Monday, February 28, 2011

2011 Academy Award Wrap-up: March of the Underachievers

Has there been a less interesting Oscars in recent memory? I’m not sure that I’d go as far as many folks have and call it the worst in history, but almost everything about the show screamed “We’re not really trying!”

The hosts: I haven’t been a big fan of replacing the atypical Oscar host with these newfangled experiments of having various pretty people do the job. I’m almost inclined to offer Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin an apology for picking on them last year. They were Abbott and Costello compared to James Franco and Anne Hathaway. It’s strange. I had a good feeling about these two. When the show started with the obligatory homage to all of the year’s big movies, I felt genuine hope that this show was going to be really fun. Hathaway’s “dance of the brown duck” was hilarious, and the montage as a whole had a nice rhythm to it. What’s more, IT WAS FUNNY, which was a luxury that Franco and Hathaway would soon be no longer capable of affording. The opening “monologue” (or should I call it an “opening dialogue?”) was ludicrously short and woefully unfunny. Hathaway was quick to establish herself as the purportedly funny one to Franco’s straight man, but she came across as much too hammy, while Franco just didn’t show up. I’m not sure if he was high or what was going on, but a guy with a lot of natural energy/charisma was doing his best Dustin Hoffman impression. One bright spot: Hathaway’s zinger of a song directed at Hugh Jackman. THAT was funny. I just didn’t know that it would be the last laugh the hosts would provide. Having two of Hollywood’s prettiest, most charming people host was a nice idea, but this experiment was a gargantuan dud. Grade: D.

Bad Ideas:

  • Letting Melissa Leo speak without a script. She reprised her Space Cadet role from the Golden Globes without a second thought. I know that she’d just had one of the biggest shocks/surprises/gifts of her life thrown in her lap, but c'mon.
  • Kirk Douglas going on and on and on and on. I’ve got a lot of respect for the man, and it was funny at first, but then it just kept going to the point that I started to feel sorry for him.
  • The strange segues back to classic films. Wait, wait, we need to present an award, let’s talk about Gone With The Wind first! I love that film, but what’s going on???
  • Turning the backdrop for the Animated film categories into Far, Far Away and teasing me with “Look, there’s Shrek!” . . . WITHOUT ACTUALLY PRODUCING A GREEN OGRE. Look, having a character or two present that category is a time-honored tradition, so why must they torment me with something that might have actually been entertaining???
  • Having all of the night’s winners pop out on stage at the end. I dug the kid’s choir, but having everyone come back to the stage with their little gold men almost makes you expect to hear, “Ladies and gentlemen, the graduating class of 2011!”

Now, I’ve got to take some time to point out some particularly egregious decisions. These are things for which a simple bullet point just won’t do.

The telecast’s direction: Once again, the folks in that little truck let us down. I’ve spent some time directing various things live in studio, so I do have some concept of how difficult it can be. That said, these are professionals with about 2 million cameras/shots to choose from. Should they really need to be told that a shot of people walking in front of the camera during a montage is a bad idea? When Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin walked out, they stopped for a few seconds to waltz. Did I get to see it happen? No, because we cut to a reaction shot of some star or another. Gee, don’t you think it’d make more sense to show us what’s going on and THEN cut to the crowd for about a second or two before cutting BACK to the action? Just saying.

Tom Hooper: The decision to award this man the Best Director Oscar is a baffling one, but I’ll tell you exactly how he won. Dude got lucky. Right place, right time, right movie. It’s still a bad choice. Hooper’s annoyed me as a director for years. Elizabeth I is one of the worst miniseries I’ve ever seen, and John Adams (mostly) succeeds despite his decidedly questionable direction. (I swear, if I have to look at ONE more establishing shot tilted by 45 degrees . . .) I’m hard-pressed to find anything about The King’s Speech that sets it apart from any other WWII period piece, aside from the wonderful script. Darren Aronofsky made Black Swan what it is. The Coen Bros. made True Grit what it is. David Fincher had a large part in making The Social Network what it is. What did Tom Hooper do exactly? I sure don’t know.

The King’s Speech: Look, it’s a nice movie and all, but that’s it. I’m surprised to see the Academy fall for such a clear case of Oscar bait. British? Check. Period piece? Check. WWII? Check. Nazis? Check. Hero overcoming adversity? Check. The King’s Speech is very much a by-the-books historical drama that doesn't do anything that hasn't already been done. Even in the case of Slumdog Millionaire, another winner I felt was undeserving, I can at least see why the film won. With this one, I just don't get it. It's not that I dislike the film. I just don't think that it's anywhere CLOSE to being the best film of the year. It sure pays off to be under Harvey Weinstein’s wing.

Bright spots ('cause there actually were a few):

  • Cate Blanchett going off the script by saying that the makeup/visual effects used in The Wolfman were “gross.”
  • Billy Crystal showing up. It was like tossing a line to a drowning audience. They were so excited to see him that you could almost hear the wheels turning, “YES YES YES! A host who knows what he’s doing! Can you stick around for the rest of the show?”
  • Aaron Sorkin’s speech. They tried to play him off, which was remarkable. You do not play AARON SORKIN off the stage. To his credit, he never missed a beat in a well-paced, articulate speech that actually seemed to thank everyone he wanted to.
  • David Seidler’s speech. Funny, charming, and touching, which is everything an Oscar speech should be.
  • Luke Matheny’s speech (Best Short Film – Live Action). “I should have gotten a haircut. . . I want to thank my mom, who did craft services” Gold.
  • The decision to have a song performed during the “In Memoriam” segment. It eliminates the CLAP CLAP CLAP for the big names and the golf-like pitter-patter for people most folks hadn’t heard of.
  • Florence Welch and A.R. Rahman’s performance of "If I Rise." After a several less-than noteworthy performances, that one hit the spot. See what you get when you throw in some Eastern influence?
  • Randy Newman’s speech. His performance was a bit of a mess, due to that silly backing track rendering his voice unintelligible, but his speech was gold. Irreverence at its best.

By the way, I went 18/24. Should have entered the Outguess Ebert contest, ‘cause I outguessed the guy. There’s always next year.

Let's start the Billy Crystal 2012 campaign. It's gonna happen, kids. Bet on it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar Night 2011: Welcome to the Big Dance

Hello, Oscar night. It seems like an eternity since last year’s ceremony, but here we are again. Changes? We still have 10 nominees for Best Picture, unfortunately. Can’t win ‘em all.

I have to admit that I have a good feeling about James Franco & Anne Hathaway as hosts. I think they’ll be charmingly, disarmingly cute, but here’s hoping they take a risk or two.

Here are my predictions in each category, with the “Big 6” getting some extra time. If you win big in your Oscar pool, message me, and I'll tell you where to send my share of the winnings.

Best Picture

· “Black Swan”

· “The Fighter”

· “Inception”

· “The Kids Are All Right”

· “The King's Speech”

· “127 Hours”

· “The Social Network”

· “Toy Story 3”

· “True Grit”

· “Winter's Bone"

Predicted winner: The King’s Speech
If I was voting: True Grit
Possible upsets: The Social Network

Analysis: The change in momentum that’s occurred over the last month has been almost dizzying. The Social Network had a full head of steam behind it and was the clear picture to beat. Then . . . The King’s Speech . . . happened. After winning almost all of the major “Best Film” awards (with the exception of the Golden Globe – Drama), it’s practically vaulted over the competition to the top. Look for it to pick up the big one on Oscar night, with a very strong possibility that The Social Network could swoop in, flip back the clock and take what lots of folks thought it was going to get anyway.


· “Black Swan” Darren Aronofsky

· “The Fighter” David O. Russell

· “The King's Speech” Tom Hooper

· “The Social Network” David Fincher

· “True Grit” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Predicted winner: David Fincher
If I was voting: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Possible upsets: Tom Hooper

Analysis: I know that Tom Hooper’s won the Director’s Guild Award. I know that that’s an almost frighteningly accurate indicator of who’s going to walk off with Oscar. I still think that the Academy’s going to see this as David Fincher’s “time” and reward his second nomination with the win. Besides, Hooper’s young, British, and probably not going anywhere. He’ll have other chances. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Christopher Nolan should be one of the nominees. While I’m not a big fan of his film, he did a very gutsy thing in making a $160 million art movie. I’d give him Russell’s spot.

Actor in a Leading Role

· Javier Bardem in “Biutiful”

· Jeff Bridges in “True Grit”

· Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network”

· Colin Firth in “The King's Speech”

· James Franco in “127 Hours”

Predicted winner: Colin Firth
If I was voting: Jeff Bridges
Possible upsets: None.

Analysis: Colin Firth will win. Period. I think the Academy ought to pull a Tom Hanks and give it to Jeff Bridges for his outstanding work in True Grit, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Actress in a Leading Role

· Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”

· Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”

· Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter's Bone”

· Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”

· Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”

Predicted winner: Natalie Portman
If I was voting: Natalie Portman
Possible upsets: Annette Bening

Analysis: Lesley Manville should be nominated in this category, and she should win. Her performance in Another Year was that good. Silly Academy. (sighs back into reality) Black Swan was the first occasion that Natalie Portman’s ever blown me away, and I think she’s a strong favorite. While I’d be very surprised if she didn’t win, Annette Bening might challenge her here. She’s lost a couple of times previously, and some might say that this is her last, best chance to win. I still don’t think it’s going to happen. Besides, if you’re going to nominate someone from The Kids Are All Right, it should have been Julianne Moore.

Actor in a Supporting Role

· Christian Bale in “The Fighter”

· John Hawkes in “Winter's Bone”

· Jeremy Renner in “The Town”

· Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right”

· Geoffrey Rush in “The King's Speech”

Predicted winner: Christian Bale
If I was voting: Christian Bale
Possible upsets: Geoffrey Rush

Analysis: The Fighter is a film that’s really lucked out this year. It’s decently entertaining, but never takes flight in the way that it could. Christian Bale’s outstanding performance is the finest thing about the film, and I think it’s going to be rewarded. However, if Geoffrey Rush pulls off an upset in one of the first prizes of the telecast, get ready for a British avalanche of The King’s Speech winning everything under the sun.

Actress in a Supporting Role

· Amy Adams in “The Fighter”

· Helena Bonham Carter in “The King's Speech”

· Melissa Leo in “The Fighter”

· Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”

· Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom”

Predicted winner: Melissa Leo
If I was voting: Helena Bonham Carter
Possible upsets: Hailee Steinfeld, Helena Bonham Cater

Analysis: This is the trickiest of the 6 majors to call. Hailee Steinfeld is the fresh, young face that impressed a lot of people with her plucky (LEAD) performance in True Grit. Helena Bonham Carter has the good fortune to be attached to The King’s Speech (and had a nice turn to boot). However, I think Melissa Leo’s got the momentum, and might squeak out the victory. This is a very tough category. Could go to any of the aforementioned 3.

  • Animated Feature Film: Toy Story 3
  • Art Direction: The King’s Speech
  • Cinematography: Roger Deakins – True Grit
  • Costume Design: Alice In Wonderland
  • Documentary (Feature): Exit Through The Gift Shop
  • Documentary (Short Subject): Strangers No More
  • Film Editing: The Social Network
  • Foreign Language Film: In A Better World
  • Makeup: The Wolfman
  • Music (Original Score): Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network
  • Music (Original Song): “We Belong Together” – Randy Newman (Toy Story 3)
  • Short Film (Animated): Day & Night
  • Short Film (Live Action): Wish 143
  • Sound Editing: Inception
  • Sound Mixing: Inception
  • Visual Effects: Inception
  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Aaron Sorkin The Social Network
  • Writing (Original Screenplay): David Seidler – The King’s Speech

Happy Superbowl Sunday to all!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

Let us not pretend that this is a democracy.

There are any number of theories on what makes a proper “top ten” list and which films should and should not be eligible for inclusion. Despite this, I don’t really care.

This is not going to be a normal “top ten” list.

On it, you’ll find films that were released in their home countries in 2009 before opening in the U.S. in 2010, and you’ll find films that played in movie houses around the world without every properly opening in the US.

Films with a hyperlink were reviewed right here by yours truly, and the heading will click through to the original piece if you want to delve deeper.

As of this point, I’ve seen just about all of the films that I felt were necessary to make up this list, with the exception of Biutiful. Naturally, I reserve the right to make changes.

Incipit . . .

10. Machete
--Normally, gleefully trashy B-pictures aren’t my thing, but the fact remains that Machete was the single most fun experience I had at the movies all year. If you’re into folks swinging from intestines and grizzled heroes killing tons of people with really big knives after getting with just about every attractive actress in Hollywood, this one’s for you. ‘Cause we all need one of those sometimes.

9. 127 Hours
--One man. A rock. Trapped for days. The elements should add up to a marginally interesting story of survival. By contrast, 127 Hours is gritty and surprisingly theatrical in scope. Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy deserve a lot of credit for making what should be a small story into something much bigger, even somewhat fascinating. There’s more at stake than what happens when a man gets stuck in a canyon. It’s about why that man found himself alone in the canyon in the first place. James Franco’s never been better.

8. The Kids Are All Right
--When the film begins, it’s almost a study in how to make an audience feel awkward. It’s to director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko’s credit that the film evolves into a wonderfully compelling look at a modern family with same-sex parents. Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, in particular, are wonderful. The writing is deft, the performances are strong, and the emotion is true. The Kids Are All Right is groundbreaking, authentic, and resonant.

7. Another Year
--Another Year (and, by extension, Mike Leigh) refuses to give me exactly what I want as a moviegoer, and I love it for that. Nice little bows and neatly wrapped endings to clearly defined story arcs just won’t do here. I cannot think of another film that surpasses this one as a convincing slice of life. The performances are so, so strong, and Lesley Manville is utterly brilliant.

6. Black Swan
--Over the first hour, Black Swan is very quietly creepy in establishing one idea of reality, and then relentless in bashing that reality to bits in the second. Natalie Portman is the best I’ve ever seen her, and the last 10 minutes are breathtaking.

5. Blue Valentine
--In recent memory, there have been a handful of films that have attempted, in different ways, to capture the heartbeat of modern relationships. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a dazzling work of abstract expressionism, Blue Valentine is the heartbreaking portrait in still life. Gosling and Williams are dazzling, and the script seems less a work of fiction than a recording of how people live, breathe, and love.

4. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
--Over and over, I was told that I needed to see this film because it was really, really good. I was (needlessly) concerned that the hype monster was going to strike again. It’s everything I heard it was, and much more. Lisbeth Salander is one of the best characters to hit the screen in years.The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is unflinching, ruthless, spellbinding, romantic, shocking, and beautifully human. No matter what kind of movie you like, chances are good that this is going to satisfy you.

  • I thought a lot about what should top this list. Many of the films here lingered on in my imagination long after they’d finished. While this is usually a sign that there’s more at work than meets the eye, it does not necessarily mean that a film’s better or worse than initially thought. I toyed with the idea of not even ranking the films numerically so as to not have to make a tough decision. However, I decided to go for it.
  • The final three films represent such a leap in quality that they deserve a separation from the rest of the pack. Any of them could have easily each found itself in the top slot. My decision between #2 and #3 came down to my impression of which film had the more lasting impact emotionally. My pick for the top spot ultimately came out of my decision as to which film I would change the least, if given the chance.

3. True Grit
--If there are better filmmakers than Joel and Ethan Coen working today, I’d like to meet them. True Grit tackles a familiar story with a grace, vitality, and humor the original film never had. Films like this are like feasts in a time of famine. There’s such a sure, confident hand at work in the writing that I doubt that anyone else could take such an established set of genre conventions and make them feel this fresh. I think True Grit is one of the better films the Coens have ever made. Jeff Bridges is simply outstanding in one of his finest performances. He was born to play Rooster Cogburn. Yet again, this is how you make a proper film.

2. Toy Story 3
--Threequels, by definition, have the odds steeply stacked against them. Anything worth developing left over from the original film is usually finished off in the second, and a third or fourth installment is generally a miscalculated misstep to try to expand the mythos. It’s astounding that Toy Story 3 is as effective as it is, and I am dumbfounded by the depth of the emotional experience I had with it. This is one of the best films Pixar has ever made and it just might be the finest film in the trilogy. The conclusion nears perfection.

1. Certified Copy
-- Here is a film that could have been made 50 years ago, and would probably have more easily fit in the cinematic landscape of that period. Kiaorostami’s film reminds me of Antonioni’s La Notte and the poignancy 60’s-era Godard brought to his better work. On paper, the story of a relationship between two people that becomes murkier as it progresses doesn’t seem like compelling dramatic material. It’s remarkable just how wrong that assumption is. Certified Copy is verbose without becoming dull, slippery without becoming frustrating, and enlightening without failing to entertain. Juliette Binoche’s radiant performance is one of, if not THE, best in a stellar career. The warmth she brings to the film is a rare thing. I would be lying if I said that I have all of the ins and outs of the narrative worked out. However, while the film may not be easily explained, it makes sense emotionally, and that is what makes all the difference. A beautiful meditation on art, love, and life.