Six Degrees of #OscarsSoWhite

It is a yearly tradition at CINE FEEL YEAH to play a twisted version of the classic party game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon once the Academy Award nominations for Best Picture are announced. To celebrate, I connect all of the finalists for the most coveted of film trophies to each other, using the names of co-stars who appear in other films with people in other nominated Best Picture contenders from the current year. This exercise illuminates the interconnectedness of the (kinds of) films that are nominated for Best Picture or any other kind of Oscar year after year. It pains me to say that this edition of “The Circuitous Route to Best Picture” is also as lily white as the nominees in the twenty-strong acting field this year. Again, this is indicative of how systemically racist Hollywood–and not just the Academy–truly is.

Before I solve this puzzle (and invite you to make your own connections in the comments section), allow me to enumerate some ground rules that I followed. First, I eschewed consulting “the Bible” (also known as IMDb), because I wanted to test my general knowledge of film history and individual actors’ filmographies. This leads me to my second restriction: I connected the eight films only through actors–never through directors, editors, production designers, screenwriters, and so on. And I never invoked actors’ TV roles or appearances. This is about film.

Without further ado, I give you the nominees for Best Picture of 2015:

The Big Short
The funny feel-bad movie of the year: The Big Short. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

1.) The Big Short with Max Greenfield, who’s in Hello, My Name is Doris with Sally Field, who’s in Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks, who’s in

2.) Bridge of Spies with Amy Ryan, who’s in Jack Goes Boating with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon, who’s in

3.) The Martian with Kristen Wiig, who’s in Knocked Up with Jonah Hill, who’s in 21 Jump Street with Brie Larson, who’s in

4.) Room with Joan Allen, who’s in Pleasantville/The Ice Storm with Tobey Maguire, who’s in The Cider House Rules with Charlize Theron, who’s in

5.) Mad Max: Fury Road with Tom Hardy, who’s in

6.) The Revenant with Domhnall Gleeson, who’s in

7.) Brooklyn with Saoirse Ronan, who’s in The Lovely Bones with Stanley Tucci, who’s in

8.) Spotlight.

Spotlight
Spotlight celebrates the collaborative investigative reporters of The Boston Globe. Image courtesy of Open Road Films.

Now, it’s easy to connect #8 Spotlight to #1 The Big Short:

8.) Spotlight with Rachel McAdams, who’s in The Notebook with Ryan Gosling, who’s in

1.) The Big Short.

They do say that it’s a draw between Spotlight and The Big Short, after all.

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2015: The Year in Reflection

As in years past, and like many list-makers, I like to reflect on the films and television shows that I have seen throughout the year. The list of titles is always too voluminous to enumerate one-by-one, so I typically chart a unique course. In 2011, I grouped highlights from the year in film, comparing apples to apples, and proposed—through a great deal of wishful thinking—dark horse nominees for a handful of categories at that year’s Academy Awards. Last year, feeling inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s comprehensive catalogue approach, I listed every damn thing that I saw—with the exception of episodic TV programs—no matter the year in which it was released.

But I’m in the mood for something different. Since 2015 was such an important year for me personally (you win some, you lose some) and I saw an astonishing seventy-five movies in the theater, a clear indication that a great many worthwhile pictures were released in 2015, I thought I would review the year in Movies by examining patterns I observed in my own moviegoing experiences. This endeavor proved so fruitful a reflective exercise that I couldn’t gather all of my thoughts into one essay. The films of 2015 presented many distinct possibilities, revealing things about myself that I didn’t already know or hadn’t yet fully comprehended (and I’m not sure I do now, either). I made discoveries that affirmed or challenged how I view the world. I may have learned to appreciate Star Wars.

This series, which I shall call 2015: The Year in Reflection, contains five parts:

Search and Rescue: Or Why I’m Drawn to Films About Surviving Nature, Torture, and Mars

Brainy: My Newfound Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

Fan-Made: Case Studies Inside Film Cultures, from Tarantino to Point Break

Child of the 90s: Why Do I Love Trainspotting So Much?

The Future: Why Can’t I Be a Film Critic?

NOTE: Mild-to-major spoilers to follow throughout the series. Tread carefully.

Women Have Risen: Examining the Year’s Best Actress Nominees, Narrative Tropes, and the Human Experience

A few years ago, I published online an essay whose title encapsulated my frustration at the time with the apparent lack of compelling, universally humanistic film roles for women: “Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?” Inspired by a vision I had of a lone woman astronaut shuttling through space (Sally Ride had just died), I contemplated a future where women characters in film might “have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women,” mainly being a wife and/or mother. The potential I see in women film characters, and women in general, is the narrative ability to illuminate the human condition for everyone.

On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony’s television broadcast, I habitually observe and reflect on the nominations. At this point, each of the four acting categories appears to offer no surprises when it will come time to announce the winners. Julianne Moore (Lead Actress, Still Alice), Patricia Arquette (Supporting Actress, Boyhood), Eddie Redmayne (Lead Actor, The Theory of Everything), and J.K. Simmons (Supporting Actor, Whiplash) have routinely won acting trophies for their respective film roles while competing on the awards circuit this season. With the outcome of these contests all but a certainty, I recognize that the most competitive category is that of Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and it collectively represents the fulfillment of my wish from over two years ago, with a few caveats. In other words, most performances in this category capture, for lack of a better turn of phrase, what it’s like to be human. If film is an art form that helps us make sense of our lives, we cannot take the woman’s experience for granted, as Academy voters have done. Of the five nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, only one top-lines a film that is not nominated for Best Picture: Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. However, only one nominated female lead performance appears in a Best Picture contender: The Theory of Everything, as if to say that women-centered films are not prestigious (read: worthy) or capable of addressing everyone.

Rather than run through the list of nominees alphabetically, I want to discuss them in the chronological order that I first encountered them. Maybe it’s the simple passage of time or the workings of an unreliable memory, but every performance seemed to be better than the last one I saw. Fair warning: in my analysis, I give away many plot details of each film.

Gone Girl movie posterAt the beginning of October, Gone Girl kicked off the season of awards-friendly motion pictures, and I remember thinking throughout my viewing of it that Rosamund Pike, the titular “girl,” deserves a nomination for her portrait of a bonafide psychopath. As Amy Dunne, the dissatisfied wife of Ben Affleck’s mysterious charmer Nick Dunne, Pike both fakes her own kidnapping (and possible murder) and then frames her husband for it. It isn’t until halfway through that the viewer discovers that Amy, the subject of a statewide search, is in fact alive and on the run. Having set as her mission the complete and humiliating obliteration of Nick’s character as well as his eventual imprisonment, Amy watches from afar (using the national media circus surrounding their small Missouri town) as the forged artifacts and clues that she doctored to point towards Nick’s guilt gradually fall into place. The most lethal part of her scheme (killing a man in supposed self-defense in order to fake her abduction) ultimately reunites husband and wife. In the media spotlight she has helped orchestrate and direct, Amy uses the public court of opinion to both absolve Nick of any crime that the American public previously found him guilty of committing and to imprison him in an emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive marriage.

A snapshot of Amy Dunne's fake journal. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
A snapshot of Amy Dunne’s fake journal in Gone Girl. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

While Gone Girl and Amy’s role in it do not exactly conform to fulfilling my desire to see women in films who are unattached, undefined by their relationships to men and/or children, the David Fincher-directed thriller, which author Gillian Flynn adapted from her bestselling novel of the same name, at least deconstructs the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Keeping Amy’s machinations hidden until halfway through the picture, her perspective only relayed through fake found journals, not only shifts perspectives on the couple’s lives (from Nick’s to Amy’s), it also produces one helluva denouement. Amy’s cold and clinical calculations upend our previous idea of her, whether as flirtatious (the memory of their meet-cute), sacrificial (a longtime cosmopolitan, she left New York for suburban Missouri when Nick’s mother became terminally ill), or even physically abused (her fake journal embellishes an altercation with Nick in order to vilify him). More than this, Amy presents a pathologically sociopathic and misandrous response to patriarchy, going to libelous and murderous extremes to pervert the idea of a traditional marriage. As the primary breadwinner upon their transplant to the Midwest, Amy strikes back at Nick for his philandering ways and emotional neglect so that when he finds himself trapped in this controlling and harmful marriage (to say, “loveless” would be an understatement), she is not defined by her relationship to him so much as he is defined by whatever she thinks or says about him. In this way, Gone Girl examines how relationships bind us and in this process, redefines the rules of attachment. The opening and closing scenes, wherein Nick strokes his wife’s hair and, through voiceover narration, muses about how we really don’t know what goes on in the mind of our chosen companion, index our struggles with loneliness and desire to be free.

The Theory of Everything movie posterA Best Picture contender, The Theory of Everything is ostensibly a handsome biopic of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Based upon Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of the thirty years she was married to him, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking, the film is mostly focalized through her experience. While Eddie Redmayne receives almost unanimous praise for his physical transformation as Stephen, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1963 at age 21 and around the same time that he met fellow Cambridge student Jane, it is actually Felicity Jones as the scientist’s first wife who does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the film. The Theory of Everything doesn’t propose a film story about a woman uncharacterized by her relationship to a man and their children. Just the opposite, but it is worth discussing very briefly, to correct notions that the film is about a famous man and the people in his life. In fact, given the film’s source material, it is easy to argue that the film is about a woman and the famous man in her life. This does not mean that The Theory of Everything is a so-called “woman’s film,” but it is a family drama centered from the woman’s perspective.

In his review of the film, New York film critic David Edelstein writes that, “as the film’s focus drifts to [Jane], I found myself resenting the character—not for wanting more from her life, but for yanking the narrative away from by far the more fascinating figure.” I agree that the first part of the film focuses primarily on Stephen’s experience, combining his academic coming-of-age (meeting advisors’ expectations—or not—and choosing a dissertation topic) with his struggle to adjust to a rapidly degenerative disease as well as a nascent romance with Jane. She may have walked into his life at a party, but I argue that as soon as Jane determines that he should be a part of her life, she wrestles the picture away from him, and that gesture does make her both fascinating and compelling. I still cannot shake the image of the couple’s pronounced declaration of togetherness (it’s been used in the film’s marketing campaign, to boot) wherein they hold hands and joyously spin around. Significantly, it is Jane who initiates their little ball of energy, pulling Stephen into her orbit. Young and in love, Jane doesn’t realize the kind of life she commits herself to when she refuses to forget Stephen. For he far out-lives his life expectancy of two years, and as time marches on she becomes increasingly frustrated with her life. Taking care of Stephen and raising their children are two full-time jobs, and her own academic ambitions take a backseat to her husband’s. We witness the effect that choosing Stephen has on her life, and a romantic dalliance with a widowed choirmaster offers her some release. Jonathan (Charlie Cox) assists Jane with raising the kids and caring for Stephen, who condones their sexual relationship. Unable to face up to the rumors that Jane’s third child is his, Jonathan makes himself scarce. After Stephen loses his ability to speak and acquires a computer that will serve as his voice box, Jane recognizes that she can no longer support Stephen the way that he needs and reunites with Jonathan. She is a fascinating character, because she is willing to change her life and seek the fulfillment of her desires.

Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.

The Theory of Everything shines a light on one of the brightest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it also demonstrates that, to rephrase that old adage, “behind every great mind is a woman.” The title derives from Stephen’s quest to marry Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics, but it just as equally signifies that love is the answer to what binds people together for however long they can hold on. In this way, contextualizing Stephen Hawking’s life story and scientific and cultural contributions through his wife’s experience makes the case that they couldn’t have accomplished as much separately as they did together. If finding (self-)gratification is one of the tenets of the human condition, then Theory of Everything demonstrates how our desires are constantly in flux.

Wild movie posterMonths later, and with memories of Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones sloshing around in my head, I finally saw Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. I fell so hard for this film, I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for its screenplay (by novelist Nick Hornby), cinematography (Yves Bélanger), and direction (Jean-Marc Vallée). Hell, I think Wild is easily one of the best films of the year and deserves one of those coveted spots not to exceed ten. Although I have never been a fan of Reese Witherspoon, I was in awe of the humanistic depth of her physical performance. It wasn’t so much a transformation—not like Eddie Redmayne’s or Charlize Theron’s for her Oscar-winning role in Monster where she turned out completely unrecognizable. Instead, Witherspoon perfectly embodies a woman who has been too hard on herself, on her spirit and on her body. When her young mother (Laura Dern in an achingly small but beautiful performance) dies of cancer, Cheryl grieves in an unexpected way, one that leads her astray from her husband (Thomas Sadoski) and into the arms of heroin addiction. With a painful divorce and an extramarital abortion behind her, Cheryl continues on her path to recovery under the most extreme of conditions: hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Along the way from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, she treks across a variety of terrain and climates (arid deserts, snow-capped mountains, Pacific Northwest rainforests) and encounters myriad threats, ranging from animal attacks and lost shoes to death by starvation/thirst and violent sexual assault.

Although Cheryl’s grief and infidelities may have instigated her pilgrimage, Wild isn’t about a woman defined by her relationship to her ex-husband Paul. The experience of losing him and herself in her grief even influences Cheryl to invent a new last name on the divorce papers: Strayed. In fact, Wild is a film about a woman’s self-programmed reinvention, or as the memoir’s subtitle states, she goes “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Cheryl takes ownership of the mistakes that she has made and grapples with how she took her mother for granted (but thankfully, like in this year’s indie rom-com extraordinaire Obvious Child, she unapologetically chooses an abortion when she stumbles into an unwanted pregnancy). By letting go of her social attachments for three months, during which time she calls on Paul and friends for support of the motivational and material kind, Cheryl learns to forgive and love herself again. For me, the most poignant aspect of the film is that Cheryl chooses her relationship with Bobbi as the one to define her, saying, “My mother was the love of my life.”

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Moreover, Wild comes the closest of the Best Actress nominees so far in proposing a film about the human condition that just happens to be focalized through a woman’s experience. As I have already mentioned, the film is about self-programmed reinvention, love and regret, life and death. I imagine that we can all relate to a character who hurts the people who are closest, sometimes purposefully, sometimes without thinking at all. This doesn’t make the character a bad person, just someone who needs to learn to appreciate what life and love can offer. Crucially, it is too late for Cheryl to treat Bobbi as she deserved, but Cheryl’s arduous and

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

somewhat ascetic pilgrimage brings this all into focus. Presenting a woman’s story as universally humanistic is feminist in its own right, but Wild also engages the philosophy in more pointed ways. For example, virtually everyone she meets on the trail is astonished at her abilities and takes umbrage at her insistence to hike the trail without a male companion. She even locks heads with a reporter from The Hobo News who cannot comprehend her voluntary choice to drop out of society for a while and thus identifies her as a lost soul, a “hobo” with no job, home, or family. But most surprising of all, a group of three young men on the trail adopt Cheryl as their personal hero, having read her poetic entries in guest-books, which quote feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich. Believing feminism to be part and parcel of humanism, Wild makes clear, as bell hooks once wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.”

Two Days One Night movie posterJust when I thought this year’s nominated lead performances by women couldn’t get any richer, I saw Marion Cotillard, de-glamorized, in Two Days, One Night. It is a much smaller film than the others, both in scale and, seemingly, in depth. Cotillard plays a working-class laborer who, given the weekend, must convince a majority of her co-workers to forgo their one thousand-euro bonuses so that she can keep her job. Whether or not the solar panel factory can legally put her continued employment to a vote by its employees is never questioned, but almost everyone she confronts points out that the boss’s ultimatum is unfair. Shot in their characteristic social realist/fly-on-the-wall style, the latest film by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne plays out like a thriller of a cruel joke: Will she get enough votes to keep her job? How many more times do we have to hear her plead with her co-workers to vote for her? Asking for anyone’s help is an ordeal in and of itself for Sandra, who, when the film begins, is on the brink of returning to work following a long absence (it gradually becomes clearer that she suffered a mental breakdown). A pathetic decision, choosing to speak with people in person whenever possible is costly in terms of time (she zigzags all over town in order to track them down at their homes, on the street, or in corner groceries or laundromats) and an emotionally draining exercise in futility. Thankfully, no two encounters are exactly the same, even if those unwilling to help her always have the same reason: they need the money, whether to pay their child’s tuition, build an addition to their house, or cover the electric bill for six months.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.

What makes Two Days, One Night so quietly impressive is its premise: to what lengths will someone go to keep her job? How will she convince human being after human being, with wants and needs not completely unidentical to her own, to sacrifice material gain in order to come to her aid? How will she react when, based on the number of votes pledged in her favor so far, her future looks bleak? Providing Sandra with a psychiatric disorder heightens the stakes—and the Dardennes do go to some dark places—but otherwise Two Days, One Night could be about anyone. In fact, there isn’t much character development in terms of Sandra’s familial role so as to make the part gender-specific. In other words, she spends so little time with her two children that her identity as mother does not define her. Even Sandra’s greatest champion, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), frames her ordeal as one about recovering her lost pride. Her humanity, and her repeated attempts to coax the more humane choice out of her peers, defines Sandra. Of course the couple needs her income to get by, but their situation is no more dire than that of most of her co-workers. In this way, the film is about overcoming adversity and preserving your own self-worth, arguably the most humanistic ideal. Come Monday morning, Sandra is one vote shy of keeping her job. Touched by the generosity of some of her colleagues, she refuses the boss’s offer to rehire her at the end of the season, because it would mean that one of her pledges would lose his contract with the company. Initially stunning, her decision to incur further economic hardship isn’t just about worker solidarity but also personal integrity. The final scene of Sandra’s bad-news phone call to Manu represents a revolution of some sorts: walking away from the factory, smiling, Sandra is buoyant with every step, personally motivated by the support of Manu and her co-workers to find another job. If she can get through this past weekend, she can approach any new challenge with enough courage and integrity to overcome it.

Still Alice movie posterRounding out the five nominees for Best Actress, Julianne Moore presents a deeply moving and sensitive portrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, an adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name. Admittedly, I am not Moore’s biggest fan (she’s usually too showy for my tastes), and the negative reviews of the film colored my perception of it going in. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote that the film “plays like a dusted-off, mid-‘90s Movie of the Week.” However, not only was I pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film, I was also overcome by profound sadness and grief, unable to talk about what I had just seen without choking up. Who cares if Still Alice is emotionally manipulative? More than any of the other films nominated in this category, Still Alice examines what makes us who we are while confronting our own mortality.

A world-famous linguistics professor at Columbia University, Alice Howland is the first to recognize that “something is wrong with [her].” Sometimes she can’t find the right word, and at other times she gets disoriented on her aerobic runs around the neighborhood. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), writes off her worries as evidence that at 50, she’s simply getting older. Determined to find the root of her newfound problems (it feels like her brain is slipping farther and farther away from her), she sees a neurologist in secret and eventually receives the dreaded diagnosis. The effects of the disease would be difficult for anyone to cope with, but as her doctor explains, since Alice carries the familial gene for early onset Alzheimer’s and is extremely well-educated, she can expect to deteriorate more rapidly than if she didn’t have the gene and wasn’t so well-educated. She simply has much more to lose, and for a linguist whose life’s work has been the study of human communication systems, the thought of losing her ability to relate who she is with words is devastating. As it is for me, as it is for anyone.

As her mother's primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
As her mother’s primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

But Alice is intellectually resourceful, and she can better compensate for her incapacities. It takes a while for her to admit defeat and leave her tenured position (her meeting with the chair of her department is the most implausible scene in the whole picture, for it would never be up to her colleagues to dismiss her because she has a health issue). John and their three children try to look after Alice as best they can. Eventually, their youngest, the Los Angeles-set aspiring actress and free spirit Lydia (Kristen Stewart), agrees to move back to New York to serve as Alice’s primary caregiver when John accepts a position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In the exploration of this mother-daughter relationship, Alice’s older children, the lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth) and the medical student Tom (Hunter Parrish), suffer from a severe lack of character development. While Anna and Lydia sometimes butt heads as to what is best for their mother, Tom’s only real function is to accompany Alice to a talk she gives at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Film critic Jason Bailey denigrated this speech as a “forced, false moment” by writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, thereby completely forgetting that the scene parallels an earlier keynote address she gave at a linguistics event where she spoke confidently on topics related to her main line of inquiry: why do humans talk and how to they learn to communicate? In the later scene, the transformation that Alice has undergone throughout the film is palpable. Anxious and insecure, she must use a highlighter as she speaks at the podium so that she does not lose her place in the speech. Frustrated with her inability to write a persuasive argument using medical and linguistic jargon, she takes Lydia’s advice and writes about how it feels to lose her mind. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. For, as it is made clear throughout the picture, we are who we are because we have made ourselves into whoever we want to be. For Alice, that has been an expert on language acquisition, an equal partner in a loving relationship with a man who confidently says she was the smartest person he’d ever met, and a dependable and accepting mother.

Still Alice also makes the case that we are who we are because of what we remember. As Alice grapples with her diagnosis, slipping farther and farther away from the people in her life, she returns to memories of her sister, whom she lost as a teenager. I initially dismissed the final scene of the film, failing to recognize that Alice’s imagining she and her sister on a beach is her defiant stance against the havoc that Alzheimer’s wreaks on her mind. She clings to this memory as if to remind herself of who she is. This shot immediately follows the scene in which Lydia reads from the play Angels in America and asks her mother if she knows what the speech is about. Alice smiles and struggles to say, “Love.” Again, in his review of Still Alice, which he labels “desperate” and unoriginal, Bailey fails to see how the film’s ending illuminates something fundamental about the human experience: our appreciation and understanding of art and how it reflects our perception of what the meaning of life is. The Flavorwire film critic finds Glatzer and Westmoreland’s “desperation… particularly rancid at the end” because, “in lieu of saying anything moving or profound, they simply shoplift the ending of Angels in America.” In presumably one of Alice’s last moments of clarity, she demonstrates for Lydia that she is still present, that she can understand Tony Kushner’s complex speech, and that she loves her daughter and her long-lost sister. It doesn’t matter that these “moving and profound” words, to correct Bailey’s statement, are not Alice’s or Lydia’s. Not everything we say or do is original; the purpose of art is to draw connections between experiences, and the meaning of life is to see how art shapes us.

Contrary to what Russell Crowe thinks about roles for older women in Hollywood, the reality is that quality parts for women at any age are terribly lacking. While most Oscar prognosticators, critics, and cinephiles like myself watch the Academy Awards tonight and lament the fatedness of Julianne Moore’s, Patricia Arquette’s, Eddie Redmayne’s, and J.K. Simmons’s prize-winning, I will remember that for the first time in a long while, it seems that every nominee in the Best Actress category was phenomenal. Rather than choose a winner, I wish we could simply celebrate these five actresses and many more, because they brought to life film characters whose experiences illuminated different facets of the human condition. I hope this trend in representing women with “interesting, fully realized inner lives” continues. And I don’t care if they are wives or mothers anymore. Restricting what kinds of parts women play in film and in society isn’t humane.

Another Year in Film, Another Path to Best Picture

I started a new tradition a couple of years ago whereby I connect all of the year’s nominees for Best Picture via the actors starring in them. A twisted take on the popular (and now defunct?) Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game, I limit the kinds of connections that I can make. For instance, I cannot connect nominated films through anyone but actors (no directors, screenwriters, producers, foley artists, etc), nor can I use TV shows or film appearances wherein actors play (versions of) themselves. And no matter how tempting they may seem (in order to get the job done more quickly and succinctly), I restrict myself from borrowing actors’ romantic relationships with each other. Also, I try to do as much mapping as possible without turning to IMDb. I will admit that I had to research some actors’ filmographies, namely those of Patricia Arquette and J.K. Simmons, both of whom have been in everything.

Without further ado, here are the Academy Award nominees for the Best Picture of 2014:

  • The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s in The Other Boleyn Girl with Eddie Redmayne, who’s in
  • The Theory of Everything with Felicity Jones, who’s in The Invisible Woman with Ralph Fiennes, who’s in
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel with Edward Norton,* who’s in
  • Birdman with Zach Galifianakis, who’s in The Hangover with Bradley Cooper, who’s in
  • American Sniper with Sienna Miller, who’s in Foxcatcher with Channing Tatum, who’s in 10 Years with Oscar Isaac, who’s in A Most Violent Year with David Oyelowo, who’s in
  • Selma with Carmen Ejogo, who’s in Away We Go with Josh Hamilton, who’s in Freak Talks About Sex with Steve Zahn, who’s in Reality Bites with Ethan Hawke, who’s in
  • Boyhood with Patricia Arquette, who’s in Stigmata with Gabriel Byrne, who’s in Little Women with Kirsten Dunst, who’s in Spider-Man with J.K. Simmons, who’s in
  • Whiplash with Miles Teller, who, in order to bring us back to the first nominee, is in Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman, who’s in Stoker with Matthew Goode, who’s in
  • The Imitation Game!

Did I go about this all the wrong way? Do you have a less circuitous route between or among the eight nominated films? Leave your directions in the comments below.

* I previously drew my map connecting The Grand Budapest Hotel to Birdman via Bill Murray and Naomi Watts (stars of St. Vincent), completely forgetting that Birdman actor Edward Norton was amongst all those people in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

News Clip: Let the Category for Best Original Song Go Bye-Bye

If, like me, you enjoyed the fact that only two songs were nominated in the Best Original Song category at this year’s Oscars (because you thought that it meant the organizers finally realized that this particular race is irrelevant), well then, I have some sad news for you. Per Vulture, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has changed its bylaws again and dictated that the category is going to be even more competitive starting next year, with at least five nominees. I can’t even name one original song featured in a film this year, let alone five!

Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan points out that we don’t yet know if live performances of the five nominated songs will be incorporated into the telecast. Let’s hope not. They bloat the running time as it is (which is just one reason why the competition should be put out to pasture). They’re usually ballads, too, and I am predisposed to dislike ballads. The one time that the Oscars perhaps should have had live performances, they didn’t. Since there were only two this year, you have to ask, “Whose idea was it to not allow Jason Segel and Peter Linz (as Walter) perform the Bret McKenzie-composed ‘Man or Muppet’ from The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)?” You might also ask, “And why wasn’t the infinitely superior ‘Life is a Happy Song’ also nominated?” But I digress. I may not have seen Rio (Carlos Saldanha, 2011), but I admit I was kind of looking forward to seeing and hearing the catchy, bombastic samba dance number “Real in Rio.” It certainly would have livened things up a bit.

In any case, this is some really disheartening news. Stop torturing us, AMPAS, and just let Best Original Song die. I doubt many would even miss it.

But what do you think? Should the Academy continue to hand out this award? And how do you feel about the inclusion of live performances of the nominated songs during the TV broadcast?

Jump Cut: A Circuitous Route to Find the Best Picture

Image courtesy of Oscars.org

My father and I take 6-mile-long walks around the neighborhood several times a week. We’re out and about with the family dog Samson, a German Shepherd/Welsh Corgi hybrid (so cute, but he’s the star of his own story), for around 120 minutes at a time. That’s a lot of time to contemplate what’s for dinner, life in the universe(s), and cinema history.

Today, we did something we’ve never done before: we played a version of the once-popular party game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. I argued that it’s not worthwhile using Bacon anymore because really anyone is just as possible–if not more relevant. To support this idea, I boasted about how I amused several friends at the dining hall one night back in college with my skills in connecting Ewan McGregor to anyone and vice versa. Convinced, Dad indulged me with many challenges, some of which were easy (Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor) and others which were not (Jill Clayburgh and Bette Davis). Once we’d had enough, I suggested we connect all of the films nominated for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Admittedly, just remembering which movies were on the shortlist was difficult, especially since we didn’t have any pen or paper to jot the names down. Hell, choosing where to start wasn’t easy either, but I opted for the one with the smallest cast. My swirling thinking eventually gave Dad a headache, and just when I didn’t think I would solve the maze before we got home (I must have started about 25 to 30 minutes before the end of our walk), I made a breakthrough.

I had noticed that there are multiple actors who appear in at least two Best Picture nominees (I’m looking at you, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Brad Pitt), but in my pursuit of the trivial, I realized John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston of all people can make the same claim, too. Because of these circumstances, you might think that the map I’ve “drawn” below is rather easy. And it is. If anything, we might now ask ourselves what it means to have supposedly the best films of year littered with faces that pop up across the board. I should also state that I used rules of the game that allow play across performers and therefore prohibit connections through off-screen relationships or filmmaking roles other than acting (which means I couldn’t use Woody Allen’s directing Emily Mortimer in Match Point [2005] to connect Midnight in Paris to Hugo). And I sought to never repeat a name (hence the exclusion of Ocean’s Eleven [Steven Soderbergh, 2001] in the process of connecting Moneyball to The Descendants). Having said all this, I would be interested to hear suggestions for connecting Midnight in Paris and Hugo more economically than I have done.

Since I’m no graphic artist, I apologize that I couldn’t draw a flowchart that would make this more fun to read. But here goes:

BEGIN:
1.) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) with John Goodman, who’s in
2.) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011) with Viola Davis, who’s in
3.) The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) with Jessica Chastain, who’s in
4.) The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) with Brad Pitt, who’s in
5.) Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011) with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s in
The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011) with George Clooney, who’s in
6.) The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011) with Matthew Lillard, who’s in
Hackers (Iain Softley, 1995) with Jonny Lee Miller, who’s in
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) with Peter Mullan, who’s in
7.) War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011) with Tom Hiddleston, who’s in
8.) Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) with Lea Seydoux, who’s in
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010) with Mark Strong, who’s in
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) with Chloe Grace Moretz, who’s in
9.) Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)
END.

If that’s not too much, you can then connect Hugo back to The Artist in the following way:
… Moretz, who’s in
9.) Hugo with Ben Kingsley, who’s in  
Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992) with Robert Redford, who’s in
All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) with Dustin Hoffman, who’s in
Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988) with Valeria Golino, who’s in
Cash (Eric Besnard, 2008) with Jean Dujardin, who’s in
1.) The Artist

For the record, I created this map without clicking through Internet Movie Database, although I must admit that I checked it once: to look at the names on the cast list of Hugo in order to find my way back to The Artist.

Addendum: Over a video chat with my sister, we were able to piece together a shortcut from Hugo to The Artist. While brainstorming an approach from the opposite direction, I thought of Missi Pyle and pictured her in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which my sister alerted me also features Christopher Lee, who’s in Hugo.

…. Moretz, who’s in
9.) Hugo with Christopher Lee, who’s in
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005) with Missi Pyle, who’s in
The Artist

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.