Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Ben Affleck’s Argo Will Win Best Picture

A little under three months from now, in the late hours of Sunday, February 24, 2013 (or the early hours of Monday, February 25, as these things sometimes do carry on a bit), Ben Affleck’s Argo will win the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. While I’m certainly no stranger to hyperbole, I don’t trend towards bold declarations without merit. This is not that. Argo is winning the top two Academy Awards, and I’m certain of it. (Or at least 95% certain; I am nothing if not mostly committed.) Here’s why:

It’s a Deserving Winner

We’ll get this out of the way first, because it’s not only the least complicated argument to make, but it’s also the least convincing. Twenty years ago, in Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood famously said, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” He might as well have been talking about the Oscars. If you think the Oscar always goes to the most deserving nominee, well, Martin Scorsese would like to have some words with you out back. While it’s not quite true that being deserving “has nothin’ to do with it,” it is but one of many factors on the minds of voters, and it’s never not always the top one. But having said that, it never hurts to be worthy, and Argo is.

Argo is a truly fantastic film. It is, in many ways, a film that has a little bit of everything: comedy, satire, history, suspense, great acting, great dialogue, topical themes, classic style, human triumph over adversity, a happy ending, bad 70’s haircuts… it’s all there. It’s a film that stands up incredibly well to repeat viewings. I’ve seen it twice now, and what really grabbed me on the second viewing was how well everything was pieced together. Editing is one of the fundamental elements of cinema as an art form, and you won’t find many better-edited films than Argo. (And here’s an Oscar history lesson for you: The film that wins Best Editing also wins Best Picture about half of the time.) Argo is also two films for the price of one; On the one hand, it’s a truly funny Hollywood satire, and on the other, it’s a pulse-pounding suspense film, created with Hitchcock-level precision. The degree of difficulty here is larger than you think, because you can’t have audiences laughing for an hour and then suddenly expect them to be on the edge of their seat. But that’s precisely what Argo does. It’s a balancing act as good as any you’ll ever see.

It Will Age Well

We movie fans don’t ask for much, but damn it, we don’t want our Best Picture winners to look embarrassing five years down the road. Argo won’t. Of course it’s too early to know whether Argo is the best film of the year, but it’s not too early to know that Argo is a (capital ‘G’) Great film. It’s not exactly a dirty little secret to say that Best Picture doesn’t always go to the year’s best film, so the goal is really just to give the award to a great one. Sometimes even that doesn’t work out, and within a few years, the winner is like a stain on film history (I’m looking at you Crash). But most of the time, the winner stands up as a classic, and that’s the most important thing. You might think Rocky was less deserving in 1976 than Network or Taxi Driver (and you’re probably right), but Rocky is certainly a great film that has stood the test of time, and really, that’s all we can ask for out of our Best Picture winner. And I promise, Argo will never be uttered in the same sentence as Crash (well, except for this one).

Public Enthusiasm Matters

The first time I saw Argo, at its Toronto premiere in September, it received a standing ovation, which even at a film festival, isn’t very common. (I’ve seen about 100 movies in Toronto over three years of going to the festival, and maybe 6 or 7 of them received standing ovations.) But even still, people tend to view film festival screenings through rose-colored glasses that inflate quality a little bit. It’s natural and contagious to think that everything you’re seeing is a minor masterpiece. But when I saw Argo again when it opened in theaters, something amazing happened: the audience started applauding and cheering during the movie. I cannot stress that highly enough. The movie was still playing when everyone in the theater erupted into contagious clapping. We were still a good ten minutes out from the end credits. And this wasn’t at a film festival, this was on a cold Sunday afternoon at an Ann Arbor multiplex.

When The Hurt Locker won Best Picture three years ago, much ballyhoo was made over its financial failure at the box office. It was the lowest domestic gross a Best Picture winner had ever had. The moral of the story is that Best Picture tends to go to successful movies. But more specifically, Best Picture tends to go to movies that audiences really loved. And there’s substantial proof that audiences love Argo far beyond what I’ve witnessed myself. Cinemascore, the organization that polls audiences leaving the theater to see what they thought, has reported that Argo has earned an extremely rare A+. Meanwhile, box office reports show that Argo had an incredibly minimal drop from its first to second week in release, and then did the unthinkable—went to number one at the box office in its third week of release. Not only is this an amazing achievement in itself, it means that word of mouth has been nothing short of outstanding. While it’s true that critical and public tastes don’t always overlap, the Oscars have a long tradition of pretending they do. And Best Picture has a long tradition of going to a film that audiences truly responded to. For 2012, that film appears to be Argo.

The Other Contenders Aren’t Really Contenders

Now here’s the part where you say “But how can you be sure Argo is better than all of the other movies coming out over the next two months?” Well, the truth is, I’m not. But I also don’t have to be. Let me explain: One of the great-unwritten rules of the Oscars is that the wealth must be spread. Voter fatigue plays an enormous role in what the ballots end up looking like. It’s true that many of the highest profile films of 2012 haven’t been released yet, and some haven’t even screened for critics yet. They might all be better than Argo. But it won’t matter, because they aren’t winning Best Picture.

The Hobbit may be based on a book that’s subtitled “There and Back Again,” but the Oscars won’t be. The third Lord of the Rings film won eleven Oscars in 2004, so the Academy will feel like they’ve been there and done that with regards to Tolkien adaptations. Life of Pi and Django Unchained both have high expectations and great pedigree, but one is about a boy and his CGI tiger stranded on a boat, and the other is a darkly comic, slave revenge western. Both immediately fail the crucial “Does this sound like a Best Picture winner?” test, and they ain’t winning. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, about the black ops operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, could be outstanding, and so could Tom hooper’s Les Miserables, which looks to finally be the adaptation of the play that audiences and critics have been waiting for. But both films are by directors who have won the top two Oscars in the last three years (The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech). History just doesn’t repeat itself that quickly. For any of these films to pass Argo in the eyes of Oscar voters, they would need to be once-in-a-generation great. And even that probably wouldn’t be enough.

That basically leaves just two real contenders to potentially derail Argo’s Oscar hopes, and both are in theaters right now: Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. Lincoln has rave reviews and audience support on its side, but no movie will suffer from voter fatigue quite like it will. Only four living directors have two Oscars, and Steven Spielberg is one of them, so any conversation about who will win Best Director essentially has to start with crossing his name off the list. Can Lincoln win Best Picture without also winning Best Director? Maybe. It’s happened four times since 1990 (in ’98, ’00, ’02, and ’05), so there’s certainly precedent. But there are two important things to note about those instances. First, they all happened in a brief seven-year span when the Academy was clearly struggling with the whole art-versus-commerce thing, so the top awards would split between the “art” film and the “commercial” film. But in the six subsequent years since Crash toppled Brokeback Mountain in 2006, Best Picture has gone to films like No Country For Old Men and The Hurt Locker, so this crisis of self appears to be over. (Yes, I’m disregarding The King’s Speech over The Social Network. Indulge me.) And second, each of those times Best Picture and Best Director went to separate films, it was the prestige art film that won Best Director and the audience crowd pleaser that won Best Picture. If we accept that Lincoln won’t win Best Director, then a Best Picture win for it would be the opposite scenario of every other Picture/Director split we’ve seen. Add to that the fact that voters will still look at Lincoln as the Spielberg/Daniel Day Lewis movie (heavy voter fatigue alert), and its path to the podium just seems too laden with obstacles.

And that leaves Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s mental disability romantic dramedy starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. This is the film that won the Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award, which also went to Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech in recent years (do you see the pattern?). I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook twice now, and it is quite good. It’s funny, insightful, heartfelt, very well acted… In a different year, it probably could have been the feel-good Shakespeare in Love that topples the heavy downer Saving Private Ryan. But Argo isn’t a heavy downer, it’s the opposite. As mentioned, audiences have loved Argo, and it’s a defiantly happy movie. And Playbook’s Toronto win can partially be explained by the slight Canadian backlash to Argo; The CIA operation that it dramatizes was long thought to be the work of Canadian Intelligence until Bill Clinton declassified the files in 1997. There’s some lingering Canadian bitterness over the loss of credit for the operation, and the Toronto People’s Choice Award is voted on mostly by Canadians. The Oscars are not.

At this point, the best chance either of these films have to announce themselves as the front-runner is to make a killing at the box office. But Silver Linings Playbook had a dismal opening weekend, and Lincoln—while certainly a hit—looks like it will have a pretty similar gross to Argo. That just won’t be enough. 

Hollywood Loves to Market Itself

Here’s where we get to Argo’s secret weapon: Hollywood loves nothing more than itself. Over the last several years, as hi-def TVs and Blu-ray players have taken over living rooms, piracy is running rampant, and television has gotten noticeably better, it’s no secret that box office receipts have been taking a plunge. Recent Oscar telecasts have started doing these annoying montages about The Power of Movies, or Why We Love the Movies, and the like. It’s been a semi-shameless attempt to try and remind audiences that we should go to more movies, like an undersexed housewife donning a lacy new negligee to try and regain her husband’s attentions. Hollywood has been trying to resell people on its own magic, but failing to do so.

Well Hollywood, look no further. Argo is the movie of your dreams. For as many shots as Argo takes at Hollywood (and they are plentiful), there’s no denying the film’s resolution. Argo is a true story about Hollywood literally helping to save six American lives. It’s a film about the magic and seduction of the movies actually helping to combat terrorism. And Argo is no Indie movie. It was made and financed by a major studio (Warner Brothers), and shot partially on that studio’s back lot. It is honestly the greatest marketing campaign Hollywood could ever create for itself. And that campaign will be sealed with a Best Picture win. 

The Oscars Love Actor/Directors

What do Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson have in common? They were all bankable Hollywood movie stars who took a stab at directing, and won an Oscar for their efforts. All but Beatty also directed their films to a Best Picture Oscar. This isn’t just coincidence. The Oscars love to reward movie stars for doing something other than relying on their sculpted cheekbones. Giving leading men Oscars for directing isn’t really any different than giving Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard Oscars for roles where they wore prosthetic faces. The trend is the same: show us you’re more than a pretty face and you get a little gold guy. And three films into his directing career, Ben Affleck has emphatically announced that he’s much more than a pretty face.

Everyone Loves a Comeback

In Good Will Hunting, the movie that turned Ben Affleck into an overnight star in 1997, his character (Chuckie) gives a semi-famous speech to Matt Damon’s title character. Chuckie tells Will that he’s “sitting on a winning lottery ticket,” and that the best part of Chuckie’s day is each morning when he goes to pick Will up, and he thinks that maybe today he won’t be there. That maybe today was the day Will finally wised up and cashed in that winning lottery ticket. “I don’t know much, but I know that,” Affleck says at the end.

It’s important to understand that Affleck helped write that speech. To some degree, those words really did come from him. And this means that, in theory, through all of the terrible movies Affleck made between 1998-2004, those words were still lurking there in the back of his mind. It’s difficult to really blame Affleck for the choices he made in his late twenties. He was suddenly given the opportunity to be a major movie star and he jumped at it. There aren’t many of us who wouldn’t do the same. And he made a lot of bad choices that led to a lot of bad movies. But Affleck was still the same guy that a few years earlier had helped write that “winning lottery ticket” speech. And Ben Affleck is very smart, and very talented. We know that now even if we didn’t know that then. But it’s reasonable to assume that he knew that then. It’s reasonable to assume that he was watching those terrible movies he made, he was reading those awful reviews, he was seeing himself all over TMZ, he was hearing people call him “Bennifer,” and he was thinking about the winning lottery ticket he was sitting on, and wondering why he wasn’t cashing it in. 

Argo is the third film Ben Affleck has directed. The first two, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, are very good, occasionally great films. But Argo is the winning lottery ticket getting cashed in. It fulfills every good thing that’s ever been said about Ben Affleck and every ounce of faith that’s ever been placed in him. And that’s why he’s going to leave the Dolby Theater a few months from now clutching two shiny gold Oscars, one for directing and one for producing (Best Picture). I don’t know much, but I know that.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fall Movie Preview: Advice on What To See

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With the release of Ben Affleck’s Argo today, what we think of as the fall prestige movie season, or Oscar season, really kicks off in earnest. Appetites were wetted last month by The Master (well, at least some appetites), but this is the real start of a three-month stretch where a major Oscar hopeful is basically being released every week. Several of the movies that will vie for audience attentions and accolades premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I was lucky enough to see some of them. I’ve prepared this guide to help you, the all-important ticket-buyer, best decide how to use your hard-earned entertainment dollars.

Argo (October 12)

Directed by Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town)
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman

Argo tells the unbelievably true story of a 1980 CIA rescue operation that successfully extracted six American embassy workers from Iran by posing them as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a Star Wars-like science fiction movie. Affleck stars as the CIA agent heading the mission, Cranston plays his operations director, and Goodman & Arkin are the Hollywood power players who help him create just enough of a fake movie to sell the lie. The film is equal parts funny, suspenseful, and uplifting, and the level of tension created in the climax makes you seriously doubt a conclusion that you already know is coming. In his third outing behind the camera, Affleck proves he’s on the shortlist of the best contemporary American filmmakers.
You should see this film if… You appreciate any of the following: Hollywood satire, well-crafted political drama, entertaining history lessons, Hitchcock style suspense, and/or inspiring true stories of human triumph.
You should skip this film if… You tend to measure movies by explosions, violence, gratuitous nudity, or complete historical accuracy.

Seven Psychopaths (October 12)

Directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)
Starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Olga Kurylenko, Abbie Cornish, and Tom Waits

Seven Psychopaths tells the sordid tale of three bungling dog-kidnappers who accidentally take the prized Shih Tzu of a local gangster, and inadvertently set off a Los Angeles crime war. At the very least, the film is never boring. The gratuitous violence is consistently over-the-top, but it never over-shadows the ridiculousness. The dialogue is generally funny, as are the characters and situations, and the great cast always seems to be enjoying themselves at such a level that it’s contagious to the viewer. But having said that, this is a slightly disappointing movie if you go into it with any level of expectation (as I did). There’s nothing here even remotely resembling the character depth of director McDonagh’s great debut, In Bruges, and there are times when the movie is a little too reminiscent of the worst of the late 90’s Tarantino wannabes.
You should see this film if… You love Pulp Fiction because it’s awesome, hilarious, and violent.
You should skip this film if… You love Pulp Fiction because it’s artistic, innovative, and groundbreaking. (Or, I suppose, you should skip this movie if you don’t like Pulp Fiction. But why would you be reading a film column if you don’t like Pulp Fiction?)

The Paperboy (October 19)

Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious)
Starring Zach Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and John Cusack

Lee Daniels’ hotly awaited follow-up to Precious, The Paperboy is a gothic redneck murder tale told through the eyes of Zach Efron, who has the hots for Kidman’s southern belle temptress. She’s trying to get Cusack out of prison because she loves him (even though they’ve only corresponded through mail), and McConaughey is the lawyer she hires to help find new evidence that acquits him of the murder he’s been convicted of. Efron is McConaghey’s brother, and is helping him with the case. Sadly, those are the straightforward elements of the story, and the second half of the movie just skips around from one terrible plot twist to another. I loved Precious, and I had high hopes for this, but it did nothing but disappoint. If you’re looking for silver linings, here’s the best I can offer: the lighting and color-tones are kind of interesting, Kidman does a good job (though she’s much better playing a similar character in the pseudo-classic To Die For), Cusack actually takes a role against type, and there’s a great scene of Kidman pantomiming a blowjob to Cusack while she visits him in prison. And I think that exhausts the good things I can say about The Paperboy.
You should see this film if… You’re willing to pay $10 to see Zach Efron in his tightie whities.
You should skip this film if… You have good taste.

Smashed (October 19)

Directed by James Ponsoldt (Off the Black)
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, and Megan Mullally

A small character-driven film about a young married couple (Winstead and Paul) who drink themselves into a stupor every night, and about the strain it puts on their relationship when she decides to go sober, but he doesn’t. Smashed isn’t a great film, but it’s an interesting one, and it wears its heart on its proverbial sleeve. Winstead is the best thing here, and she shows a depth of ability that has never been apparent before (and I’ve always liked her). Paul is good, but he just plays a slightly altered version of his Breaking Bad character, and it feels like a missed opportunity. He should be taking roles that display his range, not that increase the likelihood of his being typecast. The film is generally more redemptive than it is heavy, and at only 90 minutes, it moves by incredibly quickly. Several of the scenes have a nicely compelling gravitas, and there’s a palpable authenticity to the proceedings, but overall, it feels like the struggles are a bit too simplified and the emotional journey is a little too truncated.
You should see this film if… You like your indie films to feel really, really indie, or if you’re always on the lookout for the next potentially important actor/actress/director.
You should skip this film if… You like having strong reactions to films.

Cloud Atlas (October 26)

Directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run)
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and Susan Sarandon

Adapted from the allegedly unfilmable novel, Cloud Atlas weaves together stories from six different eras to chronicle the epic journey of a soul across the past, present, and future, and about how acts of kindness can ripple throughout time. From that synopsis (and the pedigree of directors), you should just about know whether Cloud Atlas is your kind of flick or not, but I’ll keep going just for the hell of it. If films were measured purely on ambition, there’s no question that Cloud Atlas is one of the best films of this year or most others. There is a LOT going on here, the least of which is that twelve actors play every single role in the film, across all six time periods (generally, each actor has a character in each era, but they are not the same characters). Even if you don’t ultimately fall for the grandiosity and the themes of the film, it’s still an unbelievably captivating journey that finds a heightened level of drama in the early goings and then latches on to it for nearly three unforgettable hours. And make no mistake, this is an unforgettable film, even for the people that ultimately won’t like it (and they will be legion). The people that love this film will probably spend two solid months talking about it, and the people who hate the film will hate it very loudly and publicly. But I’m in the love camp. This is a film that asks you to believe and I believed. I was swept along on the journey that is Cloud Atlas and it was an experience that deeply moved me.
You should see this film if… You’re interested in hugely ambitious works of art, you still appreciate the communal aspects of the cinema, you value being a part of the cultural conversation, you’ve ever used the phrase “go big or go home,” or if you’ve ever wanted to see Hugh Grant playing a post-apocalyptic tribal warrior with tattoos and face paint (yes, really).
You should skip this film if… You’ve ever used the word “hogwash,” you strongly dislike leaving a theater unsure of what you just saw, or you have a morbid fear of seeing Tom Hanks with a goatee.

The Sessions (October 26)

Directed by Ben Lewin (Georgia, Paperback Romance)
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy

John Hawkes (an Oscar nominee in 2011 for Winter’s Bone) plays Mark O’Brien, the real-life poet and polio survivor who was unable to move below the neck and lived in an iron lung. Taking place in the 1980’s, this true story catches up with O’Brien as a middle-aged man who decides that, even if he never marries or finds the love of his life, he still wants to lose his virginity, and Helen Hunt plays the sex surrogate he hires to help him do so. The concept could easily have been played for cheap laughs (and to be fair, there are a lot of laughs here), but director Lewin—a polio survivor himself—prevents the films from ever going that route. Instead, we get a totally honest, and unapologetically graphic, portrayal of a man just trying to have sex. Hawkes and Hunt spend a good portion of their screen time nude, but the film never feels exploitative or gratuitous. The trick is that the viewpoint is funneled through Hawkes, who sees the beauty in every simplistic aspect of life, and who never feels sorry for himself, so we don’t either. The film doesn’t cash in on sympathy, but on the simple pleasure of an accomplished goal.
You should see this film if… you like simple movies about complicated things, you like movies that make you feel the beauty of life, you like the idea of William H. Macy playing a priest while keeping his Shameless haircut, and if you want to see the performance that will win the 2013 Best Actor Oscar (yep, you heard me).
You should skip this film if… You don’t experience human emotion, or if you’d rather see full frontal nudity clips for free on the Internet than pay to see them in a theater.

Silver Linings Playbook (November 21)

Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings)
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, and Julia Stiles

Bradley Cooper stars as a just-released mental patient living with his parents (De Niro & Weaver) in Philadelphia, in a story about how he embraces the road to recovery with the help of a beautiful young widow trying to cope with problems of her own (Lawrence). Treading a somewhat similar ground as As Good As It Gets, this film had ample opportunity to go off the rails and disappoint, but it amazingly never does. Cooper proves he can carry a movie whose box office won’t be driven by frat guys, and Lawrence turns in her best acting performance yet (and for anyone that saw Winter’s Bone, you know that’s saying something). There are a few minor flaws here—the film never goes for a big emotional payoff moment, a few of the comedic sequences feel a little too contrived, and the climax seems to swipe a page from the Little Miss Sunshine script—but none of these are obvious while you’re watching. It’s just too enjoyable.
Note: Silver Linings Playbook won the audience award in Toronto, which has become something of an Oscar predictor in recent years (Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech also won it), but I think the safer Oscar bet here is Jennifer Lawrence’s scene-stealing performance. In my mind, she’s the lead actress to beat.
You should see this film if… You like movie stars at the top of their game, good dramedies, unconventional romantic comedies, memorable dance sequences, or if you want to see Robert De Niro actually earn a paycheck for the first time since the 90’s.
You should skip this film if… You think serious movies ought to be serious, and that happy endings are too formulaic and sappy.  

Rust and Bone (November 23)

Directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet)
Starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts

This French character drama stars Marion Cotillard (Inception, Dark Knight Rises, La Vie en Rose) as a killer whale trainer who loses both legs in an accident, and forges an emotional connection with a bare-knuckle street fighter. If it sounds heavy, it is. The acting is generally phenomenal, much of the imagery is stunning, and there are a handful of moments that are as moving and deeply affecting as anything you’ll see this year. But director Audiard, who made the incredible prison crime drama A Prophet (a 2010 Best Foreign Language Film nominee), mostly keeps the dramatic tension out of this one, and it would be a struggle for anyone to really call this film entertaining.
You should see this film if… You like really well crafted character pieces, or if you feel compelled to see every potential nominee for Best Actress.
You should skip this film if… You generally don’t like walking out of a theater feeling as though your soul has been given an anesthetic.

On The Road (December 21)

Directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries)
Starring Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, and Viggo Mortensen

Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining novel finally makes it to the big screen courtesy of Brazilian director Walter Salles, who has previous experience making a good road trip film with the Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries. The lead roles are played by two talented young actors, Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) as the decadent Dean Moriarty and Sam Riley (Control) as the Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise, and both do a fantastic job bringing the legendary characters to life. Kristen Stewart (Twilight) costars, and goes what has to be described as all-in on her first real adult role, playing a sex-object version of the manic pixie dream girl archetype. But even if the individual elements of the film—acting, pacing, photography, and energy—all ring true, it’s the feeling that’s missing. The enduring appeal of the novel isn’t necessarily the characters or the story, but the language, and short of having the characters simply read the novel on screen (which actually does happen a fair amount), the film just can’t recreate that despite a damn good effort.
You should see this film if… You’ve always been interested in the idea of reading “On The Road.”
You should skip this film if… You’ve actually read “On The Road.”

Of course I missed a few movies in Toronto that would have made this preview had I seen them (Anna Karenina, The Impossible, Hyde Park on Hudson), and there are also a number of notable films arriving in theaters this fall that opted not to go to Toronto (Django Unchained, The Hobbit, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty)… But that’s the great thing about loving movies: you’ll never run out of more to see.

And lastly, here are five wonderful films I saw in Toronto that won’t be hitting U.S. theaters until 2013, but which you should definitely put on your radar:

How To Make Money Selling Drugs—A scathing look at U.S. drug policy and why dealing appeals to so many people, this documentary succeeds on every level; It’s funny, succinct, informative, thorough, and thought-provoking.

Kon-Tiki—The true story of Thor Heyerdahl, who spent the summer of 1947 floating 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia on a raft made of balsa wood in an effort to prove that the Polynesian islands were originally colonized by South America. One of the greatest film adventure stories I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Lore—The poetic tale of a 14 year-old German girl at the end of World War II, who must care for her young siblings when their Nazi parents are arrested for war crimes. Filled with powerful imagery and portraying a unique perspective, I was deeply affected by this film.

The Sapphires—The true story of four Aboriginal girls in the 1960’s who formed a Supremes-like soul group and left Australia to go to Vietnam and sing for U.S. troops. This is the best music film I’ve seen in years, and Chris O’Dowd (the cop from Bridesmaids) kills it as their Irish manager.

Thanks For Sharing—A sex addiction dramedy by Stuart Blumberg (the writer of The Kids are All Right), starring Mark Ruffalo, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Tim Robbins, which is equal parts funny and heavy.

And that’s it, happy viewing!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Citizen Kane is no longer "The Greatest FIlm of all Time"

So, Thursday was kind of a big day for film history. Citizen Kane was “officially” unseated as The Greatest Film of All Time.

Okay, back up. Some background: When people say things like “By consensus, Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time,” the “consensus” that they’re talking about is (probably) (maybe) the Sight & Sound poll, which has been conducted by BFI (The British Film Institute) once every ten years since 1952, and is generally considered the best of its kind. In that first edition, the number one film was Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), but Citizen Kane topped the 1962 poll and has done so in every poll since. That is, until now.

The *new* Greatest Film of All Time is… Dramatic pause… Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo! After first showing up in the 1982 poll, Vertigo steadily climbed the ranks, and finished #2 (behind Kane) in the 2002 edition. Some people even predicted it would knock Citizen Kane off its perch in the new poll.

Here are the 10 Greatest Films of All Time according to the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, released Thursday, August 2.

1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
4. The Rules of The Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau,
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
8. Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Now technically, this is just the critic’s poll, and there’s also a director’s poll, but the critic’s poll tends to be the one given more weight (for reasons I don’t necessarily understand). To obtain the results, BFI asked 846 leading critics, programmers, and academics from all over the world to list what they believe to be the ten greatest films. And what does BFI mean by “Greatest?” Well, here’s what they actually said in the email sent to voters:

As for what we mean by 'Greatest', we leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.

This is by far the largest voting body the poll has ever seen, as the 2002 poll only had 145 voters. So, it does make sense that with a voting body more than quintupling in size, the results were bound to be a bit different. But like most voting-based outcomes, there are inherent flaws in the process that must be considered. Here are the major two that I see.

1. With voters only being allowed to select ten films, it’s unlikely that many directors showed up twice on a lot of ballots. As Roger Ebert points out, this means that directors with more than one “masterpiece” likely split their own vote. For example, voters that wanted to select a Scorsese film were probably forced to choose between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull unless they wanted to use up two spots on a ballot that already had precious little space. This hurt the chances of either film showing up on the finished list, unlike (for example) The Searchers, which is pretty unanimously believed to be John Ford’s greatest work. Other directors (probably) hurt by this quirk: Truffaut (400 Blows or Jules et Jim?), Kurosawa (Seven Samurai or Rashomon?), Chaplin (City Lights, The Gold Rush, or Modern Times?), Coppola (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, or Apocalypse Now?), Keaton (The General or Sherlock Jr.?), Bergman (The Seventh Seal or Persona?), and Godard (Breathless or Contempt?). If voters were permitted a top 50, or even a top 25, this vote-splitting effect would have been substantially diminished.

2. Voters were not required to rank their ten selections, and all films voted for on any ballot were weighted equally. More than anything, this might be the biggest reason Citizen Kane was unseated. In this latest poll, Kane received 157 votes compared to Vertigo’s 191. But how many of the 157 people that voted for Kane think it is the single greatest film of all time? My guess is a higher number than the amount of people that would say that about Vertigo. If voters were required to rank, and points were awarded on a weighted basis according to those rankings, I think Citizen Kane would have still finished #1 despite appearing on fewer overall ballots.

But even with these flaws, this is still a great list, and as Peter Matthews says in the latest issue of Sight & Sound, people upset by Citizen Kane’s placing should still be able to rejoice in the “proof that film canons are not completely fossilized.” It’s useful to be reminded in such a concrete way that opinions and accepted truths do change over time.

And consider this: in the 2002 poll, Citizen Kane appeared on 46 of the 145 critic's ballots, or about 32%. This year, Kane's 157 votes means it only appeared on 19% of the critic's ballots. 

The full top 100 list for both the critic’s and director’s polls will be revealed later this month, as will the actual ballots of every single voter. But until that happens, here are some thoughts and observations on what we know so far.

·      I’ve always liked Vertigo better than Citizen Kane. To me, Vertigo is the more psychologically complex film, richer in its lingering effect on the viewer, and it probably uses color better than any other film. However, I do think Citizen Kane remains the more important and influential film overall. Does this mean voters are subconsciously saying that psychological complexity is more important to them now than technological and stylistic innovations? I suspect it’s no accident that Vertigo ascended to the top of the list at a time when cinema’s two greatest contemporary filmmakers (David Fincher and Christopher Nolan) are people that have been massively and obviously influenced by its exploration of the darker corners of the human psyche.

·      According to Entertainment Weekly, Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound, suggested that this result “reflected changes in the culture of film criticism,” and voters appear to be “more about works that have personal meaning to the critic.” However, Richard Rushfield (of the Daily Beast) suggests that Citizen Kane was dethroned merely because of the Twitter era that we now live in, where everything experiences backlash at an accelerated rate, and the very notion of something being seen as “the best” ensures that people will go out of their way to prove otherwise. If this is true, Vertigo could experience a rather short reign at the top.

·      Three silent films made the top ten for the first time since 1972. With more voters than ever, and over 2,000 films receiving at least one vote (!!!), the silent era appears to be one of the few corners of film history where a consensus has (almost) been reached. But, fascinatingly, that consensus has now excluded Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which made the top ten of every previous poll, but finished 11th this year. While it’s true that the difference between 10th and 11th place is pretty extremely arbitrary, it’s still a significant slip for a film that appeared to have a permanent lock on the top ten. As with the Kane/Vertigo switch, Potemkin is the more technically innovative film, while the three silents that finished ahead of it appeal more overtly to the viewer’s emotions.

·      With Potemkin slipping out, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of The Game, a 1939 French comedy of manners, is now the only film to appear in the top ten of every poll. It finished 10th in 1952, moved up to 3rd in ’62, then finished 2nd behind Citizen Kane for three straight polls before sliding back down to 3rd in 2002 and slipping to 4th this year. For a film that reveals more nuances and hidden plots with every viewing, I would expect this spot to be secure for a long time.

·      The Godfather & The Godfather Part II finished 4th in the 2002 poll while occupying one spot, because BFI allowed voters to count them together as a single work. This year, however, the rules stipulated that the two films be counted separately, and presumably voters ended up picking one or the other. The two films plummeted out of the top ten as a result, finishing at 21 & 31 respectively. However, if the votes for both films were combined, they would have finished 7th, just ahead of The Searchers. Though on the director’s list, The Godfather and Vertigo tied at #7, with Tokyo Story finishing #1.

·      Only two films from the 2000’s appeared in the critic’s top 50, In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) at #24 and Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001) at #28, and even those are both over ten years old now. This isn’t a huge surprise, considering the most recent film in the top ten (2001) is 44 years old. People like to know a film has stood the test of time before anointing it. But from the last decade, I would expect films like The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth, No Country For Old Men, and City of God to all make some noise on this list in the decades to come.

·      Here’s the director’s list:

1. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

2. (tie) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley
Kubrick, 1968)

2. (tie) Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

4. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

5. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

6. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola,

7. (tie) The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola,

7. (tie) Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

9. Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)

10. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

It’s always fascinating to see the differences between the two lists. Right away you can tell the directors were less afraid to vote a bit more recent, with four films in the top ten hailing from the 1970’s, and no silent films made the director’s top ten. This is probably a sign that the directors were less concerned about the results being “right” than the critics are (perhaps indicating why the critic’s list is viewed as more definitive), and are therefore more willing to vote without self-imposed rules (i.e. can’t be too recent, have to pick a silent, etc.). It also appears that the directors are more enamored with the purity of a filmmaker’s vision and degree of difficulty than they are with emotional connectivity.

And the switch at the top is particularly interesting. As with the critic's poll, Citizen Kane fell to #2 after a long reign at the top. But unlike the critic's poll, where the top two films from the 2002 version just switched places, the director's selected Tokyo Story #1, after it finished 16th in the 2002 edition. A huge leap, to be sure, and I don't have any idea what accounted for it. 

What would I have voted for? I won’t lie, one of my goals as a critic in life is to one day be asked to vote in this poll, so of course I’ve thought about it. Unfortunately, I’m still at a point where I’ve seen a huge number of important films only once (or not at all), and I wouldn’t want to vote for anything that I hadn’t seen enough times to fully appreciate. As for my definition of greatness, I’ve always viewed it as a 50/50 combination of importance and quality, but I also like the idea of populating my ballot with a little bit of everything suggested by Sight & Sound in their email to voters: some historical importance, some pinnacles of aesthetic achievement, and some personal impact on my own relationship with cinema. So here’s my best stab:

1. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
3. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchock, 1958)
4. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
6. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
7. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
8. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
9. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
10. Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop
Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

And just because, here are the five movies that I had the most difficulty cutting off my list: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966), The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957), Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), Bonnie & Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), and Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993).