Saturday, February 21, 2009

OSCAR 2009: BEST PICTURE


NOMINEES: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Frost/Nixon; Milk; The Reader; Slumdog Millionaire

JOSH STAMAN: This is the third year in a row that Andrew Alex Dowd and myself have predicted the Academy Awards. We resigned ourselves to anniversary over the phone with much ennui, because in truth it's a whore's game. If, like Dave Karger, it is your job to predict the Oscars, that requires a heavy regiment of blowing certain films months before they're released. That's what happened to the trailer-ing of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so much so that when it came out it had no chance BUT to disappoint. (How could we have falsely assumed that David Fincher and F. Scott Fitzgerald would make a good match?) Now the question is whether it will win anything at all. When you see the Best Picture Winner, you know it. That wasn't the case last year or in 2006 (or apparently in 2005 either) but it certainly was when I caught Slumdog Millionaire in theaters with my family. To even suggest that Boyle's picture is not a very good one borders on a blasphemy I can only liken to rooting for All the President's Men or Taxi Driver upon the release of Rocky, because it's not simply a paper-thin, music video-tailored crowd-pleaser but one that touches upon the cultural zeitgeist, which is to say Barack Obama's America. Just like Rocky, rooting for Slumdog Millionaire is rooting for yourself…in the most base of fashions. Remember that when you GO FOR IT, IT IS WRITTEN. So you've got that going for you…

A.A. DOWD: If a vote for Slumdog Millionaire is essentially a vote for yourself, what does voting against it signify? To hear Boyle's army of bleating, smitten defenders tell it, such a stance is akin to turning your nose up at life, love, the pursuit of happiness, music, perseverance, India, poor people, trains, general euphoria, and that cool M.I.A. song from the Pineapple Express trailer. I'm a fan of most of those things. My beef with Slumdog hinges not on its (fairly irresistible) premise but on its botched execution. By Boyle's estimation, none of life's hardships are so traumatic that they can't be danced to, and the rare, beautiful experience of falling in love is something to be left offscreen, lest all that getting-to-know-eachother crap kills the buzz and slows the momentum. I could go on and on-- and I did, though it took me nine paragraphs to do what these glorious haters accomplished in one--but here's the truth, Ruth: much as I dislike the movie, it's inclusion here at least makes sense. Can the same "struck a chord" defense be applied to Fincher's distant Gump redux, Howard's spotty history lesson, or Daldry's Nazi apologia snoozefest? Does anyone really love these films? Each of their narratives gradually unfolding through flashback or recollection, all of this year's Best Picture nominees employ a framing device. Clearly, Academy voters prefer the warm nostalgia of a Hollywood-conjured past to the anger and fear and loathing and confusion of our modern times. No small wonder neither WALL-E nor The Dark Knight made the cut: in their own fantastical, pop-art escapist kind of way, both movies actively engage the world that we live in, the terrifying here and now. Of the nominated films, only Van Sant's can claim likewise. For though Slumdog's underdog ethos could certainly resonate with any bona fide Obama booster, it's Milk, with its celebration of bad times bleeding into good ones via passionate political activism, that truly feels in sync with the cautious optimism we're all still tripping on, post November 2nd.

JS: You ask if anyone loves these films and the answer is "two out of five IS bad." They love Milk and Slumdog Millionaire, oh yes they do, but the buck stops there. People love The Dark Knight and WALL*E. And people are just starting to love The Wrestler. These films touched upon the cultural zeitgeist and represent the Shoulda's that Coulda if films like The Reader weren't crammed down the throats of geriatric Academy voters by the likes of Harvey Weinstein. It's not about the best movies being nominated but the ones that mean something. I'd happily sub in Gran Torino and Slumdog Millionaire AGAIN over Benjamin Button and The Reader because I'd know it meant something. What does a vote for Slumdog Millionaire represent? Honestly, it represents a vote for a Best Picture nominee you actually flat-out love and there hasn't been one of those in quite a few years. The Academy got it right by actually nominating something people love. The Academy got it wrong by basically (outside of Milk) stopping right there. A vote for Slumdog Millionaire in the company of The Dark Knight, Milk, WALL-E, and The Wrestler is a vote for your favorite movie. In the company of these films, it's a no-brainer. Incidentally, I can't think of a better descriptor for Slumdog Millionaire than "no-brainer."

DOWD
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: Milk

STAMAN
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: Milk

OSCAR 2009: THE OTHER CATEGORIES


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Without hesitation, we can call this lineup of screenplays the worst of our respective lifetimes. Not a single successfully developed screenplay in contentions, for reasons of act structure (Doubt, Frost/Nixon), thematic depth (Benjamin Button, The Reader), or, in the case of front-runner Slumdog Millionaire, the simple act of basic character development. Slumdog's sins on wafer-thin canvas are the most easily correctable but just as glaring. By contrast, The Dark Knight's sins overreach the bounds and limits of all the nominees combined.

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: somehow The Dark Knight

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

The omission of Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" doesn't just turn this lineup into a slog but another aggravating excuse to hear that Slumdog Millionaire song…especially considering that it will play the minute after the song itself wins. "Jai Ho" has the studio push, and though some predict that it will cancel with the superior "O Saya" and pave a way for WALL-E's "Down to Earth", it would take someone pretty tone-deaf to single out this innocuous PIXAR number as the best of the year. Someone tone-deaf enough to ignore "The Wrestler"…

Prediction: "Jai Ho" ~ Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: "O Saya" ~ Slumdog Millionaire

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

This category is a ghetto. We find it impossible to believe that Academy voters truly loved Seabiscuit more than Finding Nemo, Finding Neverland more than The Incredibles, and The Reader more than WALL-E. Since Monsters, Inc. sadly lost to Shrek, PIXAR has been on a three for five (soon to be four for six) winning streak akin to a Muhammad Ali v. Dev Patel title match. When will these Big Boys be allowed to contend with the real Big Boys...like Stephen Daldry?

Prediction & Preference: WALL-E

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Though Silent Light is sure to drum up a few votes on the strength of that epically beautiful first shot, this feels like a tight race between Christopher Doyle's slow-motion shoegaze in Paranoid Park and Pin Bing Lee's impeccably composed, slice-of-life snapshots in Flight of the Red Balloon. Unless Let the Right One In, with its showstopping "pool" sequence, swoops in for the upset. Sorry. Back on planet earth, Slumdog inexplicably takes another one.

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: The Dark Knight

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Tastefully-dressed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has the most nominations but voting down the line with the heavyweight works only when nothing opulent stands in the way. Nothing this year was more opulent – or forgettable - than The Duchess.

Prediction: The Duchess
Preference: Milk

BEST SOUND MIXING

Past winners of this category specialize in mixing manufactured noise and soundtrack with crowds. And that is what could give Cinema Audio Society Winner Slumdog Millionaire a leg-up on The Dark Knight and WALL-E. We have a hunch that if one were to simply vote for Slumdog in every category, they'd win more often than not, but we have to believe that the exemplary mixing done with The Dark Knight can overcome whatever music video stylistics Danny Boyle can fix in post.

Prediction & Preference: The Dark Knight

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Even those who bemoan the emphasis on visual astonishment over emotional or thematic depth in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are spooked out by the visual astonishment of the film. The Dark Knight's effects are invisible and Iron Man's are creations. Benjamin Button bridges the two together until it's all you can talk about. It absolutely deserves a nomination and a win in this category…and very few others.

Prediction & Preference: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Writer's Guild of America does not nominate animated films, so WALL-E did not have to compete against their winner Milk for the prize. Although In Bruges has its share of fans, this award is likely between two unlikely genres: animated films and biopics. There are few films this year more beloved than WALL-E but its reliance on BEEPS and BOOPS would make it the quietest winner in this category in over half a century. Milk, the only Best Picture nominee in contention, takes it by default.

Prediction: Milk
Preference: WALL-E

BEST SCORE

The Music Branch has become increasingly willing to allow young blood into the winner's circle, so Thomas Newman and Danny Elfman may continue losing for a while. Or at the very least, until they write a hook as catchy as A.R. Rahman's "Love Theme" from Slumdog Millionaire, which we anticipate hearing again and again come Oscar night.

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: WALL*E

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

If Waltz with Bashir wins, it will be the least conventional winner in this category since its inception. These are the same people who last year failed to cite 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. What keeps Waltz with Bashir in the running is the politics of the thing: a message for Middle Eastern peace that remains pro-Israel as well. Were The Class not such a complex portrayal of a teacher's involvement with his students, it would make a more likely choice. Then again, in this category, "more likely" doesn't really register. A totally unknown movie like Japan's Departures – allegedly about an aging, out of work cellist who takes up in a funeral parlor – seems like the perfect WTF Oscar night moment.

Prediction: Departures
Preference: Revanche

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Leave it to AMPAS to finally invite Werner Herzog to this party on the strength of one of his least consequential docs. Not that he's got a snowball's chance anyway. Forget Slumdog Millionaire. The true sweep of the year has been Man on Wire, which has wrangled every single documentary award on the planet. Although Trouble the Water has the makings of an emotional upset, only player hating can stand in the way of Man on Wire.

Prediction & Preference: Man on Wire

BEST FILM EDITING

Slumdog Millionaire isn't just a montage-happy music video. It's a montage-happy music video that cross-cuts through a street urchin's life hither and thither, which is to say the actual editing has thematic meaning. In voters' teary eyes, that probably makes it more impressive than, oh say, The Dark Knight.

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: The Dark Knight

BEST ART DIRECTION

Past winners of this category emphasize the fantastical (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Pan's Labyrinth) and the historical (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Aviator). That The Curious Case of Benjamin Button combines the two in a lineup without a strong lead makes it one of the safer bets of the evening.

Prediction & Preference: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

BEST MAKEUP

Did Paramount and Warner Bros. really put in $150 million before P&A so they could lock down Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects? Benjamin Button has the makings of a film more liked from afar than up close, which is how one certainly feels about Cate Blanchett's awful old age makeup. Were Brad Pitt not so convincingly made-up into middle-age, I'd be inclined to bet on with Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army or Heath Ledger's face paint. As is, $150 million well spent, guys.

Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Preference: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

BEST SOUND EFFECTS

In judging this category, one faces the impossibility of wondering how much of Slumdog Millionaire's audio was created after the fact. Though one would be better served to blindly vote up and down the line for Slumdog in every category, this one probably comes down to The Dark Knight or WALL-E. Despite Ben Burtt's celebrity (both for Star Wars AND for "voicing" WALL-E), the spectacle of watching Gotham burn is as much an audio astonishment as a visual one.

Prediction: The Dark Knight
Preference: WALL-E

Friday, February 20, 2009

OSCAR 2009: BEST ACTRESS


NOMINEES: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married; Anjelina Jolie, Changeling; Melissa Leo, Frozen River; Meryl Streep, Doubt; Kate Winslet, The Reader.

A.A. DOWD: "If you do a movie about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed to win an Oscar!" That was good sport Kate Winslet, way back in 2005, playing a foul-mouthed, awards-grubbing version of herself on HBO's "Extras." What seemed like a too easy two-pointer at the time (yeah, we get it, the Academy can't resist Holocaust dramas. How fresh and original!) is now looking like a pretty shrewdly ironic slam dunk. Winslet, that perennial Oscar also-ran, who's 0 for 5 in this glorified Prom Queen competition, finally seems poised to take home her first golden statuette. And all it required her to do was...a Holocaust movie. To be fair, Winslet's Nazi housefrau-cum-seductress actually hits a whole bunch of AMPAS's sweet spots, from pitiable disability to gratuitous nudity to shoddy old lady makeup. I can't separate the actress's intentionally dispassionate performance here from the icky arc Stephen Daldry builds out of it-- namely, a reading-is-fundamental redemption for a character who scarcely deserves it, a doggedly unrepentant war criminal. Joke's on the voters for swallowing this swill, so dishonest in its uplift as to render Anne Hathaway's plight for forgiveness all the more cathartic by comparison. Pity that Sally Hawkins didn't make it in. Then we'd actually have something to argue about.

JOSH STAMAN: Martin Scorsese had to wait four years to win an Oscar because of history and past glories. When he did, it was for an exemplary piece of entertainment, if not much of a passion project. Were Kate Winslet not such an awesome performer, I doubt she'd be in the situation that she is: she can only win for doing something different. Her performance as Hanna Schmidt only resembles that. In truth, she is woefully inconsistent from scene to scene. The change of pace is that it's the rare moment of boredom in a career that's somewhat beyond reproach. Had the Million Dollar Baby juggernaut not come out of nowhere in 2004, she might very well have won for Eternal Sunshine's indelible Clementine. Whatever Anne Hathaway ends up winning for, it's not likely to be as incisive and devastating as what she does in Rachel Getting Married, though likewise whatever Meryl Streep wins for (again) probably won't be as entertaining as watching Mother Superior jump the gun in Doubt. At the end of Winslet's great career, The Reader will likely be remembered as fondly as Butterfield 8. One can only pray for a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? around the corner, though maybe that's what Revolutionary Road was trying to be. To understand the mindset of an Academy voter, Sally Hawkins' Poppy is shut out for reasons of "annoying character" while Angelina Jolie is nominated for Changeling. Is there anything more annoying than a woman who won't shut up about a son you've never met?

AAD: How about a woman who breaks your heart, splits town, and then shows up years later to reveal some horrible secret, like she screwed your best friend or was a guard at Auschwitz or something? Seriously, hate to sound like a broken record here, but why aren't more people bugged by the curdled thematic center of The Reader? Here's a movie that uses the Holocaust as a device to—SPOILER ALERT!—get its unapologetic, blame-dodging heroine into prison, where she can conquer her illiteracy and improve her self-worth through the wonders of classic literature. Millions of people had to die so this gal could learn Chekhov? Winslet's a lovely actress, but I'm still begging for some poetic justice on Sunday. In that same "Extras" episode, Kate's award-coveting alter ego wasn't just starring in a Holocaust drama. She was portraying a nun, too. How delightfully apt would it be if the real Kate lost to the real Meryl, whose decision to play Sister Beauvier for dark-comic laughs undercuts the poker-faced self-seriousness of this whole damned awards season. It's a long shot, but if anyone's gonna topple Winslet's Oscar-baiting, white elephant martyr routine, it's Streep's hungry dragon. You can be certain of that.

DOWD
Prediction: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Preference: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

STAMAN
Prediction: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Preference: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married



Thursday, February 19, 2009

OSCAR 2009: BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS


NOMINEES: Amy Adams, Doubt; Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Viola Davis, Doubt; Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler.

A.A. DOWD: For the curious, some trivia: in the 31 years since the Academy crushed hard on Annie Hall, honoring it in four of the five major categories, Woody Allen has directed a whopping sixteen performers to an Oscar nomination. Ten of them were actresses. And four out of the five nominees who won their respective races were also women. No small wonder the ladies still clamor to work with this way-past-his-prime lecher: if a giggly Mira Sorvino can win for throwaway fluff like Mighty Aphrodite, pretty much any young thing the Woodman's got a woody for has a shot at the Gold. (Keep at it Scarlett. Your day will come.) With Kate Winslet relegated to the lead actress category for her aspiring (but not inspiring) reader, the odds are looking pretty good that Penelope Cruz will become the fifth female to score a win from an Allen production. I'd love to be happy for her—she certainly deserved the victory two years ago, for her harried Volver vixen—but I can't really condone a performance that amounts to little more than bringing to tawdry life an old man's wildest wet dreams about fiery Spanish whackjobs and their casually Sapphic leanings.

JOSH STAMAN: Woody Allen has to go down in history as the Woman's Director who has proven time and time again how little he knows about women. They can be sub-sectioned into The Flighty Collegiate, The Cold Fish in need of a Deep Dicking, and Crazy Bitches. Vicky Cristina Barcelona has 'em all! Although Cruz was the crazy front-runner for a little while, the removal of Kate Winslet has thrown this category to the birds with a case to be made for all. The case for Taraji P. Henson? The biggest film. The case for Marisa Tomei? The comeback. The case for Viola Davis? The biggest scene. Even Amy Adams, who is poising herself more and more as an industry darling with every passing year, has a better chance than some think for her very sympathetic performance as Doubt's true (if truly underdeveloped) crisis of conscience. What all these performers have in common is that they are insiders, whereas Penelope Cruz isn't just an outsider, but when she came inside (Blow, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Vanilla Sky) it outwardly did not work. I'm as undecided on who I think will win as who should. Gun to my head, I'm guessing that Viola Davis will, for the same reasons that Richard Jenkins got nominated: everyone has worked with her and those who haven't want to. Last year, I thought that Tilda Swinton would win on the basis of her professionalism and regard for her film. I expect Viola Davis to follow in her shoes. And it won't be undeserving.

A.A.D.: Know what all five of these performers really have in common? Each of them is saddled with an utterly thankless role. All squeaky gasps and doe-eyed distress, Adams drowns in hers. Cruz, again, can’t make a character out of thinly conceived male fantasy. And Henson is just Sally Fields to Brad Pitt’s backwards-aging Gump—no matter how hard she sells em’, those home-spun truisms (“You never know what’s coming for you”) still inspire winces. That leaves Davis’ big money moment, the type of quickie tour-de-force that you could miss on a bathroom break. Voters eat this shit up (remember Beatrice Straight and Judi Dench?) but I prefer the supporting performances that actually support to the ones that loudly unbalance their respective films. To that end, I’ll rally behind anti-showboat Marisa Tomei, who invests her stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype with dollops of wounded humanity, actually convincing us of the affection she develops for her hulking love interest. Makes you curious what else this aging beauty is capable of. Does Woody have a Crazy Bitch or Cold Fish up for grabs this year?

DOWD
Prediction: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Preference: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

STAMAN
Prediction & Preference: Viola Davis, Doubt



OSCAR 2009: BEST DIRECTOR


NOMINEES: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire; Stephen Daldry, The Reader; David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon; Gus Van Sant, Milk.

JOSH STAMAN: Eleven years ago, Gus Van Sant was nominated for accrediting Good Will Hunting with perhaps more hipster cred than it deserved. If admittedly better, the film was no more Van Sant's than Finding Forrester was. A decade after My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant has risen from the ashes of largely his own making with his "Death Trilogy", life-affirming masterpiece Paranoid Park, and now Milk, his strongest studio outing to date. It remains more a Focus Feature than a Van Sant Joint, but it's impossible to deny the nuance and maturity he brought: casual sexuality that operates just as such; performances that ring true from soap box to the margins of ever scene; and a flair both visual and emotional that eschews easy sentimentality. All of these attributes cannot be assigned to the work of fellow nominees Boyle, Daldry, and Fincher. At least Ron Howard has the common decency to not even try.

A.A. DOWD: Save for a couple of annoying stylistic tics, Howard and Daldry's contributions are so politely anonymous that the Academy might well have just left their names off the ballot, officially acknowledging this race as the three-way competition that it really is. Then again, I may be underestimating AMPAS's love for that latter hack, who just scored his third consecutive nomination for his third consecutive movie, an honor bestowed upon no other filmmaker in the history of the Academy Awards. (Jean-Luc Godard, by contrast, has never been nominated. Chew on that for a second.) Speaking of annoying stylistic tics, Danny Boyle should be pumped: he finally worked his way into the Academy's heart, a feat that required no compromise of his spastic, impatient aesthetic or his complete disdain for coherent storytelling. (Heed the lessons of Baz Luhrmann and Fernando Meirelles: music-video wankery will only get you nominated if it's also got the pretense of importance.) Neither Boyle nor David Fincher, flashy auteurs born of the MTV Era, possess a single sentimental bone in their bodies, which makes their respective assignments to a Capra-esque crowd-pleaser and a molasses-slow male weepie a curious case of mismatched talent. Was Zodiac merely a triumphant stopgap between gutter-punk excess and Oscar-baiting respectability? Fincher's faithfuls argue that the discrepancy between the director's ice-cold formalism and Eric Roth's home-fried schmaltz creates some kind of fascinating friction. All I saw was some sporadically striking images amidst an endless flood of dispassionately dispensed Gumpisms. So kudos to Van Sant, for playing to the cheap seats without cheating the pathos or surrendering his idiosyncratic personality. He's floating at the top of this very shallow feeding pool.

JS: A mirthless debate on Fincher's oeuvre of said-alleged "gutter-punk excess" notwithstanding, I never thought I'd see the day where I would be so disappointed to see an Oscar smackdown between Danny Boyle and David Fincher. It's not Coppola vs. Polanski (nor, for that matter, the Coen Brothers against P.T.A.) but Boyle and Fincher represent something better than what they've managed to cross-over with, and it's clear these two technically proficient journeymen filmmakers are only interested in the margins of their nominated features. It's disconcerting to watch them play dress-up with their narratives while ignoring the sucking black holes dead center that would require a Sunshine-scale mission to truly repair. Ask a member of the Academy's Directing Branch and human dimension is something that can be fixed in post.

DOWD
Prediction: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: Gus Van Sant, Milk

STAMAN
Prediction: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: Gus Van Sant, Milk

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

OSCAR 2009: BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


NOMINEES: Josh Brolin, Milk; Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt; Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight; Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

JOSH STAMAN: As with last year, it's surprisingly hard to find much to gripe about in 2008's Best Supporting Actor lineup. Also similar to last year, this roster features a heavy front-running turn by a cold-blooded killer. Although Casey Affleck would have nabbed my vote last year were he not such a solid lead, I have no issue with Heath Ledger's victory in The Dark Knight because it's such a bracingly unsentimental turn. Perhaps it's because he would have earned the award even if he hadn't died that seals it for me. Still, it might have been a tighter race if he hadn't, and one warranted by the strong competition of Josh Brolin, Robert Downey, Jr., and especially Best Surprise Nominee Michael Shannon. His portrait of suburban instability is aberrant enough to warrant his own Batman Villain.

A.A. DOWD: Paging Christopher Nolan: we have your Black Mask or Hugo Strange. Shannon's verbose wackjob is almost as much fun as Ledger's; they both steal their respective movies, though walking off with Revolutionary Road is a feat unworthy of even the most modestly skilled pickpocket thespian. Unlike Shannon, who basically floats in to spit some thematic truth and give Sam Mendes' deadly dull chamber drama a shot of crazed adrenaline, Ledger's privileged with anarchic showstoppers that actually feel in sync with the movie around them. He's also the only one of these nominees who didn't deliver a better, richer lead performance in 2008. Whereas Brolin's schematically conceived Dan White is something of a weak link in Milk's gangbusters cast, his affectation-free Bush was the best reason to check out W. And I'll take Hoffman's agonizing, self-loathing despair in Synecdoche over his "What did you SEE, what did you HEAR!" grandstanding in Doubt. Is there really anyone who prefers Downey's one-note, blackfaced Kirk Lazarus to his funnier, more humane superstar turn, his iron-clad Tony Stark? Even bug-eyed Shannon did us better in 08, at least those of us who prefer 80 minutes of measured melancholia to 8 of scenery-chewing, madman hysterics.

JS: Black Mask? I'm talkin' Riddler, motherfucker! And I assume you're referring to the woefully underrated Shotgun Stories, which, along with his Rev Road extended cameo, announces Michael Shannon as the Best Actor That Nobody Knows... yet. I disagree with you on Downey, Jr. (not Iron Man, but still soaring) and Brolin (ill-conceived, but every bit the nuanced portrait of instability as Ledger and Shannon), but not on Hoffman. Quickly becoming an Academy staple, Hoffman is reverse-reverse cast in Doubt as such a charismatic priest that his about-face reads as just inconsistent. Synecdoche, New York is a Kafka-esque pool of quicksand upon which Caden tries to build his masterpiece, mad and muttering like Klaus Kinski at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Incidentally, I thought about him too and if he were still alive: Killer Crock.

DOWD
PREDICTION & PREFERENCE
: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

STAMAN
PREDICTION & PREFERENCE
: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

OSCAR 2009: BEST ACTOR

NOMINEES: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor; Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon; Sean Penn, Milk; Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

JOSH STAMAN: For the past five years, the category of Best Actor has featured some form of heavy front-runner such that prognostication and partisanship were afterthought. The question is whether or not Forest Whitaker's monstrous mugging or Jamie Foxx's adept impersonation actually deserved the award over Ryan Gosling or Clint Eastwood. The last time Sean Penn contended for this award it was against Bill Murray and voters had to decide between Penn's Methodic angst or Murray's summative career-capper. Or for that matter, Johnny Depp's then-subversive, then-transformative Jack Sparrow. This year, voters will have to decide between Sean Penn's astonishing transformation into Harvey Milk or Mickey Rourke's momentous inhabitation as Randy "The Ram" Robinson to decide whether 'tis nobler to be or to become. That Rourke has emerged the less controversial choice speaks something to the annoyance Penn's liberal firebrand persona invokes, as does the fact that little has been said this year about the rather massive Into the Wild snub last year. I say that because Harvey is the rare joyous entry in his career that Penn should overcome all prejudices and triumph. But first allow me to toss coal onto the fire and say that there are several actors in Hollywood that could've just as easily played The Wrestler's one-trick pony and that Aronofsky simply lucked out to find Rourke already sleeping in the Dodge Ram he was set on using.

A.A. DOWD: I'm sure you could fill a police line-up with the has-been heavies and washed-up warriors of Hollywood's tough guy talent pool, but how many of these aging gladiators actually spent a few seasons trading blows for a living? Remember, Rourke got out of the acting game in the 90s to pursue a career in professional boxing-- that battered mug ain't prosthetics. In The Wrestler, he takes the hits, in and out of the ring, like someone who remembers how they really feel. Rourke is Randy "The Ram," and if he pulls the upset here, it will be because this living legend lends emotional credibility to every formulaic beat of Aronofsky's Dogma 95 Rocky Balboa. That's the rarer triumph-- contrary to your assertion otherwise, I can conjure up a few actors who might have offered a different but no less successful spin on the life and times of Harvey Milk. (Hank Azaria springs immediately to mind.) It's the tightest of the night's major races, but it's going to take more than comeback kid sympathy points to push Rourke over the top. Penn, after all, is playing poster boy to a much bigger underdog saga, one that outweighs the professional rejuvenation of a guy who might've called the real Milk a fag had he crossed paths with him in '78. At least the big lug's got the over-the-hill bigot vote cornered, what with grumbling ol' Clint's lovable racist off the ballot. Had that old salt been in contention, I'd be calling either Langella's sloppy Nixon or Pitt's dead-eyed, CGI-smeared mannequin the least of three evils.

JS: It would be apropos of the Academy Awards if voters are bent enough to wonder whether or not Sean Penn is doing anything that Hank Azaria couldn't and would probably explain a lot of recent choices (Pan's Labyrinth over Children of Men for Cinematography?). But like Slumdog Millionaire, rooting for Mickey Rourke is just like rooting for yourself. He's the graceful comeback that everybody wants. I still hold to my guns that Sean Penn will maintain a plurality of votes but if ever there was occasion for a tie, this is it.

DOWD
Prediction: Sean Penn, Milk
Preference: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

STAMAN
Prediction & Preference: Sean Penn, Milk



Monday, February 16, 2009

OSCAR 2009: GOOD NEWS FOR MICHAEL SHANNON, BAD NEWS FOR THE REST OF US


There was a certain way that this year’s mandatory, post-Oscar nomination bitch fest was supposed to go. Those of us who, for one silly reason or another, give half a damn about this yearly sham charade—and that’s a large group that encompasses everyone from household name Roger Ebert to “Oscar expert” Dave Karger to an ambitious nobody like myself—thought we knew exactly what to expect from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We picked our battles before the war even began, expressing our assumed gripes with the nominations while we were still predicting them. Boy, we didn’t know the half of it, did we? While a lot of us were still dreaming a little dream, fantasizing about Pixar pulling through in the clutch and shocking everyone by snatching that last Best Picture spot out from under Frost/Nixon, Academy voters were busy proving that their tastes are stuffier than we could have ever imagined. Anjelina Jolie on roller-skates, screeching “I want my son back,” over Sally Hawkins’ joyous, infectious fits of laughter? Stephen Daldry’s tepidly received (if important looking) The Reader over Christopher Nolan’s audience, critic, and Guild approved The Dark Knight? Were these the Oscars, or its star-fucking little cousin awards, the Golden Globes? Apter question: is there even a difference these days?

So middling are these nominations, so out of sync with the cultural zeitgeist, both in terms of high art triumphs and exemplary Hollywood entertainments, that I considered forgoing my annual guilty-pleasure tradition of dissecting the major categories, playing oddsmaker with eye-brow arched and tongue planted firmly in cheek. Lord knows I’m doing the world no good by going down that well-trod road again, especially in a year with such low, low stakes. But, then, most of the pleasures to be had in this or any other award season spring not only from treating middlebrow prestige pics like the race horses they were designed to be, but from rigorously and righteously eviscerating them. Put another way: silly though it may be, a good rant or rave is the best thing you can really get out of the Academy Awards. And there’s no one I’d rather share this pointless, petty, but wholly enjoyable ritual with than my partner in crime, my neurotic foil, sharply observant yin to my self-consciously contrarian yang. I speak, of course, of Josh Staman, for whom Oscar prognosticating is at once a head and heart game, a total waste of precise time but a linguistically rewarding one. With six days until the Big Event, join us for a rapid-fire discourse on the major categories, which each day yielding two new back-and-forth debates. Fair warning to Slumdog fanatics, though: the party wagon comes to a screeching halt here.

BEST ACTOR
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
BEST ACTRESS
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
BEST DIRECTOR
BEST PICTURE
THE OTHER CATEGORIES

Monday, February 9, 2009

YEAR IN REVIEW: ODDS, ENDS AND FINAL THOUGHTS


We film critics are a nostalgic bunch. Really, how could we not be? To the romantic recollectors, the cinema belongs—if each frame is a snapshot of a dead moment, then what is a movie but a photo album in motion? And it isn't just ancient artifacts that we obsess over. Even recent cinematic history gets us all misty-eyed. Looking back over the previous twelve months, over the euphoric highs and bitter lows experienced in the dark of the cineplex, it's all too easy to chart our own tumultuous timelines against those of the movies we got lost in. For the true lovers of this medium, art doesn't so much imitate life as intersect it, engaging it in some sort of shouting match/pillow talk dialectic.

Feelings get involved. And you have to be mindful of what you do with them. If you're not, a Year End round-up—that most narcissistic of annual film writer pastimes—can read something like a drunken e-mail to an ex-lover: all wistful remembrances (ah, Paranoid Park at midnight), reoccurring regrets (why do I keep going back to you Woody?), and petty blame games (you did this to us, David Gordon Green). Worse even than the fawning hyperboles of a "Best Of" list (see: my thoughts on WALL-E, which, naturally, I still fully stand by) is the self-righteous indignation of a "Worst Of" write up. This is where we film critics really get human. And by human, I mean petty, cruel and vindictive. A “Worst Of” is just a thinly-veiled bitchfest, a chance to air grievances and flex our linguistic muscles at the ones that got our goad. Really, isn't the best revenge living well? Shouldn't sleeping dogs be left to lie? Aren't the truly terrible outgrowths of our coughing, wheezing film culture best simply forgotten?

Yes, naturally, of course, no shit. I remind myself of all that every year, shortly before sharpening my knives and going to work on Eli Roth's latest cine-abortion. They're cathartic, these public hatchet jobs, but are they useful, are they valuable? Not particularly, alas. Which is why, staring down the barrel of this sparkly new year, I'm weaning myself off the ugly (if satisfying) ritual of rearview revenge. In lieu of a straight shot of snarkified listology—A.K.A. my official Worst Movies of the Year—I’m shaking things up a little bit. Here, instead, are 21 superlatives from the year that was, wrapped snugly into one way-past-its-expiration-date posting. Closure, thy name is variety. 2009, I await your pleasures.


Most Welcome Trend:
Return of The Southern Gothic. Repetitive and wholly conventional, respectively, in their unremarkable narrative drives, Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories and Lance Hammer’s Ballast succeed almost entirely on the strength of their richly drawn, deep south milieus. As portraits of very specific environment—economically depressed small towns, stained with ancient bad blood, but redeemed by the bonds of shared cultural history—they feel as intrinsically American as any movies released last year. It’s enough to make you wish that David Gordon Green, whose lyrical influence can be felt in the tone poem sketchiness of these solemn mood pieces, would swagger his way back across the Mason-Dixon line. Speaking of which…

Most Disappointing Trend:
Indie Auteurs Go IndieWood. Hey, I’m all for starving artists making their way up in the world. Gotta get paid, one way or the other. But are the perks of increased visibility worth the compromise of your character, of the very qualities that attracted folks to your work in the first place? George Washington helmer David Gordon Green made not one, but two bids for mainstream credibility in ’08: “prestige indie” bummer Snow Angels and Apatow stoner lark Pineapple Express. Both projects rendered the writer-director’s unique talents nearly invisible. If that wasn’t bad enough, the mini-majors then drafted Peter Sollett, he of 2003’s endearingly scrappy Raising Victor Vargas, to direct colorless, faux-hipster rom-com Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. What’s next, Lynne Ramsey shoots a Diablo Cody script? Lodge Kerrigan does the sequel to Little Miss Sunshine?


Best Unreleased Film:
I’ll be giving this one the front page, full-length treatment in the weeks to come (it just secured distribution through Regent) but for now let it be said that Tokyo Sonata pushes Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s apocalyptic ennui to disarmingly poignant new heights. Not a reinvention so much as a redirection—the Master of Horror’s chilling modern dread is now informing a “real” world, not just the ghost towns of his exemplary genre pictures. Look for it in March.

Critics Say the Darndest Things, Part I: Auteur Theorists Gone Wild!
For me, there’s nothing quite as amusing as watching cinephiles tie themselves in knots trying to rationalize their love of some awkward, stilted, generally awful filmic fiasco. It’s a particular gas when Sarris’ good ol’ auteur theory gets dusted off to lend a hand. Blind reverence has to be the driving force behind Gran Torino‘s baffling success. Clint Eastwood, doing his best Archie Bunker impersonation, growls and scowls his way through a Haggisian race drama. Any other old salt behind the camera, and those across-the-board bad performances, broad-as-a-barn characterizations, and climatic Jesus Christ pose would be decried as the deficiencies that they are. But with Clint manning the boards, they’re just the price you pay for his unfettered true grit. (Dude does, like, one take. Cut him some slack.) I’m sorry, but if I want to see this living legend “interrogate” his weathered tough-guy routine, I’ll pop in Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby. Here, I’m afraid, he’s just slipping into self-parody. Grrrrrrrrrrr.

Best Double Dipper:
This one’s a no-brainer. Gus Van Sant has always played the “one for them, one for me” game, alternating between mainstream and fringe efforts, hunting good will one year and elephants the next. He’s proved adept at both vocations, but in 2008, he did us all two better. Hypnotic passion project Paranoid Park felt like the thrilling culmination of Van Sant’s art-house career, a demonstration of everything he’s learned in twenty years about mood and atmosphere and youth and the weight of human mortality. Milk, on the other hand, emerged as the crowning achievement of Van Sant’s “populist” oeuvre, a deeply moving and wholly accessible ode to radical social upheaval. It was a personal best year for this constantly evolving iconoclast. If this is the quality of the output, let’s hope he keeps toeing the line between personal statement and Hollywood craft.

Worst Double Dipper:
I’m tempted to direct my scorn at Clint Eastwood, everyone’s favorite aging journeyman, whose bland Changeling and laughably awful Gran Torino (there it is again!) essentially proved my running assertion that Old Squints is exactly as good—no better or worse—than his material. But those crimes were misdemeanors when compared to the rock-bottom double feature Woody Allen cooked up in ‘08. First there was the awesomely incompetent Cassandra’s Dream, which married Match Point’s tedious, Dostoevsky-Lite moral quandaries to a completely out-of-touch portrait of British working-class desperation. Less irrelevant but way more offensive was Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which the aging lecher finally got around to summarizing his retrograde notions RE: femininity, reducing the whole of womankind to three thin archetypes: the flake, the prude, and the feisty nutjob. They all just need a deep dicking from Javier Bardem’s unflappably cool, man’s man artiste. This from the guy who’s built a reputation on being “good at writing women?”


Best Re-release:
A vital precursor to the puzzle-box cinemas of Lynch and his ilk, Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961) haunted inner city art houses last spring like some ghostly transmission from an alternate film past. Scenes pulse and churn in a dreamlike haze, repeated phrases poetically entwine with visual motifs, and a horror movie score drones on and on. This may be the closest movies have ever come to reproducing the elusive and confounding nature of human memory. A gloriously tangled nightmare, Marienbad pretty much demands repeat viewings. If only Criterion would stop dragging ass on that DVD release…

The Apocalypse Will Not Be Televised:
Cannily constructing an end-of-days nightmare from the lingering specter of 9/11, Matt Reeves’ digital creature feature Cloverfield was of dubious moral and cultural value—it evokes the look, sound, and awful feelings of that dark day just to infuse its Event Movie proceedings with vicarious aftershocks of remembered dread. Still, it was better than George Romero’s wretched Diary of the Dead, which not only failed to drum up even the smallest ounce of suspense, but also announced its dated “message” about YouTube-era info consumption with about as much subtly as a rampaging lizard monster.

Most Underrated Movie of the Year:
We all kind of know what the most overrated movie of the year is (it is written, to coin a phrase) but what of the most underrated? I’m going to go with Adam Brooks’ Definitely, Maybe, a surprisingly smart and genuinely sweet romantic comedy left for dead by audiences and critics about one year ago. Brooks deftly sidesteps most of the pitfalls of the modern rom-com, valuing sharp conversation over saccharine clichés. And his leading ladies—Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, and 2008’s hardest working actress, Elizabeth Banks—are not just strikingly gorgeous, but also reasonably well-drawn, nuanced even. I also dig the Clinton campaign through-line, which subtly suggests how political ups-and-down often dovetail with personal ones. Hell, mounds of extra points awarded for making Ryan Reynolds more than just tolerable. Here, he’s (gasp!) damn near charming. Hardly high art, but in the dark age of McConaughey, McDreamy, and Marley the Dog, this was the rarest of rare pleasures.


Stupidest Movie Confused For a Smart One:
Tell No One is a French film, complete with accents and subtitles and everything. Surely that must be why everyone seems to think it’s a razor-sharp art thriller and not totally inane schlock. Of the various warning signs that the movie you’re watching may in fact be silly boilerplate, my favorite is a dramatic setpiece in an internet café (!) where director Guillaume Canet does everything short of superimposing an arrow to remind you of the leashed-up canine outside. Did I mention the whole scene is set to U2’s “With or Without You”? Tell No One even ends with the hoariest of whodonit clichés: the killer who explains his entire scheme to both the hero and the audience. The inevitable American remake, sans any lingering traces of Frenchness, will likely get the sort of scoffing derision this one truly deserved.

Smartest Movie Confused For a Stupid One:
Saddled with a trailer that basically strung together every Sam Jackson line from the movie into one smirking, cackling, context-free clip reel (“I’m the poleece, you have to do what I say!”) Lakeview Terrace was the year’s most tragic casualty of terrible mis-marketing. What looked like a trashy thriller about a black boogieman cop and the nice, clean-cut couple he harasses turned out to be a far more complicated and probing examination of racial politics in post-Rodney King Los Angeles. In other words, rather than pulling a Haggis, writer-director Neil LaBute reclaimed some of the provocative gravity of his first feature, 1997’s In the Company of Men. Still, I’ll grant the naysayers this: the Training Day ending is monumentally stupid.

Best Retrospective Screening:
It’s pretty amazing that, with the proliferation of DVD, there are still filmmakers whose work is completely unavailable for public consumption. Such is the fate that befalls so many of our avant garde trailblazers. I was enormously lucky to be one of the few who attended this past summer’s Bruce Baillie retrospective at Doc Films here in Chicago. Startlingly humane, his docu-sketches (poems more often than short-stories) both mourn and celebrate the people and the places that time has all but forgotten. Read more about this true original here and consider buying one of his self-produced DVDs here.

Best Line of the Year:
"Why are you doing this to me?" That’s a corn rolled Mena Suvari, improbably deflecting blame onto the poor schmuck sticking out of her windshield (a hilariously incredulous Stephen Rea). She hit the guy on a drunken joyride and now he’s actually got the impertinent gall to keep living. Suvari’s harried and relentless guilt dodging is the dark comic crux of Stuart Gordon’s Stuck, perfectly encapsulated by that naggingly selfish query. Just as funny: Rea’s wordless reaction.

Worst Line of the Year:
“What the fuck have you done lately?” asks James McAvoy’s wimp-turned-badass at the blessed, thank-God-it’s-finally-over conclusion of Wanted. The skinny heartthrob has just transformed his life by putting a bullet in someone’s head. What he wants to know is why we’re still living our boring little mundane lives, going to shitty summer movies when we could be using the world as our own personal shooting gallery. Via this summative line, the message couldn’t be more fascistically clear: it’s better to be a cold-blooded murderer than a dickless loser.


Critics Say the Darndest Things, Part 2: Masters of Disasters!
Some movies are such colossal failures—so wildly ambitious in their miscalculation, so far-reaching in their wrongheadedness—that they’re veritably destined to be misunderstood as misunderstood. Last year’s shitstorm of choice, championed by critics looking to get in early on the next Showgirls or Femme Fatale, was Richard Kelly’s supernova of bad ideas Southland Tales. This year, the torch has been passed to the Wachowskis, whose Speed Racer has already been reappraised by some as a kind of big-budget avant garde experiment. Let’s be clear now: jumping around in time, wiping the screen with moving faces, swirling a bunch of neon colors and flashy things into a seizure-inducing rave party—these do not qualify as “avant garde” signifiers. You want “experimental” cinema, check some of the stuff this guy pimps. Speed Racer is just a failed Hollywood blockbuster, as married to convention as any other eye-candy summer spectacle, twice as boring and three times as brain-dead as those dreadful Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. The bizarro touches are just useless appendages of this franchise-launcher gone wrong. If this is indeed the “future of cinema,” I look forward to devoting my time and energies to the early work of Eadweard Muybridge.

Worst Documentary:
G.J. Echternkamp’s Frank & Cindy, in a walk. Not since American Movie have I seen a documentary so shamelessly engineered to exploit its subjects. And even Chris Smith didn’t so fragrantly cop to his seedy intentions, nor was he making a mockery of his own damaged family. The moment where this cynical and opportunistic little shit loans money to his insecure mother on camera (the noble saint!) sent shivers of disgust through me. Small consolation: the movie scarcely made a blip on the cultural radar, and G.J.’s not exactly fighting off the Hollywood suits with a stick.

Best Documentary:
I saw Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter To a Son About His Father not one week after posting my Year In Review. Had I caught it earlier, I’d have been singing its praises alongside the rest of last year’s cream of the cinematic crop. In sharp contrast to 2008’s worst documentary, its best was conceived first and foremost as a loving tribute. That it eventually evolved into so much more—harrowing true crime drama, social outrage polemic, colorful road movie—is a testament to the strange way that a documentarian can find his full story as he’s filming it. Totally devastating from start to finish, this should be required viewing for all budding nonfiction filmmakers, especially those with little more than a wounded heart and a commercial-grade camera at their disposal.


Best Animated Mix-Modes Documentary:
That’d be Brett Morgan’s Chicago 10, which crosscuts grainy found footage of the ’68 Chicago riots with rotoscoped recreations of the subsequent farce of a trial. The anachronistic music choices—who needs flower power when you’ve got guerilla radio?—draw a straight-line parallel between 60s activism and our current era’s lack thereof. Like Milk, this one stresses the need for a leader, a symbol and a mouthpiece for the movement. Is Obama as good as it gets or is there another Abbie Hoffman waiting in the wings? (The runner up in this category, by the way, would be Ari Folman’s troubling Waltz With Bashir, partially by virtue of its conceits about defensively selective memory, but mostly because it’s the only other animated mixed-modes documentary that came out last year. Take that, Andrew Sarris.)

I Still Don’t Fucking Know:
Eleven years and one shot-for-shot remake later, and I still don’t fucking know whether to praise or condemn Michael Haneke’s sick puppy social experiment Funny Games. It’s like the film’s various champions and detractors are waging war in my head. Is it a brilliant deconstruction of the way we watch violent thrillers, or a finger-wagging lecture from a cruelly sadistic hypocrite? Every time I lean towards the latter opinion I find myself recalling how handily Haneke played me on first viewing, how I responded exactly as he intended me to. That kind of masterful manipulation—not to mention the subsequent reflections it might provoke—is worthy of some kind of admiration, right? Regardless, Funny Games is far more terrifying than the lion share’s of the thrillers it savages. How’s that for irony?


Worst Movie of the Year:
So much for shaking things up. I just couldn’t close the book on ’08 without taking one last clean shot at the year’s most sick and ugly and reprehensible cultural excretion. It’d be easy enough to write Rambo off as just exceedingly grisly and stupid action movie entertainment, a throwback to when high-adrenaline genre fare still delivered the visceral goods, were it not for the film’s dead-serious opening moments. Stallone begins his belated retread with actual atrocity footage, quick-cuts of gruesome newsreel, an immediate reminder of the horrors happening every day all over the planet. The real-world prologue forces us to take this shit seriously, so when Sly starts piling on the staged grotesqueries (women repeatedly raped, children bayoneted, babies tossed in raging infernos) it’s exceptionally hard to get stoked about the impending army-of-one retribution he’s cynically setting the stages for. I like hard-edged, R-rated mayhem as much as the next guy, but if folks can shrug off the notion of genocide as a damn McGuffin, maybe Joe Lieberman’s right after all: we are desensitized.

21 Reasons to Get Back on the Horse in 09:
Almodóvar, Bigelow, Breillat, Campion, the Dardennes, Denis, Egoyan, Gilliam, Herzog, Hillcoat, R. Johnson, Jonze, Lee, Linklater, Mann, McQueen, Miike, Scorsese, von Trier, those wizards at Pixar, and (maybe, hopefully, fingers crossed) Malick.