Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oscars 2011: That's an (almost) Wrap

Gah! I am so behind now on all of this. As you've probably already figured out, I didn't live-blog this year's ceremony, and I only barely made it home in time after work to watch it. And I didn't even get my Best Picture post up before the ceremony (it's still in the works - it'll be up sometime this week). One day I'll be able to do this regularly again. I promise.

As for the ceremony itself, it was snappy, as promised, but still over two-and-a-half hours. Billy Crystal never fails to make me laugh, so I rather enjoyed his hosting. The direction was odd all night long, especially in the Cirque du Soleil number: it was impressive but confusing. Why not just do a wide shot so we could see everything? Oh, and I'm officially starting a campaign for Emma Stone to host next year's show. Who's in?

Here's a complete list of winners. Hugo and The Artist owned the night, with five Oscars each. 'Twas the year to celebrate the history of cinema, after all.

BEST PICTURE
The Artist


So for the first time since the first Academy Awards way back in 1928, a silent film has prevailed in Best Picture. Going into the night, it's win seemed sort of inevitable, though for a while it looked like Hugo might pull off the upset. If I'm correct, this is also the first time that a French film has ever won Best Picture. And of course, The Weinstein Company gets to add yet another trophy to its growing cabinet.

BEST ACTRESS
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady


After nearly three decades, Streep has finally won a third Oscar, tying her with Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, and Jack Nicholson for the second-most acting Oscars of all time. Though I didn't think this was her best performance, it has fulfilled a desire of mine to see Streep win an Oscar in my lifetime (her last win was in 1982 for Sophie's Choice; I was born in 1989). And her acceptance speech was, as always, magnificent. The question now is: can she tie (or, gasp, beat) Katharine Hepburn's record four Oscars?

BEST ACTOR
Jean Dujardin, The Artist


Dujardin is the first Frenchman to win this award as well (overall, it was a good night for France). He's also the first performer to win an Oscar for a (mostly) silent performance since 1928 (I think...), which makes it all the more interesting. He didn't go full Benigni accepting his award, but he was clearly overjoyed, and hopefully we'll see more of him in the future on American screens (by which I mean, more French - and foreign in general - imports, please!).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Octavia Spencer, The Help


There's no real surprise here: Spencer had this one pretty much locked up before the night began. But damn if she didn't just about move me to tears with her speech, clearly overwhelmed by the fact that she won. And good for her: she earned it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christopher Plummer, Beginners


"You're only two years older than me; where have you been all my life?" I think that pretty much sums up how outrageous it is that Plummer is only now receiving his first Oscar. At 82 years old, he is officially the oldest acting Oscar winner ever. And if you haven't seen Beginners, go out and see it now.

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist


If I'm right, Hazanavicius is the first French director to win this prize, and even though he won the DGA award, it still comes as a bit of a surprise, seeing as how many assumed that Martin Scorsese (everyone take a shot!) would win this prize. But just as we foolishly assumed David Fincher would prevail over Tom Hooper last year, it was Hazanavicius who charmingly accepted the prize.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Descendants; screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash


I'm going to be honest with you: I enjoyed their mocking of Angelina Jolie's ridiculous stance while presenting the award, but I was really hoping Rash would drop a "Save Community!" in there somewhere. This was, of course, the front-runner to win, and ended up being The Descendants' only prize of the night.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Midnight in Paris; written by Woody Allen


Woody Allen is the only person they'll give an Oscar to knowing full well that he won't be showing up to accept it in person. Although here's a fun fact: every time one of his films has been nominated for Best Picture, it's won a screenplay prize. And this is the first time since 2004 that the Best Picture winner did not win an Oscar for writing (Million Dollar Baby lost the Adapted Screenplay prize to Sideways, which was written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor).

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Rango

I was personally rooting for an upset by Chico & Rita, but Rango was a lot of fun, and probably truly deserved it.

BEST ART DIRECTION
Hugo; production design by Dante Ferretti, set decoration by Francesca Lo Schiavo

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Robert Richardson, Hugo

Richardson won his third Oscar for this film, but I still think Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life) was robbed. When will the Academy finally recognize his genius?

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Mark Bridges, The Artist

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Undefeated

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Saving Face

BEST FILM EDITING
Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

With their wins, Baxter and Wall are the first editors since Ralph Dawson (1935/1936) to win consecutive Oscars in this category. Given this category's reputation as Best Picture Minor, the win here further convinces me that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would have been the 10th nominee in Best Picture this year.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A Separation, Iran

I'm actually very surprised that this won, given 1) that frontrunners rarely actually prevail in this category and 2) the political drama going on with Iran right now. Unfortunately, though he accepted the prize, the Oscar won't actually be going to writer/director Asghar Fahardi, but to Iran, a government that imprisons and censors its filmmakers. I'm sure it's a great movie, but I'm against this win in principle.

BEST MAKEUP
Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland, The Iron Lady

I just want to call attention to the fact that The Iron Lady went two-for-two Sunday night.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Ludovic Bource, The Artist

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Man or Muppet," music and lyric by Bret McKenzie; The Muppets

When a professor mentioned this one in a class Monday morning, McKenzie's affiliation with Flight of the Concords drew a surprising amount of cheers. The beloved cult show lives on.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM
The Shore

BEST SOUND EDITING
Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, Hugo

BEST SOUND MIXING
Tom Fleischman and John Midgley, Hugo

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and Alex Henning, Hugo

I'm sorry, but this one belonged to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Those apes were so perfect looking! And as a final note, the Harry Potter series came to a close with a total of 12 nominations and 0 wins across six of the eight films (Order of the Phoenix and Chamber of Secrets got zilch).

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscarpalooza 2011: Best Actress

This year's Best Actress competition was one of the strongest in recent memory, with Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk about Kevin), Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaur), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Adepero Oduye (Pariah), Charlize Theron (Young Adult), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), and Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) all being left out, despite being strong contenders. Instead, it was these five women that Oscar favored.

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

It's actually rather remarkable to think that this is Close's first nomination since 1988's Dangerous Liasions, after she practically dominated the '80s in nominations (she never won, however). This film was a passion project of hers, yet she turns in a performance that is rather baffling on the surface: she's extremely blank, eliciting very little emotion and often seeming like a corpse freshly reanimated. However, I think she's doing some very intelligent work: Nobbs is supposed to be standoffish and, well, invisible, a woman who disguises herself as a man but hasn't truly embraced her identity (though, in the 19th century, did any such identity really exist yet? Was there a place in society for someone like her?). Its not as great as most of her other nominated performances, nor would I have given her a nomination, but it's still fine work in a somewhat misunderstood film.

Viola Davis, The Help

If you're following my Oscars of the Aughts project (side note: 2005 begins this summer), then you know how much I loved Davis in Doubt, enough to give her the Supporting Actress Oscar for eight minutes of screentime. So she could elevate a movie with a single scene; it shouldn't have been such a surprise that she could elevate The Help into something that distinguished it from similarly-themed films. Davis' Aibileen is the heart and soul of the film, and she imbues her with such pain and such fierce parental instincts that its impossible to take your eyes off her. Its impossible to imagine anyone else handling this role as well as she does. As she says to the child she takes care of in the film, "You is smart...you is kind...you is important." In Davis' case, she should add "phenomenal" and "Oscar-winner" to the list.

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The problem with starring in an American remake of a foreign film - or a remake in general - is that there are going to be inevitable comparisons of the different actors' performances. And Mara, upon the film's release, earned some somewhat negative comparisons to Noomi Rapace's take on Lisbeth Salandar in the Swedish films. This, to me, is unfair, because the two films are taking different perspectives on the source material, and each actress brought something different to the table. Mara, who practically stole The Social Network with her two scenes as Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend Erica, plays Lisbeth as a vulnerable girl who's trying her hardest to make it out of a system that's hellbent on destroying her. She's brilliant, she's antisocial, but she's not without humanity; she just needs a kindred spirit like Mikel Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to be with her. Its a fascinating performance, and it establishes Mara as an actress to keep an eye on in the future. She's unlikely to win this year, but I wouldn't bet against her coming back one day.

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Her nomination was pretty much inevitable from the moment she signed on to play former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the staunch conservative who both captivated and was later reviled by her people and her party. But that didn't mean that Streep would be slacking off: she gives the expected terrific performance, mimicking Thatcher's vocal tics and mannerisms while still finding layers of the character for us to feel sympathy for (no easy task considering). It's not her best work, but it's good enough to elevate the otherwise-wildly-uneven film out of mediocrity. She still could win her third career Oscar for this role, but I'm guessing they might wait another year or two for her to really deliver something astounding.

Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Like Streep, Williams was pretty much assured a nomination from the moment she decided to play Marilyn Monroe. And she does a fine job at giving an impression of the famed star, nailing both the voice and the mannerisms (the hip swivel) perfectly. But the problem with playing Monroe is that you can only really give an impression; Monroe was playing herself her entire life, and its really difficult to say what she was really thinking or doing at any given moment. So it's not surprising that even an actress of Williams' caliber would be reduced to just, really, going through the motions. She could pull off a surprising upset, but I highly doubt this is the role that will win her her first Oscar.

My personal ballot:
1. Viola Davis, The Help
2. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
3. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
4. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
5. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Predicted winner: Viola Davis
Spoiler: Meryl Streep
Dark Horse: Michelle Williams

Friday, February 24, 2012

Oscarpalooza 2011: Best Supporting Actress

This year proved to be a boon for actresses, with a number of great performances in both lead and supporting roles. In fact, the lineup in Supporting Actress is packed with excellent work, and still manages to leave out Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus), and Carey Mulligan (Shame). Not to mention that, for the fourth year in a row, two actresses from the same movie have been nominated in this category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Berenice Bejo, The Artist

You could really argue that Bejo's nomination is a case of category fraud: she is given nearly equal screentime as co-star Jean Dujardin, and she is technically a co-lead or, perhaps, even the lead herself. But no matter how you label it, there's no denying that Bejo's performance is remarkable. The Argentinian actress - who frequently appears in Michel Hazanavicius' films - plays Peppy Miller, who through Dujardin's George Valentin becomes a movie star herself, flourishing by embracing the sound age that Valentin so fatefully rejects. She brings charisma and energy to the screen, and she never lets George go, eventually returning the favor that he had done for her. And she, too, is a terrific dancer. Should The Artist go for the sweep, then Bejo will likely win this prize, but she's got tough competition.

Jessica Chastain, The Help

What a year Chastain had, huh? She appeared in no less than six different movies, two of them Best Picture nominees (The Help and The Tree of Life). When you survey the roles, it seems obvious that she would be nominated for The Help (rather than The Tree of Life, in which I thought she gave a better performance): her Celia Foote is the film's comic relief, and yet she still manages to imbue this character with soul and pathos. I've had my complaints about The Help, but Celia is an example of one of the film's stronger aspects: she, too, is an outcast from Jackson society, a poor girl who married into money but still can never "belong." Chastain plays this notion perfectly in the scene where Celia tries to join the Bridge Club; the look of rejection in her eyes as they ignore her stings. Perhaps its because I come from a small town where if you weren't born there, you'll never belong, but this resonated with me. Her co-star Octavia Spencer is more likely to win, but I'm sure we'll see Chastain back here soon enough: she's got nearly a dozen projects in the works now.

Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

The last outright comedic performance to be nominated for an Oscar (and please, feel free to argue this) was Robert Downey, Jr.'s surprising Supporting Actor nod for 2008's Tropic Thunder. Its a shame the Oscars don't recognize more great comedic performances, but when they do, they usually pick something truly special. And McCarthy is nothing short of fantastic as Megan, an unhinged, in-your-face woman who may just be socially anxious, but provides the film with heart and a voice of reason for Kristen Wiig's Annie. McCarthy has always been a gifted performer, and here she sells it all, often improvising her lines and creating a full, multi-dimensional character we can actually like (she's like a more realistic and human version of Zach Galifinakis' character from The Hangover, minus the roofies). Its unlikely that she'll win, but its fantastic to see her nominated.

Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs

If you want to see an example of how to complete steal a movie, just watch McTeer in Albert Nobbs. Her Hubert Page, a woman who dresses as a man to maintain work as a painter in 19th century Dublin, is a fierce, self-assured character, sympathize with Glenn Close's Albert Nobbs and her (his?) plight. Page is confident where Nobbs is passive, and McTeer - the only actress in this category with a previous nomination - takes on the role with a vivacious and bold gusto that leads to her stealing every scene she's in. She plays Page as a woman who has accepted who she is, and though knowing that its against the social norms of the times, does whatever it takes to maintain her lifestyle. With any justice, it will be her taking to the podium Sunday night, but given the film's weak reception, it's not likely to happen.

Octavia Spencer, The Help

Among the maids in The Help, where Viola Davis' Aibileen is the dramatic heart and soul of the film, Spencer's Minnie is both the comic relief and the defensive, wounded soul. Minnie is faced with abuse both at work and at home, and Spencer plays her marvolously as a woman who is scared but defensive, having given up on fair treatment but always hoping that it will one day come. She also brings a significant dose of comedy to the film, such as her interactions with flighty Celia or, in the film's most memorable moment, her "special" pie for queen-bee Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Spencer, who works as both an actress and as a casting director in Hollywood, gives a phenomenal performance, one that she's already won an ton of raves for. Come Oscar night, I imagine she'll win one more.

My personal ballot:
1. Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
2. Octavia Spencer, The Help
3. Berenice Bejo, The Artist
4. Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
5. Jessica Chastain, The Help

Predicted winner: Octavia Spencer
Spoiler: Berenice Bejo
Dark Horse: Melissa McCarthy

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oscarpalooza 2011: Best Actor

I'm actually really excited about Best Actor this year. I was impressed by the strength of this category last year, and this year's is even better. Sure, there are some noticeable snubs: Michael Fassbender (Shame), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) and Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March and Drive, take your pick) were all worthy of recognition as well.*  But overall this is a great lineup.

*Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) was considered a snub as well, but if you actually saw that awful performance, you'd understand why I was glad the Academy passed over it.

BEST ACTOR
Demian Bichir, A Better Life

Bichir's visibility in Hollywood was already on the rise before he did A Better Life, having earned raves on Showtime's Weeds and in Steven Soderbergh's Che. But it was in this small, little-discussed indie (directed by Twilight: New Moon's Chris Weitz, returning to his social-drama roots) that Bichir really shines. As an illegal immigrant day laborer trying to provide for his son while keeping him out of East LA's gangs, he shows a deep affection and desperation to make the American dream work for them, knowing full well that it could all go wrong at any moment. When it does, Bichir delivers what may have been the most heartbreaking moment of the admittedly-uneven film, tearfully saying goodbye to his son. His nomination took many by surprise, but he's entirely worthy of it, elevating his film with every moment he's on screen. Take note, Hollywood: here's a real talent.

George Clooney, The Descendants

Clooney's Matt King has a lot on his plate: his wife is in a coma after a boating accident, and he's trying to relate and take care of his two daughters whom he's never really connected with. Then he discovers that his wife had been carrying on an affair before the accident. On top of all this, he has to make a decision on whether to sell his family's large piece of Hawaiian real estate, feeling the pressure from various family members. It should come of no surprise that Clooney plays all of this fantastically; he's convincingly torn by everything happening around him, and he hits the emotional beats perfectly as an alpha male knocked down a few notches. But its also the kind of role Clooney does in his sleep. He's a safe bet to win the prize this year, but I do kind of wish he'd pick up his second Oscar for something a little more special than this.

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

When I saw The Artist a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with the two elderly women that were sitting next to me. One of them, in reference to Dujardin's performance as George Valentin, said, "I thought he had a Douglas Fairbanks quality to him." I'd say she's got a great point. Dujardin is effortlessly charming, and he plays this role with such conviction, arrogant at the top of his fame only to fall to lows that were unimaginable to him, and he conveys all of this without saying a single word. Not only does he ham it up, but he also proves himself to be a pretty magnificent dancer, as well as a skilled comedian and dramatist. He's Clooney's strongest competition for this prize, and he could take the prize should The Artist go on a roll Sunday night. Unless, of course, the Academy remembers the last time they gave Best Actor to a charming European.

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Can you believe this is only Oldman's first nomination? Even so, it couldn't have come for a better role. Oldman's famous for his scenery-chewing acting style, but in playing George Smiley, he dials it all the way back to 1, a stoic cipher of a man who's been in MI6 long enough to know better than to trust anyone. Hunting for a mole that's selling British intelligence to the Soviets, he doesn't so much drive the action so much as react to everyone around him, quietly observing them and taking note of anything suspicious. Still, he's not completely impenetrable; just notice the wounded glint in his eyes when he sees his wife at the office party. This is the kind of performance that Oscar, often confusing "best" with "most," rarely nominates, so it's even more special for Oldman to be in this lineup. He's a longshot for a win, but now he can end his membership in the Overdue Club (new president: Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Brad Pitt, Moneyball

There have been many, many pieces over the past few years (or decades, even) about the "death of the movie star," how movie stars just don't exist anymore. Pitt is a notable exception. And in Moneyball, he finds a role that he can really sink his teeth into and even relate to. Yes, Pitt has delivered several great performances in the past, but none of those quite match the charisma, the positivity, and the soul he brings to Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland A's baseball team. Forever the underdog, Beane is struggling to keep his team afloat, and when he decides to take a risk on an unproven mathematical formula for building a better team, he's written off immediately. And yet he keeps fighting, keeps pushing forward and testing boundaries, all in search of glory. Sound a bit familiar? It's hard to imagine anyone but Pitt taking this role, and he uses it to deliver the best performance of his career. With any luck, he'll rightfully take to the podium in a few nights for his first Oscar.

My personal ballot:
1. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
2. Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
3. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
4. Demian Bichir, A Better Life
5. George Clooney, The Descendants

Probable winner: George Clooney
Spoiler: Jean Dujardin
Dark Horse: Brad Pitt

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscarpalooza 2011: Supporting Actor

The Academy really decided to go for the veterans this year in Best Supporting Actor, with only one nominee under 50 and earning his first nomination (Jonah Hill). And only one of these gentlemen had received a nomination in the past decade (Christopher Plummer, in 2009). Also notable is who was left out: Albert Brooks, whom many considered a sure thing for Drive.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn

When you stop and think about it, it makes sense that only Branagh could have been cast as legendary actor/director Sir Laurence Olivier. Just as Olivier was a Shakespearean master, so is Branagh, and you can feel the latter channeling the former all throughout My Week with Marilyn. He steals just about every scene he's in, as well as delivering the best lines of the film ("Its like teaching Urdu to a badger!"). And despite the wafer-thin lightness of the film, he still manages to sneak in some pathos, knowing full well that his caliber of talent is far above Marilyn's and that he shouldn't have to be doing this. Though its unlikely that he'll win, the nomination alone for Branagh is certainly deserving.

Jonah Hill, Moneyball

I'm going to be completely honest here: if you had told me a year ago (hell, five months ago) that we would be using the phrase "Oscar nominee Jonah Hill," I probably would have laughed it off. This isn't to say I didn't think he was a good actor; Superbad is testament enough to his casual comic brilliance. But then he took the role of Peter Brandt, a nerdy mathematician who helps Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) develop the theory of sabermetrics, and showed a completely new side of himself. He's mostly relegated to the background, but he matches the soul that Pitt brings, and compliments his performance while still forming his unique voice and presence. He's a longshot to win, but hopefully we'll see more of Hill's dramatic side in the future.

Nick Nolte, Warrior

Warrior is a surprising film: you don't expect much from it, but man, does it come up and really knock you out emotionally. Of course, leads Joel Edgarton and Tom Hardy are a major part of the film's success, but it's Nolte who really makes those gut punches hit hard. As the sobered-up, Melville-loving father of these two men, Nolte brings a lot of pathos as he tries to mend his relationship with both of them, only to find himself being turned down and spited with every attempt. He's a broken man just trying to make good, and Nolte - you can see a lot of himself in the role - pours everything he's got into it. Given the film's small reception, it's almost a miracle that Nolte managed to get a nomination, but he earns it with this performance.

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Plummer has had a long career full of incredible performances, but none are quite like what he brings to Beginners. As a newly-out man dying of cancer, Plummer takes what could have been a drab role and plays it vivaciously, never letting us forget Hal's humanity and newfound lust for life. At the same time, he still brings gravity to the role, and his bonding with son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is never short of touching. His was hands-down the best supporting performance of the year, and barring any major surprises, Plummer will be making his way to the stage Sunday night to collect his first Oscar.

Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Yes, the nomination is surprising. But not because of Sydow's performance. In a role that is completely silent, his portrayal of "the Renter" relies completely on his body language and the dense gravity that he's brought to every role in his career. It's remarkable to see the legendary actor still working in peak form, and he's certainly the best part of the (rather unfairly, personally) critically-lambasted film. The film's reception is the reason his nomination is surprising. But he's more than worthy of it.

My personal ballot:
1. Christopher Plummer, Beginners
2. Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
3. Nick Nolte, Warrior
4. Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
5. Jonah Hill, Moneyball

Predicted winner: Christopher Plummer
Spoiler: Max von Sydow (I doubt this will happen, but stranger things...)
Dark Horse: Jonah Hill (if they suddenly go nuts for Moneyball)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Oscarpalooza 2011: Director

Part two of the annual Oscarpalooza is the Best Director category, which this year has its fair share of living legends, including Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, who move past Steven Spielberg with their seventh nominations in this category each to become the most honored living directors.

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

In terms of directoral flair, he's the most gimmicky nominee: The Artist is a silent film made with the same lighting, aspect ratio, and film stock as the silents of the 1920s, but managed to sneak in some knowing references and callbacks to that era as well. Don't take my use of "gimmicky" to be a bad thing, though. Hazanavicius has crafted a delightful and charming film that, without any previous knowledge, could very well be mistaken for a long-lost treasure from the silent era. Its clear that he has an intimate knowledge of the language of cinema, and he's used it well to captivate and entertain plenty of audiences. At this point, he's the frontrunner to win, and its easy to see why.

Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Look, I like Payne. And I liked The Descendants. But there was something about this film that felt very distinctly...off. Sure, it had the hallmarks of a Payne film: the mix of organic, character-based comedy and deeply moving drama, the remarkable sense of place, the periphery characters that are just as likely to break your heart as the leads. But it's hard to watch the film and really feel like he was putting his best effort into it. Its still fine work, but compared with some of the other contenders this year (and especially his own filmography), it just wasn't the strongest. Hopefully he'll avoid any more seven-year breaks between films.

Martin Scorsese, Hugo

I don't think any of us here are going to contend the fact that Scorsese is a living legend. But let's also take the time to admit that the man is not without his faults. Hugo is a strange film to me. On the one hand, I love that Scorsese is adventurous enough this late in his career to take on various projects that don't exactly typify a "Martin Scorsese film," such as this family film, a horror film (Shutter Island), and spiritual films (1997's Kundun is very underrated). Knowing Scorsese's personal history, its no surprise he chose this story of a young boy who becomes involved with some of the fathers of cinema. But that's just the thing: he doesn't seem particularly interested in telling that story, instead devoting himself to making a history lesson on the birth of cinema and an advertisement for film preservation. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's never integrated in a way that really works, and instead the film seems to cast story to the side. Scorsese's still doing great work here, but it never lives up to the potential that it could have been, and it's a misfire on his behalf. That said, he's a strong contender to pick up his second Oscar this year.

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

There's been a lot of talk about how hit-or-miss Allen's filmography has become, especially in the past decade, but when you're as prolific as he is - turning out one film per year - you're bound to have your share of misfires. But something about Paris brought out some of his best. He's working with some difficult themes here, and he charms you with his 1920s intelligentsia and artistic figures that its actually easy to miss the melancholy underneath: nostalgia is fine, but it can also be detrimental. The same could be said of his career. But this truly is his finest work in several years, and he's been rewarded with his first nomination since 1994's Bullets Over Broadway. He stands a better chance at winning in Original Screenplay, but its always great to see a legend working in fine form again.

 
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

No director this year made a film that matches the scope and ambition of Malick's The Tree of Life. A passion project that he'd supposedly been working on for over 30 years, the film combined recollections of his childhood growing up in Texas in the 1950s with nothing less than the entire history of the universe, all while ruminating on the ideas of nature and spirituality. Malick is more than just a director; he's a cinematic philosopher, and here he meditates on the concepts of Nature and Grace and how they pull all of the universe together. The most remarkable thing about this, though, is how he makes it work (almost) perfectly, creating a near-masterpiece of cinema that will be discussed among film scholars for years to come. He likely won't take home the Oscar Sunday night, but he's the most deserving of these five by a long shot.

My personal ballot:
1. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
2. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
3. Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
4. Martin Scorsese, Hugo
5. Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Predicted winner: Michel Hazanavicius
Spoiler: Martin Scorsese
Dark Horse: Woody Allen

Monday, February 20, 2012

TEJ's Oscarpalooza 2011: Screenplays

Unfortunately, I have to begin this year's Oscar preview with a sad note (at least, a sad note for me): for the first time since 2008, I was unable to see all of the nominees in the major categories. A Separation didn't open in time for me to include it in this preview, and though I hope it will open around here this weekend - it is on one theater's schedule, but only as "coming soon" - I don't necessarily think it will. So please forgive it's absence from this list today; I can't judge it 'till I see it, you know.

As for how Oscarpalooza works: each day this week I'll roll out another major category, culminating in Best Picture on Sunday morning followed by the live-blog on Sunday night. Won't you join us for all the Oscar love this week?

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Descendants; screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Descendants has won a startling number of awards for its screenplay, and is the easy frontrunner to win this prize come Oscar night. And for good reason: the script draws out these characters very well, and it manages to bring a lot of different plots together in a way that feels organic. But without Payne's direction and the genuinely terrific ensemble, this is some highly overwrought work, with scenes that feel way too melodramatic that you can see how, in lesser hands, this could have been a disaster. It's a good screenplay, but I wouldn't call it the best, especially not of these five.

 Hugo; screenplay by John Logan (based on the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick)

Hugo is another film who's screenplay I find problematic. When you consider that he was working from a graphic novel that was heavy on the illustrations, this is quite a feat. But what bothered me the most about the film was the way that it seemed disinterested in the story it was telling and more concerned with teaching the importance of film preservation. As such, the script feels like it's had those moments jammed into it, while the story falls to the wayside. The dialogue, too, is a bit heavy-handed at times, which makes the whole thing feel even more forced. It's not bad, but it still feels like a disappointment.

The Ides of March; screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon)

It's no secret that I really loved this movie, and I'm still disappointed that this was the film's only nomination. But it's greatness began here at the script level: richly drawn characters, superb drama, and all the various twists and turns and betrayals that make a great political thriller. Clooney and Heslov were wise to bring aboard original playwright Willimon, and they did a terrific job at making the whole thing feel cinematic. This was a case of adaptation gone terrifically right.

Moneyball; screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin (based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis)

Now here's an example of how adaptation is really done: Zaillian and Sorkin took a dry, statistic-driven book about baseball sabermetrics - a process in which you mathematically build a championship baseball team out of bargain-bin players - and turned it into a soulful rumination on the tenacity of the human spirit and the perennial underdogs. The film never drags, the dialogue pops, and the characters are nothing short of fully human. This is top notch work from two of Hollywood's best working writers. This could prove to be a spoiler if the Academy doesn't go nuts for The Descendants or Hugo.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan (based on the novel by John Le Carre)

A taut, deliciously complex spy thriller, this is the sort of work that can be difficult to pull off - and Straughan and the late O'Connor pull it off magnificently. Tinker Tailor is coming from great source material, and the script keeps the Cold War spirit alive while smartly never making an character the obvious culprit by making every character seem like the obvious culprit. As filtered through the rich-but-reserved George Smiley, the whole screenplay crackles with the feeling that so much is being unsaid. If not for The Descendants, Hugo, and Moneyball, this would easily be the frontrunner in this category.

My personal ballot:
1. The Ides of March; screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
2. Moneyball; screenplay by Steven Zaillian  and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan
4. The Descendants; screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
5. Hugo; screenplay by John Logan

Predicted winner: The Descendants
Spoiler: Moneyball
Dark Horse: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Artist; written by Michel Hazanavicius

Can you really nominate a silent film for writing? Of course you can; that's perhaps one of the dumbest arguments I've heard this Oscar season (and I've heard my fair share). The story structure here is nothing new - just watch any of the A Star is Born films, but particularly the Judy Garland version, because it's the best - but there's just enough pathos in it to set it apart. Still, there's no denying that the film's strengths aren't coming from the script, but from Hazanavicius' direction and the two-front charm offensive from stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. It's a strong contender to win nonetheless.

Bridesmaids; written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig

The Oscars are usually good for recognizing comedy here, and they proved themselves to be especially open this year, with three films that can be classified as comedies (though sadly, Young Adult is not one of them). Bridesmaids in particular is a fantastic inclusion in that it really sets itself apart from many R-rated comedies these days: it shines with deeply-flawed but never-short-of-human characters, each one with a real personality and not a broad caricature. And it captures pre-wedding hysteria perhaps better than most films ever have. Best of all, its genuinely funny while not being afraid to address issues such as depression and anxiety. That's a tall order for a crowd-pleasing comedy, but Mumolo and Wiig found a way to make it all happen seamlessly. The only thing that will keep it from winning Sunday night is that the film itself is not "Oscary" enough to be considered.

Margin Call; written by JC Chandor

Is there any writer/director as lucky as Chandor this year? He assembled a phenomenal cast for this film, with everyone from Jeremy Irons to Zachary Quinto to Stanley Tucci to Kevin Spacey involved. Then there's his tight, informative script, which is extremely heavy on the dialogue and financial jargon but also accessible to layman audiences who don't know prime from subprime mortgages. He's crafted a brilliant financial thriller about the 2008 collapse, with a sturdy assuredness that seems supernatural at times, and still manages to find some witty quips ("Speak to me as if I was a small child or a golden retriever."). Oh, and did I mention this is his first film? Many consider his nomination surprising, so don't expect a win, but what an introduction.

Midnight in Paris; written by Woody Allen

Is Midnight in Paris one of Allen's best films? That's debatable, but it's certainly one of his finest in many years. The film has been derided as "slight," but I don't necessarily think that's true: while it doesn't go for the deep pathos of, say, Hannah and Her Sisters, the film does explore the merits and shortcomings of nostalgia, reminding us that we never think of ourselves as living in a "golden age" though the next generation will likely romanticize it (for example, just look at my generation's love of the '90s, which, if we're really honest with ourselves, weren't all that great). Allen does continue to struggle with some of the characterization problems he's suffered through the last decade with (see: Inez), but he also brings to life vibrant characters in Ernest Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald, among others. Allen's the frontrunner here, and its certainly commendable work.

A Separation; written by Asghar Farhadi

One of the things I love about the Original Screenplay category is that it is much more willing to nominate foreign-language films than other categories (besides, obviously, Foreign Language Film). Though the category is missing a few of my favorites from last year (Beginners, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Weekend, Young Adult), it still made me ridiculously happy to see Farhadi recognized here. And here's a crazy theory: he may just win. With the pressure on Iran, the foreign-film body may choose to honor something other than A Separation in Foreign Language Film (that Oscar, you see, goes to the nation of origin, not the producers/director; therefore, if A Separation is recognized, the Oscar goes to Iran). If that is the case, then voters may choose to recognize the man who made the film - one of the year's best reviewed - rather than the nation it came from. You heard it here first.

My personal ballot (for the four I've seen - an updated ballot will appear when I see A Separation):
1. Bridesmaids; written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
2. Midnight in Paris; written by Woody Allen
3. Margin Call; written by JC Chandor
4. The Artist; written by Michel Hazanvicius

Predicted winner: Midnight in Paris
Spoiler: The Artist
Dark Horse: A Separation

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Haven't Forgotten You, Lovelies

This is going to be one of those semesters where I don't post much, but I promise that I will try to do a bit better than I have been. There's a new Radio Daze in the works right now, as well as an extensive Oscar preview. Be sure to come back Oscar night for the annual liveblog, and I'm planning something special for later in spring.

In the meantime, enjoy this .gif of Brad Pitt from Burn After Reading. With any luck, he'll finally become an Oscar winner this year.