Jump Cut: Without a Shot in Hell

Having delivered my version of a yearly review of cinema in a not-so-timely fashion (I can link to it, for I own the copyrighted material), it’s now time to address the impending announcement of nominations for the 84th Annual Academy Awards. In years past, I offered predictions of the likely nominees in eight major categories and selected whom I “objectively” and personally favored to win. Unfortunately, for those of us who hate the idea of such awards but still watch the Oscars anyway (because of tradition and to be abreast of what’s happening in international film culture), the races in the major categories this season are so predictable. Even if Martin Scorsese scored an upset win for Best Director at the Golden Globes for Hugo (2011), we still know it’s between Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) when it comes to Best Picture. Moreover, Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer have emerged as the ones to beat in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress competitions for their performances in, respectively, Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011) and The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011). This sounds so boring you may as well not tune in, right?

So instead of predicting who will get nominated and who among those nominees will probably take home the gong, I’ve decided to do something different this year: below, I (attempt to) make cases for dark horses in various categories, some of which even I am surprised I have an opinion about. It’s my way of both commending film artists and craftspeople and ripping the Academy a new one. Of course, I’ll have egg on my face if any of the following are actually nominated in the attendant categories. Let’s get to it!

Best Original Score: Last year, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s win for The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) apparently signaled the Academy’s acceptance of electronic scores. Although the Nine Inch Nails duo are likely to be nominated again this year for Fincher’s newest effort, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), I would rather see a spot open up for the heart-pumping and energized score that the Chemical Brothers supplied for Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011). A creepy fairytale-like theme recurs throughout, at times picked up by the menacing assassin Isaacs (played by the great Tom Hollander), who gleefully whistles the tune so as to taunt our fierce heroine (Saoirse Ronan) and us, the audience. Moreover, Wright, perhaps owing to his background in staging ecstatic rave parties, marries the Brothers’ dizzying electronic score to the seizure-inducing sequence in which Hanna breaks out of a US military-owned facility, finding her way along the labyrinthine concrete underworld of air shafts and secret passageways. We’re with her in this frantic moment, mostly thanks to the pulse-pounding beats, which push her out of there and throughout the globe-trotting film.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Despite the esteem of all three lead performers in David Cronenberg’s newest exploration of our taboo sexual desires, it’s not difficult to single out Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method (2011). Funnily enough, it has nothing to do with those much-talked about tricks she can pull off with her jaw. As a young, intelligent woman labeled a hysteric in Dr. Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) care at the turn of the twentieth century in Zurich, Knightley kinda goes ugly, and we know how much Academy voters love “ugly” performances (see Charlize Theron in Patty Jenkins’s Monster [2003], Nicole Kidman in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours [2002], and even Halle Berry in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball [2001]). But that’s not why she deserves this notice. For me, Knightley made the film, for without her no-holds-barred performance, how could we have been interested in the dry philosophical and academic debates about sexuality and morality between Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud (embodied by an always interesting Viggo Mortensen)? Knightley imbues her Russian Jewish expat Sabina Spielrein, the crux of the men’s conversations and eventual falling out, with a voracious appetite for provocative ideas and erotic pleasures; it’s no wonder the young and confused doctor, Jung, falls so dangerously for her. It’s a pleasure to watch all three actors–but especially Knightley–engage the heady material of early psychoanalysis with such passion and conviction no matter how much what they say sounds like bullshit today.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011) is a rather bitter pill to swallow, especially for Academy voters, I suspect. It’s not a particularly edgy film, but it is an edgy film to be pushed so flagrantly for Oscar (as it’s been reported that Reitman pushed back the releases of the trailer and the film itself so that it wouldn’t peak too early in the Oscar race, just as his Up in the Air had apparently done in 2009). But enough about Reitman. And rather than choose Andy Serkis for the dark horse in this category as others have probably done (his motion-capture performance as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes [Rupert Wyatt, 2011] is actually a leading role and the subject of an article yet to come), I choose Patton Oswalt. As Matt Freehauf, Oswalt is heartbreaking, even if his visible disability, his mangled leg due to being the victim of a homophobic hate crime in high school, doubles as Mavis Gary’s (Charlize Theron) invisible disfigurement and ultimately unites these two outcasts from opposite ends of the social spectrum in high school. (That’s a nice way of saying she’s a self-centered, emotionally damaged bitch to his embittered and vulnerable geek.) And it’s just that vulnerability and bitterness that Oswalt imbues in his character that makes him stand out.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Is Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) an ensemble or not? This has long been debated, with those who say so quoting the plurality of the title as well as the incisive portrait of competition among two of the eponymous wedding party members. But then there are still others who decry the emphasis placed on Annie’s (Kristen Wiig) miserable lot in life, citing that same pluralism of the title as misleading. Even so, during this awards season, only Melissa McCarthy of the ensemble has picked up any Oscar buzz, for her portrayal of the singular lady Megan, even going so far as to ride the ecstatic raves wave all the way to winning an Emmy for her titular turn on the critically derided Mike and Molly sitcom. No matter how crowd-pleasing McCarthy is as the confident, uncouth, and cuddly Megan, it’s still Kristen Wiig’s show. The Academy in the past has bestowed this accolade on women in comedic roles, but Wiig’s performance walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. As Annie, a single thirtysomething who feels threatened that she’s losing her best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), not only to a new husband but also to a new best friend (Rose Byrne, as Helen), Wiig makes us root for her even as we laugh at her. Wiig and her screenwriting partner Annie Mumolo may paint an incredibly pathetic portrait of the sometimes hard-to-love Annie, but I imagine that as we continue to discuss Bridesmaids, the representation of the film’s 30s-set womanhood might soon dominate the conversation. The self-consciousness, desperation, and low self-esteem of Bridesmaids‘ leading lady is so finely drawn and played that to ignore Wiig’s tour-de-force performance is to miss out on one of the film’s greatest wonders. If I still haven’t convinced you to take a closer look at Wiig, recall the wordless scene in which she bakes a single, lavishly embellished cupcake, contemplates it, and then devours it.

Best Original Screenplay: I’m not going to complain when Woody Allen is the top contender in this category, for I thoroughly enjoyed his Midnight in Paris (2011) and its sharp and funny script. Still, I can take comfort from the fact that, in an alternate universe, Joseph Cedar is nominated and wins for his original screenplay for Footnote (2011), repeating his Cannes 2011 victory. Although it hasn’t been released in theaters yet, I saw this Israeli film at the New York Film Festival. It’s a mixture of genres: melodrama, comedy, thriller. It’s about the professional and personal rivalries between two Talmudic scholars–father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi). Footnote delivered on film critic and now assistant NYFF programmer Scott Foundas’s promise to us in the audience: it is the most thrilling picture about the dry, academic world of Talmudic scholarship. It’s fast, wordy, smart, and funny. To say any more might ruin the somewhat surprising aural and visual pleasures afforded to the spectator of this great film, which is appropriately universal in theme and scope but myopic in subject matter.

Best Director: It’s a shame that the only major notice that Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011) is likely to receive is for Albert Brooks’s deservedly praised portrayal of a heavy, Bernie Rose, in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role competition. Especially since we know that he will lose (to the very fine Christopher Plummer from Beginners). I would like to see Refn, like Footnote‘s writer-director Cedar, repeat his Cannes 2011 glory–not only by being nominated for Best Director but also by winning the award. Drive may have divided critics and audiences, but its deconstruction of the action film and the genre’s dualism between violence and humanity, winningly set to the alluring hues and sounds reminiscent of similar works from the 1980s, was so assuredly choreographed. Drive is a bold statement and one of the most cinephilic offerings of the year in a year teeming with them (see Hugo, The Artist, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse [2011] as examples).

Best Actor in a Leading Role & Best Picture: At this moment, I don’t have any ideas for dark horses in the Best Actor in a Leading Role or Best Picture races. It’s between George Clooney (in The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (in The Artist) in the former category, and if the Golden Globes are anything to go by, the films they represent will also duke it out in the Best Picture competition. The juggernaut that is The Help won’t win Best Picture and can only realistically expect Octavia Spencer to take home the trophy for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. In any case, I have no real beef with the likely contenders for Best Actor. Clooney and Dujardin are probably going to be joined by Brad Pitt from Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011), Leonardo DiCaprio from J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011), and Michael Fassbenderfrom Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011), who all delivered Oscar-worthy turns. It doesn’t matter to me who wins (although I would rather see Pitt win than Dujardin), but it would be cool to see the dark horse among these five, Fassbender, lead the pack for his near wordless performance as a sex addict in an all-around intriguing and challenging film.

Predicting the nominees–and therefore the dark horses–of the expanded Best Picture category is a bit more difficult. All I will say is that it would be cool to see Drive added to the list, even though I don’t think it was the best picture of the year. In fact, I couldn’t identify one.

Now, I’m going to hope against hope that these actors, writers, directors, and composers wake up on Tuesday to hear their names announced as nominees. I doubt any will be chosen, but I’ll tune in anyway to watch the Oscar telecast, sick of the whole thing and dutifully filling out the ballot as each winner is proclaimed.

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Film in 2011: The Ones I Saw

The 69th Annual Golden Globes started ten minutes ago. I’m sure other movie sites are live-blogging the event, and I would never endeavor to do such a thing myself. (I’m not funny enough. Besides, those recaps are always more amusing to read after the fact.) Instead I thought I would take this opportunity to summarize how I experienced the year 2011 through film. I flipped through several volumes of my handwritten film journal and listed the names of all 110 films that I saw between January 1, 2011, and today. And those are just the movies that either premiered or came to theaters in the United States in 2011, regardless of their release date in their country of origin.

This isn’t a “best of 2011” list, and it’s definitely not ordered by what’s most and least favored. In fact, it was only after I listed the 110 titles that I was able to take stock of which 2011 releases I have seen and therefore evaluate them as a group. I have said for weeks that 2011 was a lackluster year for movies; nothing really impressed me and I’ve collected no new favorites for all-time. Whenever “year in review” articles come out, for the critics–and I’m generalizing here–it’s always about which movie-making trends dominated: comic book superheroes, blockbuster franchises, or 3D. They lament the dreadful state of movies and movie-making on all scales and in all styles, but I don’t want to blog about that. However, I will say this: even the “prestige” features that are rolled out in the autumn and are feted for Oscar left a lot to be desired for me. Am I being unfair, though? The movie year 2011 looked less than spectacular for me perhaps because I moved from New York City back home to suburban Washington, D.C., right in the middle of awards season. Without the earlier release dates and easy access to multiple cinemas–mainstream and arthouse alike–to which I’d grown accustomed in New York, I’ve had to either wait to see some movies or forfeit seeing them altogether. But I’m not making any excuses; after all, I started off very clearly stating that this post is about the movies I saw.

It may be too early to say, since the nominations for the Academy Awards have yet to be announced, but none of the ones most likely to be nominated knocked my socks off (and I’ve yet to see two big contenders, The Help [Tate Taylor, 2011] and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close [Stephen Daldry, 2011]). That’s including The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011), which I’d been eagerly anticipating since its debut at Cannes. To be completely honest, none of the films on my list did anything that great art is supposed to do. My favorites of the year weren’t the most challenging, intellectually and emotionally stimulating, or poetic pictures I’ve ever seen.

So without much further ado, I give you some totally arbitrary observations of my movie-watching experiences in 2011 (note that each individual list descends in the chronological order that I viewed the features):

The movies I liked the most:
Mozart’s Sister (Rene Feret, 2010)
Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011)
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)–the only film I saw twice in the theater
Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010)
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2010)–even if it is a condensed version of an older British TV show
(Foxy) Festival (Lee Hae-yeong, 2010)
Potiche (Francois Ozon, 2010)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)
50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)
Footnote (Joseph Cedar, 2011)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, 2011)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)
Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010)

The critical and/or commercial darlings I didn’t like at all:
Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)
Sarah’s Key (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010)
The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)
The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson, 2011)–true, it was no one’s darling 
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

The most over-hyped:
Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)–I did like it though
Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)
The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)
Terri (Azazel Jacobs, 2011)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor, 2011)
The Artist–I didn’t like it enough to call it a favorite 
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011)

The ones I liked more than I was expecting I would:
Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)
Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011)–I know, I know

The ones that disappointed:
Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011)–it’d have been a lot better if they’d included the deleted scenes that were made available on the DVD
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, 2011)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

The ones that really weren’t as bad as the critics and audiences made them out to be:
Anonymous
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)
Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks, 2011)

Now, for the following, the title in bold denotes which of the random groups I liked more (or the most).

The two films that were the most overtly Spielbergian without being directed by Steven Spielberg in 2011: Paul (Greg Mottola, 2011) and Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

The only prequels and sequel of blockbuster franchises I bothered to see: X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011),  Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011), which, incidentally, is the worst 2011 film I saw

The romantic comedies about booty calls between friends: No Strings Attached (Ivan Reitman, 2011) and Friends with Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011)

The comedies about grown men who get on people’s nerves because their wanting to see the good in everyone is usually perceived as naivete: Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011) and Our Idiot Brother (Jesse Peretz, 2011)

I realize that it’s difficult to comprehend this experience without knowing the names of all 110 titles I saw from this year. I’m not about to list them here–this has gone on long enough–but to give you a better idea, here are some of the noteworthy movies I have yet to see:

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Law, 2011)
Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia, 2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)
The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Just before I hit the “publish” button, the Golden Globes telecast has ended. Besides Christopher Plummer winning for his supporting performance in Beginners and Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris‘s screenplay, there’s not much here for me to be excited about. So here’s to hoping 2012 is an infinitely better year for movies!

Once Were Little Women

It seems most appropriate to inaugurate this new blog about cinephilia–however misspelled–with a post about the first incidence of it in my life that I can recall. Now that I have cable, with premium movie channels that repeatedly air the film, I am constantly reminded of how big a role Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994) played in my childhood and continues to inform me of who I am.

Before this adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott tale, which had been brought to screens of various sizes before, I was more or less a typical eight-year-old movie-watcher. Until the film came to home video after its December 1994 theatrical release, I didn’t pay attention to the conventions of opening and closing credit sequences or what the individual crew members’ contributions entailed. Perhaps it is because we rented the VHS almost on a weekly basis that I became familiar with the strange words “editor” and “director of photography,” and I began to seek out definitions. On a very basic level, I can recall how my relationship with Little Women educated me about the different practices that go into making a film.

We didn’t see Little Women in the theater. The reason is lost to history now. But how we responded to it in my house has taken on a sort of legendary status. Up until the night my sister and I watched the rented video separately and alone, we weren’t exactly the best of friends. We had shared a bedroom, but when we reached a certain age (she’s three and half years older), we decided to go our separate ways. Or maybe it was because she was entering middle school and more interested in playing with girlfriends than with her geeky, needy sister that we split up.

For whatever reason, we were on the outs the day we rented Little Women for the first time. Somehow, she was the first to see the new Winona Ryder movie. And I will never forget how she came into my room to watch my reaction–just as the romantic music swelled as Jo more or less proposed to the penniless German Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne). I had been moved to tears; apparently something similar had happened during my sister’s viewing. We bonded over our shared love of this movie about the relationships between sisters, each with their own distinct personality. We each identified with Jo, the free-spirited, “wild,” proto-feminist and aspiring writer. Rather than turn possessive or territorial over claiming Jo as both our kindred spirit and role model, I think we each let the other embrace the character. For there’s no denying that she, as embodied by Ryder, is the best sister: she is the most intellectually curious, politically minded, and, as she herself says, “hopelessly flawed.” It was only more than ten years later, on viewing it alone for the first time in a long while (even after having seen it more than one hundred times), that I came to realize I am probably a lot more like Beth, portrayed in the film by a heart-breaking Claire Danes, than I originally thought. While I would never be content to stay at home or to go without taking a lover, I think her selfless devotion to her family is something to which I have tried–and often failed–to aspire.

Little Women is also special for my sister and me because we shared a teenybopper adoration for the young actor Christian Bale, who played the March family’s next-door neighbor Theodore “Laurie”/”Teddy” Lawrence. He is, on record, our first and only teen idol, and we weren’t even teens when we started fawning over him. We joined his fanclub (I’m sure I have the membership card and autographed portrait in a box somewhere), swooned over his commitment to the environment (he was a vegetarian in those days and an advocate for wildlife, particularly gorilla, conservation), and sought out every new film of his, even going so far as to leave the suburbs and head downtown to the nearest theater playing Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998). Our enthusiasm for Mr. Bale has faded tremendously; we both go through phases of finding him interesting (American Psycho [Mary Harron, 2000]) and ridiculous (Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman trilogy). The point is, we have moved on.

When I catch Little Women on cable these days, I can recite lines–nay, whole monologues–of dialogue along with the actors. Suddenly, my memory transports me to the time when my sister and I made a habit of studying scenes to act out for our own amusement. Our favorite cinematic moments to reconstruct were Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s marriage proposal and Laurie’s conversation with a grown-up Amy (Samantha Mathis) in Europe. In it, they discuss whether or not he can love her for her (and not her name and relations) and whether or not she can love anyone who isn’t rich (but he is, anyway). We must have switched roles from time to time, but I remember playing Laurie most of the time.

These scenes stood out for us not only because they’re dialogue-heavy but because they were the crux of what we thought was wrong with the story: that Jo and Laurie didn’t end up together. We regretted Jo’s decision to not marry Laurie, the sensitive and romantic boy who so clearly has been in love with his best friend for over four years. When she says to a man later on in New York that “I should have been a great many things,” we barked at the screen during every viewing the following bitter reminder: “Like Laurie’s wife!” As for the second scene, we just hated the idea that Laurie could be so desperate to be a member of the March family that he would pursue the vain and heartless Amy.

A couple years ago, I made a startling observation upon rewatching Little Women, one that completely changed my understanding of the film and my own outlook on life and love. Strangely, I accepted the story’s resolution: the couplings of Jo and Professor Bhaer and Laurie and Amy. I recognized that Bhaer was a better match for Jo. He has more common interests (as a philosophy professor), sees her as an equal, and, more importantly, he supports her writing career. Not only does he hand over her manuscripts to his editor and/or publisher friends, he challenges her to write from a more personal place. His lack of enthusiasm for her horror and fantasy stories may be one thing, but his prodding does unlock her stubbornness to write about what she knows (which eventually manifests in a set-to-be published novel based on her own life).

I also realized that it was necessary for Jo to turn Laurie down in the first place. The once romantic proposal scene reappeared to me years later as devoid of passion. And I know what explains this change in my perception: between these readings, I became an ardent feminist. Jo has never wanted to be married because she rightly sees it as undoing her independence as well as her desire to see and experience more of the world. (As a child in a Transcendentalist home, she has grown up with the worldview that one should strive to better herself.) Moreover, when Laurie argues that they should marry because he can financially take care of her and her family, that she won’t have to write unless she wants to, I can respond just as Jo does: appalled and defensive of her creative impulse for expression. How could she, after all, marry someone who doesn’t understand her and her desires, who wants her for selfish reasons? Of course, in the novel, Jo had already met and befriended Professor Bhaer by the time Laurie proposes, but since we’re talking about the filmic adaptation and my differing reactions to the central love stories, we must push that aside for now.

I think I even successfully convinced my sister that Jo’s ending up with Professor Bhaer is the better outcome because he would more likely be an equal partner, what with his taking on the position of teacher at the school Jo wishes to establish at the mansion that she inherits from her great aunt. Besides, as I said before, she essentially proposes to him in the rain, leaving him to come up with a response borne of incredulity: “But I have nothing to give you, my hands are empty.” To which she says, placing her hands in his, “Not empty now.” Laurie can have Amy, and Amy can have Laurie. He’s changed a lot since the reality check Jo provided him. Laurie and Amy, in their more superficial and materialistic posturing, deserve each other.

There’s a lot more to Little Women and me, but it’s not the only (long-running) episode of cinephilia I’ve ever had. Merely the first.