the accused – confesses and recants – although he is never charged. James Hamrick is excellent as the “ring leader” of the accused – Damien Echols, nailing the kid with the false bravado seen in the original Paradise Lost. Best of all may be Kevin Durand as John Michael Byers, well known to everyone who saw the first two Paradise Lost films. He nails his slow, Southern drawl and over the top Biblical ravings.

Had Egoyan cast a wider net – and concentrated more on these characters and  a town gripped by “Satanic Panic” rather than focus on the trial and all the revelations – well known to pretty much anyone who will watch the film – he could have crafted something along the lines of The Sweet Hereafter. Instead, he has made a dull, rather lifeless film. Anyone who knows anything about the case won’t find out any new information, and those unfamiliar won’t find anything about this film all that interesting. As a result, I’m not quite sure who the hell would ever want to watch the film. I have faith that Egoyan can make a great film again one day. But I think it’s time for him to go make something more personal. As a director for hire, he cannot hide his lack of interest.

Note: I saw Devil’s Knot at TIFF 2013 – and the film is now opening in Toronto (as far as I know, an American release is coming later). I haven’t heard that Egoyan has re-edited the film in any way since I saw it at TIFF – yet given the largely negative reviews, it wouldn’t surprise to learn he did. Unless he started from scratch though, I feel confident in saying the movie stinks.

Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Directed by:  Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Adam Cozad and David Koepp based on characters created by Tom Clancy.
Starring: Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), Keira Knightley (Cathy Muller), Kevin Costner (Thomas Harper), Kenneth Branagh (Viktor Cherevin), Lenn Kudrjawizki (Constantin), Alec Utgoff (Aleksandr Borovsky), Peter Andersson (Dimitri Lemkov), Elena Velikanova (Katya), Nonso Anozie (Embee Deng), Seth Ayott (Teddy Hefferman), Colm Feore (Rob Behringer), Gemma Chan (Amy Chang).

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth film starring Tom Clancy’s famous CIA Agent in the past 23 years – and is the first one not directly based on one of Clancy’s many Ryan novels. If this ends up kick starting a new Ryan franchise, not being beholden to Clancy’s novels may end up being a good thing for a new series. As good as The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear & Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears were – and they all have their charms, even if none came close to matching the first film, Red October – part of the problem with them is having to adapt Clancy’s huge, heavily plotted novels into a two hour runtime. I remember as a teenager being amazed that the first 200 pages or so of Clear & Present Danger was dispatched of in all of about 5 minutes of screen time in the movie. Such are the perils of adapting such long novels.

The film also features the fourth different actor to play Ryan – this time Chris Pine steps into the role, as a younger Ryan – an eager go-getter who leaves his studies at the London School of Economics on 9/11 and joins the Marines. Shot down over Afghanistan, his military career seems to be over – but he is approached by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who tells him, jokingly at first, that he’s in the CIA. He wants Jack for his unit – which he says is responsible “for making sure we don’t get hit again”. What this means for Ryan is years undercover working on Wall Street where he’s tasked with tracking down funding for terror networks. After years of this, he finally seems to have stumbled on something big – his firm’s Russian partners are hiding some accounts from him and his firm – a big no-no and red flag for Ryan – especially since from what little he can gleam from the information he has, they seem to be American currency accounts. Given a current state of unrest – Russia is pissed at America about something to do with an oil pipeline, and a hurricane is brewing in the Gulf – the dollar should be dropping, but it’s not. It appears to Ryan that the Russians are propping up the dollar – but why would they do that?

Pine is well suited for this version of Jack Ryan. He is young, charming, good looking and has the look of an idealist and true believer. He isn’t quite a puppy dog licking your face to get you to like him, but he’s not all that far off from that either. It’s difficult to see picture Pine’s Ryan transforming into the more cynical version Harrison Ford played twice – but he’s young, perhaps he’ll learn.

 But the best performances in the movie belong to the two veterans. Kevin Costner has grown on me over the past few years as he has matured from a leading man into a character actor. He has the right world weary charm to play this role – he’s someone who still believes in what he does, even though he’s seen a lot more than Jack. Kenneth Branagh – who also directed – is even better as Viktor Cherevin, the Russian bad guy up to no good. When Branagh started making films – in 1989 – he immediately staked his claim as Laurence Olivier’s heir apparent by making Shakespeare’s Henry V – the first film Olivier made as a director as well. Branagh has done many Shakespeare movies over the years, but the changing movie industry seems to not allow him to do them as much anymore. So he’s decided to do the next best thing – and start having fun with accents, like Olivier often did. His exaggerated Russian accent here is great fun – not as fun as Olivier and his crazy French Canadian one in Powell & Pressburger’s 49th Parallel – but fun nonetheless. Branagh makes a charming villain – but also a cruel, heartless one when he wants to be. As a director, Branagh does a good job as well. I would prefer that the action sequences not be as heavy on the handheld camera work and rapid fire editing as they are - in particular the helicopter sequence and an extended hand-to-hand combat sequence in a hotel room, which are both so chopped up they become next to impossible to follow – but for the most part, Branagh plays things straight. He knows he’s making an old school spy thriller – even if it’s set in the present day – and he gets the job done.

Keira Knightley also shows up – in a largely thankless role as Ryan’s doctor girlfriend, who has so far rebuffed his marriage proposals. She spends far too long thinking Ryan is having an affair because he’s so secretive – but she does get some nice moments with Branagh over a tense dinner. Still I wish movies like this either gave their female characters more to do, or else jettisoned them altogether. Are we really still not past the whole damsel in distress thing?

For the most part, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit accomplishes what it sets out to do. This is an action-thriller for a somewhat older audience – who like a plot and character to go along with their gunfights and car chases. The plot is, of course, more than a little ridiculous – and the film’s climax uses the tired countdown clock gimmick. But for an action film in January, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit delivers nicely.

Movie Review: In a World

In a World
Directed by: Lake Bell.
Written by: Lake Bell.
Starring: Lake Bell (Carol), Rob Corddry (Moe), Alexandra Holden (Jamie), Eva Longoria (Herself), Ken Marino (Gustav), Demetri Martin (Louis), Fred Melamed (Sam), Tig Notaro (Cher), Nick Offerman (Heners), Michaela Watkins (Dani), Geena Davis (Katherine Huling).

Lake Bell’s In a World is a delightful comedy that like many debut films perhaps tries to cram a little too much in to its running time. There are a few too many characters, a few too many subplots that take the movie off course throughout its running time. But this is a minor complaint about an otherwise smart, funny movie – that has something real to say about sexism in Hollywood, but doesn’t beat you over the head with its message.

Bell wrote, directed and stars in the movie as Carol – a 31 year-old woman  still living at home with her father, Sam (Fred Melamed). Sam is a legendary voice over artist of movie trailers – famous in that small, Hollywood subset world. Carol wants to be a voice over artist as well – but as Sam tells her at every opportunity – “the industry does not want a female sound” for movie trailers. She also does work as a vocal coach – in a few hilarious scenes, she tries in vain to teach Eva Longoria (being a very good sport) a cockney accent, with little to no success.

Everything starts happening to Carol all at once – Sam decides he can no longer “enable” her and throws her out of the house. She moves in with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her lovable dork husband Moe (Rob Corddry) – at the same time their marriage is about to be tested. Carol also starts a slow flirtation with a sound technician named Louis (Demetri Martin) – and yet also meets Gustav (Ken Marino) – the new big voice in voiceovers – and makes a mistake with him, at the same time as she ends up stealing a job from him because her voice is perfect for a new genre of trailer voice overs – romantic comedies for kids. At the same time, a new Quadrilogy called The Amazon Games is about to debut a new trailer – on which they are bringing the famed “In a world…” trailer line back from retirement for the first time since the death of Don Lafontaine, who made it so iconic. The producers want to hear Gustav, Sam and Carol all do the trailer before they decide which way to go.

As you can tell, there is a lot going on throughout In a World – and this doesn’t even mention Sam’s relationship with a woman younger than either of his daughters, the drunken exploits of a woman who works with Louis – or his other co-workers (Tig Notaro and Nick Offerman). The fact that Bell has so much going in the movie would be a bigger problem if not for the fact that almost all of it is enjoyable. Yes, the movie has too many tangents and subplots, and one offs, but they almost all work in their way, so while a tighter film may have been better, it’s hard to complain too much about what Bell does put in front of us.

The film marks Bell as someone to watch – both in front of and behind the camera. As an actress, she has a natural likability. She is sweet, funny and sexy in equal doses. She takes a character that could be annoying – the navel gazing, woman in her 30 who hasn’t quite grown up yet – and makes her sympathetic. I guess Bell figures if we can have countless overgrown man children, we can have a female example once in a while – and she’s correct. The various voices she makes throughout the movie are hilarious.

As a writer/director, she may be even more talented however. In a World is a film that has a definite point of view – about sexism in Hollywood, about the way women make themselves seem stupider to attract men and other gender issues, and yet the film never becomes overly preachy. They are woven organically into the plot of the movie.

It’s no secret that Hollywood still has a shameful under-representation among women in writing and directing roles. What Lake Bell has done with In a World is put herself in line with other talented female writer-directors like Lynn Shelton or Nicole Holofcener. It’s an excellent first effort – and marks her as someone to watch for in the future.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Mea Culpa: Why I Was Wrong (Sort Of) and The Oscars Should Go Back to 5 Best Picture Nominees

Back in 2009, when the Academy announced a significant rule change – that they were increasing the number of films nominated for Best Picture from 5 to 10 – most people thought it was a bad idea. I was not one of those people. My logic, and it remains sound to me, was that few critics do a top 5 list at the end of the year – they all do a top 10 list. Therefore, if critics could come up with 10 worthy films to single out in a given year, so could the Academy. Given how the previous Oscar race went – when two films that were hugely popular with audiences and critics – The Dark Knight and Wall-E – failed to get into the Best Picture lineup, and the Academy instead with five safer “Oscar” films – Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader and Frost/Nixon – only one of which (Slumdog) could be said to have enjoyed close to the same level of audience and critical support, I thought that expanding the field would allow a more diverse lineup into the race. The hope was that by going to 10 nominees that films that normally would not get nominated because either because of their genre (like The Dark Knight or Wall-E) or too small or too foreign, etc. could get into the lineup, thus bringing a more diverse array of films into the fold. Films that may not only satisfy more mainstream audiences, but also far less mainstream audiences as well.

To me, 2009 proved that the experiment could work. In addition to the five films that probably would have gotten into the lineup anyway (based on the somewhat dubious assumption that Picture and Director would line-up 5-5) of Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious, Inglorious Basterds and Up in the Air – the Academy found room for 5 completely different kinds of films - an animated film – Up – a crowd pleasing sci-fi action film – District 9 – a hugely popular inspirational sports film – The Blind Side –a tiny indie from a largely unknown director –An Education - and a strange auteur film – the Coens A Serious Man. These are precisely the type of films that normally never broke through into the Oscar race for Best Picture – but did so in 2009. The following year, I think the result were similarly encouraging. In addition to the five Picture-director nominees – Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and The Social Network – the Academy also found room for a smaller film from a female writer/director – The Kids Are All Right – a huge sci-fi audience pleaser – Inception – a claustrophobic experiment by an Oscar winning director– 127 Hours – another animated film – Toy Story 3 – and a tiny indie by a largely unknown female director – Winter’s Bone (which still features the best work Jennifer Lawrence has ever done). The system, it seemed to me anyway, was working. The biggest fear I had about expanding the field from 5 to 10 nominees would be that instead of 5 typical “Oscar” films being nominated, we’d get 10. The results of the first two years largely put my fears to rest.

But then came 2011. The Academy had listened – which they shouldn’t have – to the criticism that having more than 10 nominees somehow diluted the honor of being nominated for Best Picture. So they instituted another rule change. Now, anywhere between 5 and 10 films could be nominated – but each nominee had to reach a minimum threshold of #1 votes in the nominating round to qualify. In each of the next three years, nine films qualified for the Best Picture race. And sadly, what I feared would happen has undeniably been happening since – instead of 5 typical Oscar films being nominated, we’re now getting 9 nominated every year.

In 2011 the five picture-director nominees were The Artist, Hugo, The Tree of Life, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris. The four non-director Best Picture nominees were The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Moneyball and War Horse. In 2012 the Picture-director nominees were Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook – and the non-director Picture nominees were Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty. This year, the picture-director nominees are American Hustle, Nebraska, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street, while the non-director nominated Pictures are Her, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and Captain Phillips. See what happened there – with the new rules of requiring films to get a certain percentage of #1 votes, the nominees retreated back into the realm of safer – “Oscar” movies from what they were in the first two years of the experiment.

I didn’t worry too much about it in 2011. I reason that while they didn’t nominate a great summer blockbuster like District 9 or Inception like they did the previous two years, they didn’t really have a chance to – what were they going to nominate the last Harry Potter film? Rise of the Planet of the Apes? The most logical summer blockbuster they could have nominated was actually a comedy – Bridesmaids – but again, the Academy has limits on how broad they will go. They also didn’t nominate an animated film – but then again, Pixar made Cars 2 that year that didn’t deserve the praise, and although I love the film that did win the animated Oscar that year – Rango – it was hardly a Best Picture player. If they didn’t find room for a quirky auteur film like A Serious Man back in 2009 – it may be the most acclaimed of those was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – which the Academy was never going to respond to and even though Nicolas Winding Refn had a huge critical hit in Drive, he still wasn’t the type of name director who could really drive (sorry) a film that violent into the Oscar race. No room for a tiny film like Winter’s Bone? Probably because Take Shelter or Martha Marcy May Marlene failed to connect with audiences at all.

I was more concerned last year – when the Academy really could (and should have) found room for a blockbuster like Skyfall or the a quirky auteur film like Moonrise Kingdom – two films you could easily see making it into the lineup back in 2009 or 2010, but by 2012 they became, once again, depressing also-rans and never-gonna-happens, just like they were in when the Academy only nominated 5 films. Interestingly, they did find room not just in picture but also director for Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild – and it was those inclusions that kept me from complaining too much last year.

This year, we can at least be happy that a film like Spike Jonze’s Her cracked the lineup, which probably would not have happened in a 5 nominee year. But instead of reaching for smaller, more offbeat films like Inside Llewyn Davis, Before Midnight or even Fruitvale Station, they went with more Oscar bait – Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and Captain Phillips. Yawn.

In a typically excellent piece by Mark Harris, he points out that expanding the Best Picture lineup has actually narrowed the number of films that get nominated down. In 2013 – only 12 films got nominated in the top 8 categories – Picture, Director, the four acting categories and two writing categories. Of the three films that didn’t break the best picture lineup, only Before Midnight for Adapted screenplay was a lone nominee in the top 8 – August: Osage County picked up two acting nominations, and Blue Jasmine picked up two acting nomination, and a screenplay nod as well.

Harris wonders where all the “lone” nominees have gone? This year, that could have include Robert Redford for Best Actor, James Gandolfini for Supporting Actor, Oprah Winfrey for Supporting Actress or Inside Llewyn Davis for Original Screenplay. Instead, the Academy stuck to the 9 films they nominated for Best Picture for pretty much everything – between them, they got 16 acting nominations and 8 writing nominations. The Academy has seemingly gotten lazy – they liked American Hustle, so they nominate it in all four acting categories. They admired the performances for Dallas Buyers Club, so threw it into the Screenplay and Picture categories as well. Last year they were also lazy. I liked the performances in Silver Linings Playbook as much as anyone – but Jacki Weaver? Come on! What was it about Alan Arkin in Argo that made him standout even for co-stars like John Goodman and Bryan Cranston let alone anyone else they could have nominated? I don’t agree with every conclusion that Harris reaches – I still don’t think having more than five nominees “dilutes” the prestige of being nominated – but I do agree with much of it.

Another reason to abandon the system for the former 5 film one is a problem I honestly did not consider when the change was announced in 2009 – and that is the Preferential system for voting for the winning Best Picture. No longer is it the film with the most votes wins, but now you rank the Best Picture nominees from 1-9 (or however many nominees there are) and slowly the films get winnowed down – dropping the film with the lowest number of votes and redistributing, until one film reaches 50% of the vote. This has mainly resulted in fairly safe best picture winners in the past four years. The only somewhat daring choice the Academy has made in this time The Hurt Locker back in 2009 – and I cannot help but wonder if that film would have won if it were not pitted against Avatar – not because of the much discussed former spouses going head-to-head – but because that year really seemed like a referendum on what the Academy wanted to be known for – small, character driven films or huge spectacles. I don’t have much of a problem with The King’s Speech, The Artist or Argo – but none of them are the least bit daring or the tiniest bit controversial – they play it safe all the way through – and that seems to be what wins now. This year, I cannot help but worry that something as minor yet agreeable as American Hustle will trump a singular artistic vision like 12 Years a Slave – simply because it’s harder to dislike American Hustle – so as the number of films in the race get winnowed down, it picks up more and more votes and eventually wins.

So, back in 2009 when I supported this system, was I wrong? Yes and no. I was wrong because I didn’t foresee the impact of the preferential ballot would have on the winning films. Has it made a huge impact? I don’t know, but I think I would rather the winner be more based on passion that consensus (there is always going to be a degree of consensus with any winner, but I would like to see it have less impact). I also didn’t foresee the problem Harris points out – that by widening the number of best picture nominees, we would actually get fewer films in the conversation for all the awards.

But I wasn’t wrong in thinking that each year has more than 5 films that can support a Best Picture nomination – and deserves to be discussed. Back in 2009, I said that the system would be a success if they nominated a wider array of films than they usually did – and no matter what you think of the individual nominees in 2009 and 2010 (and no, I wouldn’t nominate The Blind Side either) – I think they mainly accomplished that. Those Best Picture lineups seemingly had something for every type of movie fan, which I think is a good thing. But since they have instituted the new rule of having to get a certain percentage of # 1 votes, the Academy has slunk back to their old ways, and nominated more and more safer, more traditional Oscar films. Did Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, War Horse, The Help, Les Miserables, Philomena or Dallas Buyers Club really need to get nominated for Best Picture?

So to me, after 5 years of this experiment, I have to say that I no longer see the point in it. I think they had a good thing the first two years, and then screwed it up. And if they aren’t going to go back to the system that gave us Best Picture nominees as varied as A Serious Man, Winter’s Bone, Inception, District 9, Up, Toy Story 3, etc. than they should go back to the old system. If the Academy insists on playing it safe every year, at least we can go back to a system where it’s harder to crack the Best Picture lineup and you’re not just awarded for showing up – which seems to be what happens under this current system.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2013 Oscar Nominees - The Reviews


I have seen and reviewed most of the movies nominated for Oscars last week. Below, in alphabetical order, I attach a link to each and every one of the reviews I wrote for the film nominated. I will update this in the coming weeks if and when I see and review any of the few films that I have missed.

The Act of Killing (1 nomination – Documentary)
All is Lost (1 nomination – Sound Editing)
American Hustle (10 Nominations – Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Costume Design, Production Design)
August: Osage County (2 nominations – Actress, Supporting Actress)
Before Midnight (1 nomination – Adapted Screenplay)
Blue Jasmine (3 nominations – Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay)
The Book Thief (1 nomination – Score)
The Broken Circle Breakdown (1 nomination – Foreign Language Film)
Captain Phillips (6 nominations – Picture, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
The Croods (1 nomination – Animated Film)
Cutie and the Boxer (1 nomination – documentary)
Dallas Buyers Club (6 nominations – Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Makeup)
Despicable Me 2 (2 nominations – Animated Film, Song)
Dirty Wars (1 nomination – documentary)
Frozen(2 nominations – Animated Film, Song)
The Grandmaster (2 nominations – Cinematography, Costume Design)
Gravity(10 nominations – Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography, Film Editing, Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects)
The Great Beauty (1 nomination – Best Foreign Language Film)
The Great Gatsby (2 nominations – Costume Design, Production Design)
Her(5 nominations – Picture, Original Screenplay, Song, Score, Production Design)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (3 nominations – Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects)
The Hunt (1 nomination – Foreign Language Film)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2 nomination – Cinematography, Sound Mixing)
The Invisible Woman (1 nomination – Costume Design)
Iron Man 3 (1 nomination – Visual Effects)
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (1 nomination - Makeup)
The Lone Ranger (2 nominations – Makeup, Visual Effects)
Lone Survivor (2 nominations – Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (1 nomination – Song)
Nebraska(6 nominations – Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography)
Philomena(4 nominations – Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Score)
Prisoners(1 nomination – Cinematography)
Saving Mr. Banks (1 nomination – Score)
The Square (1 nomination – Documentary)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (1 nomination – Visual Effects)
12 Years a Slave (9 nominations – Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Costume Design, Production Design)
20 Feet From Stardom (1 nomination – Documentary)
The Wind Rises (1 nomination – Animated Film)
The Wolf of Wall Street (5 nominations – Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay).