Saturday, March 27, 2010
Five years ago, let’s say today, I became a cinephile. As those in the know know, I keep a log of every movie I’ve seen, and April of 2005 saw exponential growth in my movie-watching that only increased from there. In the past few weeks, I’ve had a ball watching again, either with commentary or original flavor, a handful of those movies I saw in my first year, one and a half thousand films deep in my memory. Now I present some highlights from that year.
I was working my way through the AFI Top 100, which I initially labeled “pretentious,” a kneejerk insecurity I balanced by declaring that lots of those movies—I had seen about 70 then—were actually pretty worthwhile. I wrote a lot about those movies, and nearly all of it embarrasses me now. I guess that’s a good thing.
I’ve written about one of my movie milestone nights, the personally historic marathon wherein I discovered The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I took a Taco C break halfway through just to postpone the moment I would have to leave Leone’s universe, and we’re talking, like, 4 in the morning or so. I’m sure Raymond loved me. Actually, I do feel guilty about watching Taxi Driver at like 7 or so (after one of our dreaded early morning SA meetings) with my earbuds accidentally not plugged in all the way. I only found out because Raymond started a little after a gunshot sounded. We should all have such patient roommates.
But back to that magical April.
That was the month a deadline kept me home while everyone went to Austin, so I rented The African Queen and Platoon to reward myself for completing my research paper. That was the month I discovered TCM airs silent movies and made plans to catch the next—my very first!—which turned out to be a competent and delirious (or maybe that was me) 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That was the month I got back from class at 1, plopped on the futon and watched You Can’t Take it With You on TCM, a heart-on-its-sleeve inspirational Capra, and afterward I still had most of the day left to go out and conquer.
Best of all, that was the month we took our first trip (of two?) to the campus library for a double feature. We were making up for lost time, having just discovered that they have basically every movie we could want to see. So we took in the 1933 King Kong and the 1941 The Maltese Falcon. Later the library claimed I stole a TV cart.
May was even more communal on the movie-watching front.
For at least a month after watching To Have and Have Not on TCM, Katie would find a way to interject, “You know how to whistle, doncha, Steve?” into any conversation. That was around the time she was saying “Death Comes to the Archbishop” and something like, “Farewell, sweet prince” whenever we parted. I’m pretty sure we also watched Touch of Evil together in my room, and as I recall, L watched it from hers while we IMed.
We saw quite a bit in Katherine’s room. Roman Holiday, Gone with the Wind, and, to my surprise, everyone was game for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre one May morning. We tried to watch The Third Man, but night-crashers kept talking through it—I blame MTV—so I went down to the dorm’s TV lounge to watch it the next morning, as our copy was, alas, on VHS. That’s also where we watched High Noon one rocking Saturday night. Looking back, those two months were dense with treasures, a billion classics all in a row.
I joined our local library in order to check out their AFI-list movies, but like the joke in 30 Rock, they pretty much only had Tootsie and Chaplin. On the bright side, I got to see The Great Dictator, Modern Times, City Lights, The Kid, and The Gold Rush that month. I can’t wait to show my kids The Gold Rush, whether biological or only half-loved.
My first Netflix arrived that summer, Chinatown, which I loved, and then my second, Once Upon a Time in the West, which I completed. I haven’t seen Chinatown since, despite falling in love with the Polanski oeuvre, but I’ve seen Once Upon a Time in the West many times indeed.
Back in College Station at the end of summer, I rented The Seventh Seal from Blockbuster, and thus began my love affair with Bergman. A couple of days later, we drove down to the Houston Landmark to see Junebug, the first of many out-of-town drives for the sake of an arthouse film. On the way back, in the midst of a storm with some of the most epic lightning I’ve seen, we knighted L “Lady Tampax.” You’re welcome.
I christened my new laptop, a widescreen wonder, with Aliens, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Key Largo. The next week? Double Indemnity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Big Sleep, and The Big Lebowski. The best thing about cinephilia today is access to more, and better quality more, than ever before.
The summer at our apartment, and here we leave my first year of cinephilia and broach the second with a highlight that cannot be neglected for reasons of mere time limits, Ryan visited and we embarked on a three-day Orson Welles-athon. The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, and the first fifteen minutes or so of Citizen Kane, a weekend marked by four of my still favorite films (I barely remember Ambersons) and fond memories of homemade peach salsa to boot.
At the time, movie-watching seemed most closely related to procrastination. I even went with the girls to see The Wedding Date one night because I didn’t want to write that week’s international studies response. But searching for more examples, it turns out there was a lot less procrastination than I remember, and a lot more personal bribes. The night America elected Barack Obama, I stayed up to complete my final paper due in college. Afterward I witnessed Contempt. Now that is a great memory.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 2:23 AM
Thursday, March 25, 2010
At Ryan's behest, I made a Grooveshark playlist of songs of the moment and mildly effective but mostly just clunky connective tissue. I'm most proud to have worked "Surrender" and "The Kids are Alright" into the same playlist, even though I couldn't jimmy them back-to-back. It's the little things.
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010
[MSC Aggie Cinema presents Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb at Rudder next week.]
The mushroom cloud has become a bit of a shortcut in recent years, an Event-with-a-capital-E used more for action than drama in everything from television series like Heroes, 24, and Lost to movies like Indiana Jones, Terminator, and Watchmen to too many video games to count. But Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, one of the best American films in history and certainly the funniest apocalypse flick, well Dr. Strangelove gets it right.
When that hydrogen bomb between Slim Pickens’ legs explodes, it shatters the comedic fabric of this deadly serious satire of deterrence. Dr. Strangelove is really a workplace comedy, only in this case, social dysfunction has apocalyptic consequences. It all starts on a quiet, uneventful night—even the camera is barely awake—when a squadron of US bombers patrolling the airspace surrounding the Soviet Union receive an emergency order to unleash their 50 megaton payloads across the USSR. It turns out the order was sent by a delusional general who fortifies his air force base and locks down communications, determined to keep anyone from calling off the assault. Meanwhile, the president gathers the joint chiefs, the Russian ambassador, and his ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove to discuss how to thwart, or brace for, MAD (mutual assured destruction).
Stanley Kubrick had already delivered his statement on the inanity of war in his 1957 masterpiece Paths of Glory, but Dr. Strangelove updates his concerns to the Cold War, a period of global Hitchcockian suspense precariously balanced on the idea that one crack in the nuclear standoff means the whole sky’s coming down. Paths of Glory is concerned with the price of human life; Dr. Strangelove’s subject is all of humanity.
In perhaps the funniest phone call ever committed to screen, where Premier Dmitri Kissov chastises Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley for never calling, Kubrick cleverly observes that cold war is passive-aggressive, an international version of an estranged coworker coming to another for a favor. Sellers is typically fantastic in his three roles, the others being a British RAF executive officer on the locked down base and the titular mad scientist whose final scene is a masterpiece in itself. But the entire cast is superb, from George C. Scott’s ugly American to Slim Pickens’ consummate middle manager/atomic cowboy. And Sterling Hayden kills every time he says the phrase “our precious bodily fluids.”
The lessons of Dr. Strangelove resonate today, seven years into an occupation/ ground war/peacekeeping effort—you’ll notice “Peace is our Profession” banners decorating every corner of the air force base—and eight into an ambiguously defined cold war against a vague and nomadic enemy. It’s easy to believe the bureaucratic absurdities of the first act can really lead to war, as depicted in Dr. Strangelove heir In the Loop. Even the title card is a monument to poor planning, with the abbreviation “Dr.” taking up the vast majority of the screen and the infamously long subtitle crammed into a column on the side.
The final sly move of Dr. Strangelove is to populate the film with men, not simply for period accuracy but because the film is a finely detailed and convincing Freudian argument. The whole film sees men blather on about inferiority, whether the US-Soviet missile gap or mineshaft gap or what have you, and it turns out the whole fiasco springs from a misguided sexual experience. Doomsday is the result of a bunch of men sitting around worried that they’re not man enough, and the mushroom cloud is both a moment of incomprehensible tragedy and the payoff to one big, bawdy joke.
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Mad Men DVD Day! And it came four months early this year! The package is typically handsome with a holographic stemless brandy snifter on the sturdy cover with a humorously deflating quote on the inside welcoming us to Don Draper's universe. Mine included a leaflet with a drawing of the Roger Sterling Ken (of Barbie and Ken) doll (presumably others got Don or Joan or Betty). And despite complaints about the features, there are 22 commentaries on 13 splendid episodes. What do you want? The season in pictures anon.
Ooh la la la. C'est magnifique.
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Monday, March 22, 2010
I’m about a third of the way through the Oregon trail, you know, where you hit Chimney Rock and the terrain calls for spares, the buffalo clear, and half your party gets syphilis or whatever. See, I’m finally taking in some of the westerns I hadn’t seen, completing the Anthony Mann cycle and following the trail into Budd Boetticher territory, so now’s a good time to take stock. Spoilers for Mann’s westerns below.
For a name made on complicated, morally ambiguous westerns, Anthony Mann needed some practice, launching his venture into the Old West with Devil’s Doorway, about a half-Indian soldier returning home after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Civil War and finding himself unwelcome in a land of insecure white men ("You're in the saloon; next thing you know, you'll wanna mix with us socially."). There’s even a “whites only” sign on the saloon mirror. Mann spices it up with a moody expressionism, high-angle shots of the brave lead, oblique close-ups of his (of course) wise father, and an emphasis on light and shadow, but it's not enough to balance the preachy weepy. To 2010 eyes, the film is catastrophically thin, an afterschool special-y racial integration allegory with almost no plot and character types in place of characterization (aside from the nuanced-by-comparison work from Paula Raymond as the hero’s lawyer and Spring Byington as her mother). But then, Devil’s Doorway was made sixty years ago, so it deserves a fair amount of slack. It would be another four years before Brown v. Board and another seventeen before Sidney Poitier demanded to be called “Mr. Pig” in The Lion King.
Next up was another picture uncomplicated by all that film noir gray, a picaresque rifle chase some may call simple but I’ll call classical, Winchester ’73. While a worthy temptation fable and a gripping, immersive adventure (Mann gradually builds an entire region of the West, letting the landscape do the storytelling, whether it's the rocky terrain around a seedy cantina or the lush grove around the cavalry camp), it also literally uses the white hat/black hat dichotomy that must have been stereotype by 1950. Jimmy Stewart plays a Good Guy who always does the right thing and his nemesis, Dutch Henry, is a Bad Guy who runs about bucking the law. Then, as predicted in the opening credits, an Indian sells his soul for the title gun, and the US cavalry officers stumbled upon are selfless heroes. Winchester ’73 rivals the early John Ford pictures among the great classical westerns, but after a period of moody noirs, it’s a bit of a regression to see Mann buy into the myths of the Old West.
He’d round out the year with The Furies, which would become the most stylistically representative of Mann’s 1950 films, featuring a plot bursting with life, because these aren’t characters in a story with a beginning and an end but people in a universe of their own making. But the shift in Mann’s work from classical to revisionist is actually a sudden schism made all the more acute by the juxtaposition of 1952’s Bend of the River with 1953’s The Naked Spur, two similarly colored, squarishly framed tales set in snowy, mountainous Oregon forests rather than the hardscrabble deserts of yore. There’s an argument to be made that the shift isn’t so sudden, that many of the harder, more ambiguous elements of The Naked Spur have precursors in Bend of the River. And that’s fair. But let’s not understate the impact of the climactic spur to the face, a weapon thrown by Frank Capra’s American good old boy Jimmy Stewart at the quarry he’ll do anything to capture.
That moment of violence, the most visceral of Mann’s career, is anticipated by Bend of the River in a shootout between good-hearted but inexperienced gunman Rock Hudson and bad guy who passes up redemption for greed Arthur Kennedy. Hudson’s in the foreground facing the deep back, shots are fired, and, the camera stationary, Hudson turns toward us and falls, the blood dripping down his face as he slowly enters the top of the frame. It’s gone just as quickly, but the effect lingers, a bravura moment of violence made painful for an audience primed on Winchester ’73-style guiltless shootouts between heroes and villains. And it still doesn’t touch the impact of The Naked Spur’s grand finale, where the spur thrown into the cheek of the “bad guy” is followed by a haunting sequence of James Stewart’s rabid attempts to subdue his bounty, beaten unconscious and floating away.
Compare Stewart’s characters in the features. Glyn McLyntock from Bend of the River is an honorable guide, dedicating his life to the protection of these peaceful settlers as a demonstration of atonement for past sins. The nomadic warrior is starting over as a sedentary farmer. Howard Kemp from The Naked Spur seeks vengeance. He forces two bystanders to help him despite considerable danger, he threatens on multiple occasions to kill his aides in order not to split the bounty, and in the end, he is so overcome he nearly throws a happy ending away just to achieve some measure of revenge. He doesn’t, finally, pulled back from the edge by Janet Leigh’s love and her vision of a hopeful future in California. This final turn is earned, barely, by Stewart’s just this side of frightened portrayal of a man finally realizing what he’s become. Glyn McLyntock has also vowed to reform, but Bend of the River takes place at a time in his life where he’s much closer to the white hat than the black. Howard Kemp is desperately lost in the middle.
By 1954, Mann had permanently fixed a moral haze over his West, next dropping hero Jimmy Stewart into the untamed Yukon in The Far Country. From the very beginning, with a tense standoff between Stewart and his ostensible colleagues, Mann makes it clear that this is no traditional hero. By turns we learn he’s angry, he’s dangerous, and he’s wanted for murder, a charge he violently resists multiple deputies to escape. We arrive in Alaska and later Canada to discover a world of capitalism run amok, where the charming wealthy extort the producers, the uneducated prospectors, and, failing that, rob and murder them. To which our hero remains disturbingly unresponsive. On a few occasions, he can even be accused of abetting the elites in their reign of terror, literally getting into bed with them as Mann confronts us with his casual selfishness. Mr. Smith, it’s safe to say, is dead and buried.
In the end, Jimmy does the right thing, whether in Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, or The Far Country. But Mann isn’t finished torturing his hero, and 1955’s The Man from Laramie plays like The Furies’ traumatized brother. There’s a hell of a lot of family drama that explodes into bloody violence, and an accordingly more triumphant reunion among the survivors. The hero is sucked into vengeance not by his criminal history or the murder of a loved one but by confronting and submitting before cruelty time and again. But unlike the other Mann westerns, the villains are undone by themselves, one stubbornly challenging another and the third confidently exculpating the hero. Most of Anthony Mann’s westerns are about a man who spends his youth recklessly maneuvering on both sides of the law only to mature into a man who stands for justice. In The Man from Laramie, a man adamantly maintains his stance on one side of the law until his climactic breaking point launches him into the gray. Where Mann’s bounty hunters seek to bring criminals before legal authorities and his sheriffs always promise a fair trial, the man from Laramie delivers his enemy to a squadron of deathly Apaches. The Naked Spur erupts in catharsis, but The Man from Laramie demonstrates the self-perpetuating nature of violence.
It’s fitting that 1957’s The Tin Star is shot in stunning black-and-white, because it’s less gritty, less modern than its neighbors. It does feature heroes on a moral journey, a complex dynamic among the townspeople, elements of social commentary with an outcast mother, and an inquiry into the disparity between legal and moral acceptability, so it’s no regression. But Henry Fonda’s emotional turmoil takes a backseat to the plot of Anthony Perkins’ maturation as town sheriff in a mob-prone town, whereas Jimmy Stewart’s or Gary Cooper’s inner conflicts are always front and center. The Tin Star nearly features a nonviolent resolution, which would have elevated the gorgeous and entertaining picture to the level of Mann’s best works, but like the eternal happy ending, Mann’s films are dogged by climactic violence, try as they might to break free.
The culmination of this obsession with violence is 1958’s Man of the West, the film in which Anthony Mann plays critic to his own career, full of intriguing pans and pushes through dangerous territory. After about a half hour of suspect respectability, the film reveals its true colors in an extended, claustrophobic cabin scene where a gang of thieves torment Gary Cooper, Julie London, and Arthur O’Connell with knives to the throat, physical restraint, and demands to undress at gunpoint. The scene is eventually followed up in a lengthy, gruesome fistfight, and later the horrific aftermath of an offscreen rape. And the finale is a sequence of three or four separate shootouts, depending on how you count, between various characters in the space of about fifteen minutes.
Is it possible to reform, to permanently shed one’s history of violence? Does the law have purpose with so much territory beyond the reach of sheriffs, or beyond strong ones anyway? Is it justice if you have to defend it with bullets? Mann’s been after these questions in each episode of his western narrative, and I think he leaves conflicted. Yes, Gary Cooper and Julie London drive off into the afternoon, each ghost of Cooper’s past vanquished, never to bother him again. But here is a man dedicated to reform who introduced, unwittingly or not, an innocent woman to her own rape, another man to his early demise, and himself to the point of murder four times over. As a closing statement, Mann finally leaves his hero in a state of existential angst. Bullets don't buy happy endings, and the line between men of violence and men of justice is a matter of interpretation.
With nine films in as many years, Anthony Mann paved the trail for Sergio Leone’s mythic explorations of universal themes, Sam Peckinpah’s investigations of violent masculinity, and Clint Eastwood’s (and John Ford’s) reassessments of the settlement of the West. Mann found some disarming performances in pre-Vertigo James Stewart as well as perhaps the most moving work from Walter Brennan, he infused the Old West with topicality from integration to McCarthyism, and he took seriously the tropes of the form from the plight of the natives to the conscience of the sheriff to the ethics of bounty hunting and frontier capitalism. In short, Anthony Mann is more than a worthy pioneer of the revisionist western. He's positively essential.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is a pleasant enough diversion to a time before postmodernism, a simpler era of manners and formula, and the result is a funny, entertaining, comfortably unintellectual action flick. To say this runs at cross purposes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation is beside the point. This Sherlock Holmes only pretends to be a mystery, its hero more fighter than thinker, and its mindlessness only a little insulting.
Well, that's a little harsh for what is honestly a fun little franchise-spawning adventure. But it's notable that Guy Ritchie and his screenwriters have mad libbed an ostensible mystery with all the expected beats whose solution—the part where Holmes dazzles us with his associative brilliance, culling the details that we overlooked and shutting the case on the villain—depends on clues the audience is not privy to. What's more, had Holmes not cracked the case, he still would have wound up in the inevitable climactic showdown. He's in the right place at the right time before he knows why.
Any modern Holmes must compete for attention with all manner of superheroes and police detectives, so naturally this one has elements of Batman (especially the martial arts-trained Christian Bale incarnation), Philip Marlowe, and Indiana Jones. But Guy Ritchie does find an interesting way to make deductive reasoning cinematic, slowing down to illustrate the hypothetical course of Holmes' split-second calculations. Robert Downey, Jr. is typically up to the part, and he admirably lends some dandy-ness to Ritchie's macho world. There are women for both Holmes and bromantic life partner Watson, but the primary love story is between the men. Here's hoping for escalation in the sequels.
Guy Ritchie is somewhat unimaginative as a director, adhering to a drab, easy monochromatic palette and occasionally screaming for attention with his obnoxious camera moves, but he's otherwise allowed one aesthetically entertaining picture to sneak through. Hans Zimmer's deservedly Oscar-nominated score is all fidgety fiddles and exclamatory brass, and it never met a beat it couldn't underline and bold. The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction thanks to its stylish yet immersive set decoration. From its grimy, overcast, cobblestone streets to the Galileo-on-morphine lab Holmes lays about, from the under construction Tower Bridge to the bourgeois clubs you read about in Jules Verne or Robert Louis Stevenson, this is a universe I look forward to revisiting.
Which is lucky for me, because ten minutes are set aside at the end to lay the tracks for our next outing, and I have to say I loved it. It recalls those old paperback serials, and it gives me hope that something will come of all Sherlock Holmes' if not quite themes then motifs. I mean, clearly someone on staff read Dracula without picking up on its meanings, the opening is more than a little Scooby Doo ("Old Man Wilkins!"), and there's a final act attempt at topicality with an invocation of fear politics, but the film also features a strong thread about the rise of technology and fears about its eventual uses. It’s no coincidence that most of the science and technology in the film is used as weaponry and the rest represents the wealth from Britain’s imperial spoils. It's no Kurt Vonnegut, but Ritchie lingers on a bustling Thames seaport as Holmes intones, "What an industrious empire," so they're at least aware of the opportunities for commentary beneath all those set pieces. Next time around, maybe they'll explore some of them.
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Monday, March 8, 2010
I'm disappointed there were no surprises among the top awards, although there were a handful down the line, but as a celebration of the year's excellence in film, well I got to see Pete Docter and a Coen Brother and Michael Stuhlbarg and some inglourious basterds, so I had a fine time. Plus, the Academy invited Jason Reitman to kindly remain seated. Twice.
As a television event, yeah, it was kind of a fiasco. Find a director that knows how to do a proper cutaway, and a lighting crew that aren't racist. Gabourey Sidibe is freaking adorable and twice they cut to her in almost complete darkness, one time when she was on stage! And please oust Adam Shankman, director of Hairspray, from the production staff. I love NPH and nearly all of those scores, but loathed sitting through the dance numbers. Talk about squandering good will.
While we're on the subject, everyone hates the non-awards, non-ritual sequences, but I've long defended them, at least when they have something to do with the films we're celebrating tonight. Personally, I was no fan of the horror montage, nor the presentation of same by the over-represented Twilight kids, and sorry, but the John Hughes portion of the telecast was a little, um, disproportionate. Where was the Swayze dance montage, or a clip of Brittany Murphy rolling with her homies, or, as everyone has noted, Farrah? Eric Rohmer died this year, but, by all means, give John Hughes the montage and stage tribute. (That said, Ferris Bueller can appear on my screen any time.)
On the other hand, what does an Oscar host (or two) have to do to get critics to like him? I thought Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin were funny and good and effortless (e.g. Meryl's Hitler memorabilia, Cameron's 3D glasses, Christoph Waltz in a sea of Jews--cut to a Coen). My pet theory is Ebert tweeted almost immediately that they sucked, and every TV/film critic jumped on the bandwagon. But please let me know if you thought they bombed, too. You won't change my mind, but I'd be interested in hearing from real 'live people and not ornery twits.
Tina Fey was once again part of the best presenting team, this time with Robert Downey, Jr., riffing on the collaboration between actors and writers. I also remain a fan of costars individually spotlighting the leading actor nominees. Michael Sheen's looking good, and don't we all love Colin Farrell?
This year they also incorporated clips from the nominees' performances, which is, for me, the most important non-awards sequence. In fact, the production team found great ways to highlight the nominated work for almost every category, from the shorts video packages to the screenplay overlays.
As for the winners, it could have been a lot worse. Starting at the top, The Hurt Locker won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Director. You can always count on Barbra to make it about her, but Kathryn Bigelow is another personality that I found absolutely endearing. She was gracious and humble and completely unpretentious and a little discombobulated. Twice in a row.
Three of the acting winners were variously deserving and, more importantly, come off as decent people, so of course I'm happy that they have Oscars. Then there's Mo'Nique. First off, it is absurd to call her PR campaign a "non-campaign." No, she didn't show up anywhere unless she was getting paid or there were cameras, but it was an active campaign strategy, and it worked. But good god, the smug. As I said before, she's probably most deserving of that lineup, so good for her, but the fifteen minutes are up. Goodbye.
While I'm still a little upset the major awards arrived exactly as you'd expect, surprises really invigorated the early parts of the evening. Nick Park lost Best Animated Short to Logorama, which many in the know are calling a deserving win. Best Foreign-Language Film went to neither The White Ribbon nor A Prophet but to The Secret in Their Eyes, which I hear is precisely the kind of sentimental filler the Oscar voters would go for, and, by the way, many predicted its win. The sound awards favored Hurt Locker over Avatar, anticipating the rest of the evening, Adapted Screenplay went Precious over Up in the Air (and In the Loop, which, by the way, couldn't have had a lamer represented scene, but it's basically the only part without swearing; thanks a lot, puritans), and Original Screenplay snubbed Tarantino in favor of Mark Boal's forgettable, prosaic work on The Hurt Locker. That was the moment, very early on, that it became obvious Basterds had no shot at Best Picture and the night would be a series of flashbacks to the other awards ceremonies of the season.
Best Cinematography went to Avatar, easily the least deserved award of the night and in the running for least deserved of all time. But you can't really expect all these people who make movies for a living to understand how to make movies. So I got 14 predictions right, but unlike the Academy, I took some chances.
In all, it was a fun night. I got to watch some of the Carl/Ellie montage set to Michael Giacchino's Oscar-winning score, I got to hear Jefferson Airplane blast their way through scenes from A Serious Man, which by the way was nominated for Best Picture (!) in something of an antidote to all the cynics like you and me, I got to see and hear Fantastic Mr. Fox, remembering the playful and plaintive score by Alexandre Desplat and the genius of George Clooney's voice work far surpassing his physical work in other films this year, I got to look at Ryan Bingham accepting an Oscar, I got to fall in platonic, television love with Kathryn Bigelow and Gabourey Sidibe, and I got to learn that Meryl's wearing Project Runway graduate Chris March!
I'll be the first to say the Oscars aren't exactly in keeping with their mission to reward the best in filmmaking, but we all know that going in. Oscar night is about watching the stars and rooting for favorites. Mission accomplished.
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Sunday, March 7, 2010
Tonight are the Oscars, but today are the BMAs (sidenote: I've been meaning to come up with an alternate name for at least 35 years now; suggestions?), where self-important masterworks Precious and Up in the Air were snubbed and some French movie nobody but critics have seen is about to sweep. Well, I live in Texas, so on behalf of real Americans, I present the heartland's best movies of 2009.
Whenever I move back to the website, I'll be able to continuously update the BMAs to reflect developing tastes or films I hadn't seen by the first deadline like Summer Hours, The Order of Myths, and Synecdoche, New York last year. Here on the blog, it's not so easy, and I find myself stuck between two or more choices in almost every category. More and more I'm coming around to the idea that it'll take several years for my assessment of the year's bests to settle, but you gotta start somewhere.
So please note that I have not seen A Single Man, Two Lovers, That Evening Sun, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and probably other contenders. And with that, let the ceremonies begin.
Christian Berger - The White Ribbon
Roger Deakins - A Serious Man
Christopher Doyle - The Limits of Control
Agnès Godard - 35 Shots of Rum
Peter Zeitlinger - The Bad Lieutenant
The BMA goes to: Agnès Godard for 35 Shots of Rum. This category is quickly becoming a magnet for all my favorite cinematographers. Much as I've raved about Berger's deep blacks and whites, his patiently observant camera often holding back from the main action like a child afraid to provoke his parents, this one came down to Doyle's mental journey across Spain and Godard's suburban Paris and Germany. For as lived-in as the performances and writing feel, Godard's cinematography is one of the primary contributors to the film's feel: the subtly probing shots, the intimate closeups, and the magical in-between.
Joel & Ethan Coen - A Serious Man
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche, & Ian Martin - In the Loop
Jim Jarmusch - The Limits of Control
Corneliu Porumboiu - Police, Adjective
Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
The BMA goes to: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche, and Ian Martin for In the Loop. This wasn't as clear-cut as you might expect given my nonstop raving over not only this film but its predecessor TV series The Thick of It, which I consider the second-best comedy of the decade. Ultimately, though, the standout triumph of In the Loop is its script, which structurally conveys byzantine bureaucracy while engaging us constantly through creative wordplay and increasing stakes.
Best Supporting Actor
Peter Capaldi - In the Loop
Nicole Dogue - 35 Shots of Rum
Mimi Kennedy - In the Loop
Mélanie Laurent - Inglourious Basterds
Sari Lennick - A Serious Man
Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds
The BMA goes to: Mélanie Laurent for Inglourious Basterds. Another horserace, this one with Sari Lennick's hysterical nag, but Laurent almost singlehandedly gives Inglourious Basterds its resonance, its emotional investment. Tarantino uses her personal story to get us on her side, rooting for her revenge, and Laurent sells it all with fearful determination.
Best Lead Actor
Nicolas Cage - The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Alex Descas - 35 Shots of Rum
Viggo Mortensen - The Road
Carey Mulligan - An Education
Tahar Rahim - A Prophet
Michael Stuhlbarg - A Serious Man
The BMA goes to: Nicolas Cage for The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Easily one of the all-time great lead performances, Cage expertly alternates between the highs and lows of addiction, manic and languid, self-conscious ambling or hunched-limping, and a potentially disastrous neglect of his intended accent that totally sells the story of this man and this America.
Wes Anderson - Fantastic Mr. Fox
Joel & Ethan Coen - A Serious Man
Claire Denis - 35 Shots of Rum
Jim Jarmusch - The Limits of Control
Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
The BMA goes to: Claire Denis for 35 Shots of Rum. I've had some trouble putting this into words, but the difference between Best Director and Best Picture is that some films at their best are not quite as good as others at their less perfect. For instance, Wes Anderson made Fantastic Mr. Fox as good as it could be (i.e. he coaxed all the elements of production to their peaks and combined them to create the best film version of that story), but I'd still argue In the Loop is ultimately stronger despite some formal weaknesses, so Anderson deserves a Director slot over Iannucci but In the Loop gets the Best Picture slot. That said, it will often be the case for me that the Best Picture is the best-directed film, and this is no exception.
The BMA goes to: 35 Shots of Rum. Surprise, surprise!
Anvil! The Story of Anvil by Sacha Gervasi
The Cove by Louie Psihoyos
Objectified by Gary Hustwit
The September Issue by RJ Cutler
The BMA goes to: Objectified. I encounter my usual problem in the documentary category again, which is that I've seen only four, and only one was especially great. I hope there's more out there that could give Gary Hustwit a run for his money.
Best Foreign-Language Film
35 Shots of Rum by Claire Denis
Broken Embraces by Pedro Almodovar
Police, Adjective by Corneliu Porumboiu
A Prophet by Jacques Audiard
The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke
The BMA goes to: 35 Shots of Rum. Last year my Best Picture was my Best Documentary, and this year it's my Best Foreign-Language Film. The argument against such niche categories is that they'll ghettoize, but the opposite's been true for me personally. Still, I like to shine as much light as I can on these underseen sectors of film, because, a foreign film is once again the year's best picture.
To recap, 35 Shots of Rum scored 4 BMAs (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Foreign-Language Film, and Best Cinematography). Each taking an acting award, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans won Best Lead Actor (Nicolas Cage) and Inglourious Basterds won Best Supporting Actor (Mélanie Laurent). In the Loop won Best Screenplay, and Objectified won Best Documentary.
Last chance to weigh in before the Oscars!
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