Friday, March 27, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 6

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):

Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, 2014)
Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014)
She's Beautiful When She's Angry (Mary Dore, 2015)
Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada, 2014)
Gerhard Richter - Painting (Corinna Pelz, 2011)
The Devil's Own (Alan J. Pakula, 1997)
The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)
Girls: Season 4 (Lena Dunham, 2015)

5 Thoughts: 

1. Beyond the Lights is the first movie I've seen by Gina Prince-Bythewood, but it ensures I'll see her most famous film, Love & Basketball. There's nothing especially original or artistically notable, but as a story, it adds a nice amount of depth and character development to a genre where it might not be expected (or even welcome). After seeing Belle the previous week, this is now the second film I've seen with British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the starring role, and she's absolutely magnetic. Just like she showed in Belle, she has an ability to play several conflicting emotions at once, without ever coming off as showy. I'm looking forward to where her career will go. 

2. I'm starting to plan a long retrospective piece on the development of Brad Pitt's career, so as a result, I'll be watching all of his films over the next several months. The Devil's Own is one of his few that I hadn't already seen, and it was about what I expected. Harrison Ford plays Harrison Ford (no surprise there!), and Pitt does a decent job with an Irish accent --if you didn't know it was Pitt, and weren't therefor looking for the flaws, you probably wouldn't find them. What really struck me about the film, though, is how much it felt like part of an extinct breed. The Devil's Own is a mid-budget, non-prestige/non-Oscar-bait, star-driven drama. When was the last time one of those came out? Something with that exact same plot--an IRA terrorist on the run in America, boarding in an Irish cop's basement--would be a 10-12 episode television show in 2015. There's simply no market for that sort of thing in theaters anymore. It's not good enough and too pricey for the art house circuit, and the only dramas that go into wide release are the ones that might win Best Picture. The director, Alan J. Pakula, made his entire career off of films like this--high concept dramas with huge stars at the peak of their fame. His best films, All the President's Men, Sophie's Choice, and Klute, are all remembered as among the best their actors ever made. Other films of his like Presumed Innocent, The Pelican Brief, and this one, are more forgettable. But they're all movies that gave audiences something they wanted to see, and it's still hard getting used to that era being dead and gone. TV is better than ever now, but everything has a price. 

3. Speaking of great TV, Season 4 of Girls was the best one yet. It's also the season where the four main characters shared the least amount of screen-time together, and that's not a coincidence. As I find network sitcoms increasingly unwatchable, Girls dares to confront us with the idea that people grow apart, and the idea of plot constraints keeping them in rooms together for years at a time might be an outdated show model. It's not a shock that Hannah's time in Iowa was brief, but even when she came back, the characters all acted fairly independently from one another. Shoshana was the season MVP, and I could probably watch an hour straight of her job interview scenes. She also had the best line of the year (so far), introducing me to the word "budussy." Jessa crawled up out of the abhorrently unlikeable grave she spent last season in to become actually kind of amusing, while Marnie stole her title as least likable character.  Even more, Adam and Ray continued their journey as growing characters, and the relationship assassin Mimi-Rose Howard was a great fifth girl wheel. My only complaint: I strongly disliked the last 30 seconds of the season finale, the "six months later" gimmick. I don't see what the narrative point was. We already saw Hannah's leap in maturity by turning down Adam's offer of getting back together, and the sneak at who she's with down the road seems to only undermine what we knew about that character. It felt like a rare story-telling cliche in a show that almost never has any. 

4. I watched three documentaries this week, and it was fascinating to compare their approaches, which were wildly different. The new documentary about the history of the feminist movement, She's Beautiful When She's Angry, was definitely the most conventional of the three, combining the standard elements--historical footage, present-day interviews, contextual photos--in the usual way, edited to create a clear, encompassing portrait of its subject. It's exactly what I thought it would be, but well-done and nicely informative. 

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, about Japan's great Studio Ghibli, takes more of a fly on the wall approach. We basically spend a year in the studio, watching master anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki prepare his final film, The Wind Rises. I was actually kind of shocked how un-engaging this movie was, and it took me several spells over three days to finally get through it. Within its two hours, there are a handful of great moments, tidbits, and quotes from its subject, but there's also a whole lot of watching the cat roam around the studio, Miyazaki walking up and down the stairs, and a lot of people discussing things in meetings that feel entirely unimportant. The great documentarian Errol Morris once said that "the measure of a documentary isn't in whether it shows the truth, but in whether it attempts to find the truth." This didn't do that. At all. 

But Gerhard Richter - Painting absolutely does. In some ways, it's also a fly on the wall documentary, only if you could find a fly that never moved. And that's what's great about it--we go into the great German painter Gerhard Richter's studio, and we watch him paint. That might sound boring, but the way the film is edited actually makes it quite riveting. 

It's not like simply watching paint drying, but like watching an artist create with all of the staring and thinking edited out. One step seamlessly flows into the next one, and it never has time to feel pedantic because the next idea is always about to manifest. As I was watching it, I was imagining being able to stand over the shoulder of a favorite writer, watching them write a paragraph, seeing how it looks first, then which words get deleted or changed, which sentences get cut out, and see how the raw material of the initial thought splatter get molded step by step into the final work of art. 

5. A few weeks back a friend sent me one of those random pop-culture lists that you can find on the internet, this one for "The 25 Kinkiest Movies Ever." Most of the list was predictable (though how Basic Instinct missed the cut will be one of the great unsolved mysteries of my life), but one of the higher ranking films which I hadn't seen also happened to be a new release on Criterion Blu-Ray, The Night Porter. It turns out The Night Porter is not just one of the kinkiest films ever, but also one of the most infamous, with a plot about a Nazi guard who enters a sadomasochistic relationship with a teenage girl in a concentration camp who he both tortures and protects, and then ten years after the war, they randomly encounter each other at a Vienna hotel and renew their disturbingly sexual behaviors with one another. Critical opinion was split upon its 1974 release, with Roger Ebert calling it "despicable" and Pauline Kael saying it was "junk," while several European critics hailed it as a masterpiece. 

I think it's neither. Psychologically, it's fascinating, despicable only in equal measure to the scary truths about human sexuality which it dares to explore. But a true masterpiece would have explored those ideas in more profound ways. There are great scenes, but unlike the previous year's Last Tango in Paris, which used a darkly sexual relationship to craft a timeless character piece, The Night Porter undermines its own daringness with a plot that puts the lead characters in danger of reprisal from third parties. The actions the characters undertake become less interesting when they're factoring in extraneous dangers, as opposed to merely the dangers their own carnality can provide. 

But there is this scene, with a strikingly beautiful Charlotte Rampling donning a Oh-man-is-it-disturbing-how-sexy-I-find-that partial SS uniform. (The video is NSFW)

Stay tuned for a full review of the Argentinian masterpiece Wild Tales!

Friday, March 20, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 5

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers): 

Belle (Amma Asante, 2014)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014)
47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch, 2013)
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, 2014)
I Hate Christian Laettner (ESPN Films, 2015)
Kobe Bryant's Muse (Gotham Chopra, 2015)

5 Thoughts:

1. Since Taken in 2008, Liam Neeson has made eight non-CGI/non-super-hero/non-multimedia-property action films, almost all of which have been released in the first three months of the year. Along with Jason Statham, Neeson is basically the only actor making films like this, and they tend to be (mostly) pretty good. It's simultaneously one of the most bizarre and one of the most successful late-career reinventions an actor has ever undertaken. After several outstanding performances in period dramas like Schindler's List and Kinsey, this isn't exactly where anyone predicted his career would go, but here we are, and he's found a niche that he seems to enjoy and is really quite good at. 

What's really fascinating to me, though, is that Neeson is one of the only actors in Hollywood to successfully use himself as The Brand, in the way that evokes classic Hollywood. The stars always used to be the brand; that was the Hollywood business model. Calling something a "John Wayne Movie," a "Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire Movie," or a "Clint Eastwood Movie" used to intrinsically mean something about what the product was, and the star is what made the product a reliable source of profit. That hasn't been the case for a long time. There are a lot of famous movie stars, but they're no longer reliably bankable. The idea of a "George Clooney Movie" or a "Matt Damon Movie" doesn't mean anything in terms of its likely financial success, or what sort of product it is. But Neeson defies that. A "Liam Neeson Movie" is a product labeling that makes sense to people, and draws in crowds based on brand alone. Taken 3 got absolutely wretched reviews, but it made almost 300 million dollars, which is incredibly rare for a non-CGI movie. That level of success is based on audiences wanting the type of cinema experience that they reliably expect from Neeson's films. In that sense, he's one of the only real movie stars we have left. 

Oh, and Non-Stop was really quite good. It's probably not a movie that will stand up to a ton of plot-hole-vetting, but as far as just creating gripping and entertaining tension and not letting up, it succeeds very well. 

2. On the other hand, 47 Ronin is everything NOT to do when making a genre movie. I know it was supposed to be terrible, but I thought it would at least be a vaguely enjoyable period samurai flick, as I enjoy that sort of thing. It was not. This is just not a watchable movie. I was out within the first ten minutes, when some ridiculous looking, poorly-CGIed mythical beast rampages through the Japanese countryside. So much for the idea of seeing a period adventure movie. Things just kept getting worse from there, with Keanu Reeves dramatically trying to sell tragic dialogue like, "I vowed never to use the magical powers they taught me." It's honestly much worse than you're prepared for. 

3. I was also disappointed in The Homesman, though for very different reasons. I really liked Tommy Lee Jones' previous directorial effort, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), but none of the charms from that meditative, cheeky western follow over here. The Homesman is very quaint and very slow. It features reliably strong acting performances from its leads--Jones and Hilary Swank--but keeps its distance from anything that might make their characters or struggles actually engaging. The one major strength of the film is the Psycho-like plot twist that occurs at about the 3/4 point of the run time, but by then, it's already been too difficult to maintain full interest. And Hillary Swank, talented though she may be, is physically the wrong actress to make the twist narratively believable. 

4. Belle was definitely the best film I saw this week. Dramatizing the true story of a mulatto girl being raised in the British aristocracy of the late 18th century, Belle is a great example of how a costume drama can overcome the inherent stuffiness of the genre to still engage our deepest emotions. The two great weapons deployed here are the acting chops of star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who also starred in last fall's Beyond the Lights) and the biting dialogue of screenwriter Misan Sagay. Mbatha-Raw is a revelation; she's so good I'd put money down right now on her becoming one of the best and most accoladed actresses of her generation. (If she gets enough good roles, which is always the struggle for actresses of color. Just ask Halle Berry.) There's a scene early on where Mbatha-Raw's titular character examines herself in the mirror and almost painfully attacks her own facial features, as though she can remold herself into a white woman. It's one of those risky scenes that would have come off as sadly comical in the hands of an actress with less ability to convey her pain, but Mbatha-Raw turns it into an image that sears into you. But all that emotive ability from the film's star couldn't have told the story so well were it not for the dialogue written by Sagay, who daringly used no source material and wrote Belle as an original screenplay. Obviously there was a compelling story to work with, but it's the strength of Sagay's words truly drive home the climactic scenes. Selma may have gotten all of the attention (good and bad), but Belle is 2014's best film about racial struggles. 

5. Signaling the start of March Madness, two interesting basketball documentaries premiered this week, one on ESPN and one on Showtime. I shouldn't be shocked by this, but the Showtime one is better (though both are worth your time if the subjects interest you). I Hate Christian Laettner is a decent documentary about a topic that proves more interesting than I would have thought, because of the way it dives into the "why" of the hatred towards Laettner, as opposed to just documenting it. But that said, it still plays more like a (very) extended Sportscenter segment than it does as a film. Even if the interviews and historical footage are compelling, there's just nothing cinematic there. Not so with Kobe Bryant's Muse, which is one of the better sports documentaries I've seen. The first thing that stood out to me was just the difference in the way the films are lit. In appearance, Kobe looks like it could have been shot by David Fincher. It also digs deep, in ways that are both self-serving for Kobe, but also strikingly honest and candid. It is a bit frustrating for what's not included--while Kobe describes at length how difficult the 2004 season was for his personal life, the words "rape" and "trial" are conveniently never mentioned, and the comments Phil Jackson made in his book about that season are also never addressed. But those (semi-major) quibbles aside, Kobe Bryant's Muse effectively humanizes a subject who's always come across as a basketball robot, and no matter how calculated that goal may have been from the film's outset, it still couldn't happen accidentally. It's also a welcoming surprise from Kobe--for someone who's spent his entire career making seemingly every choice predicated on the "What would Jordan do?" corollary, here's a side of Kobe that Jordan would have NEVER let the public see. While Jordan took himself out of the league instead of letting us see his on-court decline from MVP-level, Kobe made a full movie about it, and explains why leaving the game would feel far worse than publicly failing at it. 

Film Score of the Week: Cliffhanger, by Trevor Jones (1993)

What better way to celebrate the first day of March Madness--and several games that came down to the final possession--than with a movie called Cliffhanger

I've always had a (very) soft spot for Alpha Male-style action flicks, and that's largely because I grew up in the prime era for movies like this. Because Cliffhanger never spawned any sequels, it tends to be forgotten in comparison to many of its contemporaries, but it's actually one of the very best there is--a movie that combines a good high concept plot, phenomenal set pieces and stunts, a great villain (John Lithgow at his most sadistic), and a stunning score that has still stayed with me more than twenty years later. 

Because Cliffhanger had a much higher concept than even most high concepts, it needed a score that evoked not just the action and drama, but also the grandeur of the visuals. Because the location and landscapes play such a huge role in this movie (which is slightly unusual for the genre), the score to Cliffhanger is thematically closer to classic Hollywood epics than it is to the other Reagan-era action films, of which this is one of the last great gasps before CGI fully took over action films and changed them forever. 

The score was written by Trevor Jones, who's probably most well known for his score to The Last of the Mohicans the year before, and for which this uses many of the same elements. Overall, Jones has had an underwhelming career, but that could be due to the films he's worked on. His IMDb resume is mostly a depressing list of B & C movies with titles like Bad Influence, Chains of GoldBlame it on the Bellboy, and Kiss of Death, none of which were probably likely to summon his peak creative inspiration. 

It's unclear why that became his career path. You'd think after the gorgeous score to Mohicans and then this in back to back years, offers for prestige films would have been flowing in. But if they did, Jones must have turned them down. Or maybe directors thought he's hard to work with. It's hard to say why some careers never reach their potential. 

But none of that diminishes what Jones did here, which is make a good little action movie feel as enormous and breathtaking as the Rocky Mountains that he was sonically capturing. 

(Side note: Check out the 7:55 mark of the embedded video for one of the all-time great acting WTF's, as the actor playing Frank seems to wildly misunderstand what emotion the scene was calling for, and looks upon the imminent death with what appears to be a cross between manic excitement and wild glee. It's like the director told him, "Okay, now give me 'Pedophile at crowded elementary school playground with no teachers in sight.'")

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 4

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers): 

What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, 2015)
Fury (David Ayer, 2014)
Finding Fela! (Alex Gibney, 2014)
Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992)
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2014)

5 Thoughts:

1. What I loved about Fury is that I never felt like it was encouraging a point of view. A few weeks ago I excoriated American Sniper for having no clue what the hell it was trying to say, with the implication being that a war movie needs to say something. Of course the assembly line of John Wayne WWII movies didn't conform to this, but for the most part, the major war movies have all had  A Point about war. Saving Private Ryan is a hero story, Apocalypse Now is about the pure insanity of war, Platoon is about the way war ruins the soldiers who fight it, The Thin Red Line is about the wastefulness of war on the world, War Horse is about how World War I was fought to reunite a boy and his horse, et cetera. It's like an unwritten rule that there must be a message. But Fury willfully ignores that, and I loved it for doing so. There's a bit of heroism, a bit of insanity, a bit of life-ruining, and a bit of wastefulness, but it all feels like it's there not as preaching, but as an implicit "this is here because of course it was." After the failure of American Sniper to figure out what ulterior motive it was trying (and failing) to schlep on us, it was nice to see a war film without the ambition of a greater point. Just five guys in a tank, doing their best. 

2. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the latest film from Studio Ghibli (kind of the Disney of Japan), and by the same distinguished gentleman who made the wonderful Grave of the Fireflies almost thirty years ago. Like most Ghibli films, it's adorable, and it looks great. Actually, Kaguya isn't even like most Ghibli films in that regard, because it's the best looking one there is, notably more visually poetic than anything before, with stunning charcoal-like drawing that the digital age could sorely use more of. Also like several other Ghibli films, there are no villain, which is so different than American children's films that it's difficult to wrap your head around no matter how many Ghibli films you see. But therein lies the (huge) flaw--this is an animated children's film with no antagonist, and it's 138 minutes. Holy crap, does this mutha drag. I wanted to love it. I really did. Some of the scenes are so visually striking, that it almost worked. The ending is beautiful. But getting there takes soooooo looooong. 

3. Fela Kuti is totally amazing. I kind of knew this before seeing Finding Fela!, and now I know it even more so. Director Alex Gibney is one of four or five people who could legitimately be called the greatest documentarian currently working, and he takes an interesting structural strategy here, as the film partially focuses on the creation of the broadway show Fela!, with both the show and the film going on a deep dive into who the man was. He doesn't always come across like the greatest guy--27 wives, what??--but as the show's choreographer says at one point in the film, "He was an original artist; he made a form where there was no form." As docu-biopics go, this is a very good one.  

4. Chaplin, the 1992 biopic by the maker of 1982's Best Picture Winner, Gandhi, is one of the greatest examples that Howard Hawks was wrong. Hawks famously said that, "A good movie is three good scenes, no bad ones." Chaplin does that--it even has far more than just three good scenes. But the result feels somehow less than the sum of the parts. For as many good scenes as there are here, they're all juxtaposed poorly in a way that minimizes their impact. The structure never quite helps you enough in piecing together when events are taking place, and what effect they're having on the larger picture. But that said, so many of the scenes are great. If anything, the major problem is that the movie's too short. It may be 135 minutes long already, but Attenborough's Gandhi was a full hour longer than that, and Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Chaplin ensures that the film never grows dull, so adding to its runtime shouldn't have hurt the overall product, and might have helped clean up the narrative a bit. Still, it's heavily worth watching, both for the way it celebrates Chaplin's visual inventiveness in wonderful ways, and how unflinchingly it shows the way Hollywood (and America) chewed him up and spit him out. 

5. I wrote a full review of What We Do in the Shadows last week, check it out!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Film Score of the Week: Beetlejuice, by Danny Elfman (1988)

Few film score composers and directors have ever been more perfectly paired than Danny Elfman and Tim Burton, which is amazing luck, as Burton's first film happened to be the second film Elfman ever scored--Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Shortly after that, the duo went on an amazing three-film streak--Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands--which their reputations have mostly rested on ever since. 

Personally, I'd say the first Batman (1989) is their best achievement as a pair--a movie with a pretty ho-hum script, but which looked and sounded better than any comic book movie before or since. But Beetlejuice is definitely the most fun either have ever had, a bonkers movie that taps into the most creative parts of their collective imaginations, with every weird idea they had just pouring out and finding voice in Michael Keaton's manic performance. Elfman's dark carnival-esque sounds are equaled by the perfect dark-carnival of Burton's design, and Michael Keaton makes for the perfect nightmare barker. 

Beetlejuice first came out when I was a kid, and I saw it around that time too. It made perfect sense to my seven-year old mind. Rewatching it as an adult, I'm amazed it exists. Can you imagine the pitch meeting where Burton tried to describe it to a studio-head? Or when they saw the first production and costume designs? Or first read the screenplay? Looking back, this and Edward Scissorhands feel like the only movies that really tapped into Burton's creative potential. 

Danny Elfman was also the lead singer/songwriter for '80s New-Wave band Oingo Boingo, but by the time his collaborations with Burton hit their stride in the late-'80s/early-'90s, he'd turned his full attentions to film composing, also churning out great scores to movies like Dick Tracy, To Die For, Mission Impossible, Spider-Man, Men in Black, and many more. He's been nominated for four Oscars, but hasn't won one yet. As a consolation prize, he wrote the theme to The Simpsons (also in 1988), which is probably a strong contender for Most Recognizable Television Theme ever. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Film Score of the Week: Star Trek--The Motion Picture, by Jerry Goldsmith (1979)

In honor of Leonard Nimoy, Spock himself, all of us can live long and prosper with this great film music.

What I love about this score is that it captures everything the idea of the Star Trek franchise is supposed be: It's epic, but has this feeling of being continuous instead of climactic. Star Trek is, after all, a series about the journey, not the destination. 

And what Goldsmith doesn't get enough credit for here is that this score was directly competing against John Williams' Star Wars score, and really held it's own pretty well. People forget, Star Trek was only a three season show that got cancelled at the end of the '60s, and might not ever have been heard from again had it not been for Star Wars in 1977, and every other film studio immediately trying to duplicate that type of success. Hence the resurrection of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979, which tried to play to that same audience and failed miserably (with people snarkily calling it "The Motionless Picture" for how goddamned boring it was). The score was the only element that met expectations. 

Jerry Goldsmith is definitely in contention for the title of "Greatest film composer that most people don't know by name." He's basically the poor man's John Williams, and I mean that in the same way you might call L.A. Confidential the poor man's Chinatown--both great, one definitely better. (And both of which Goldsmith wrote the score for!)

Basically, Goldsmith is supremely talented at writing semi-epic scores for semi-franchise movies, just never being quite as good at it as Williams (as though anyone ever could be). In addition to this one, he wrote memorable scores to Alien, The Omen, The Planet of the Apes, Gremlins, Air Force OneFirst Blood (Rambo), The Mummy, Basic Instinct, Poltergeist, Patton, and several others. Along the way, he collected 18 Oscar nominations, but only won once (Original Score for The Omen, 1976). He died in 2004, with 250 composer credits to his IMDb page. 

Leonard and Jerry-- Live Long and Prosper. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

New in Theaters: What We Do in the Shadows

It's been 31 years since the release of This is Spinal Tap, and somehow, in an era where every good idea is endlessly recycled ad nauseam, the Mockumentary genre still feels relatively under-explored. What We Do in the Shadows, by the same Kiwi comedians that brought us Flight of the Conchords and 2010's underrated Boy (which should be required viewing for all Michael Jackson enthusiasts), helps point out how much fresh air is still left in the realm. 

Setting up a Real World-style look at the lives of four New Zealand vampires who live together in a situation that couldn't even loosely be described as functional--no one's done the dishes in five years, and they're all caked in blood--this film effectively does for vampire movies what Spinal Tap first accomplished for Judas Priest and Iron Maiden three decades ago--it takes the piss straight out of them. 

The plot, if you feel inclined to call it that, is that the main characters are getting ready to attend a semi-annual Wellington Ball, called the Unholy Masquerade, in which all of the undead monsters of New Zealand--vampires, zombies, werewolves, etc.--gather to party. But really, that plot conceit just exists as an excuse for 85 minutes of funny vampire jokes and set pieces. 

And the comedy, while dry, is generally very good. Despite sleeping in coffins, the characters still wake up via alarm clocks. They have trouble going to nightclubs because they can't get the bouncers to literally invite them in. When they bring victims back to their house, they put newspaper down to try and control the blood stains that get everywhere. There's a lot more, and I'm intentionally leaving out the best ones. Just wait until you hear how Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, who co-directed with Taika Waititi) explains why he prefers virgin blood. 

Because we're in an era where vampire stories seem to be overrunning pop culture, this film feels as timely as some of the classic Mel Brooks spoofs, like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. But what's great here is that the movie isn't merely mocking other popular films and TV shows, but also an entire horror archetype, which means that, unlike Spaceballs or Spinal Tap, What We Do in the Shadows should have a much longer lifespan, and should play well to audiences for as long as vampire stories remain a thing. Because that will probably be a very long time, this delightful movie is likely to remain just as ageless as its subjects. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Third Man Alternative Oscars

Two weeks ago, The Oscars handed out awards in 24 different categories, approximately one third of which the average person might actually care about. Of course, just because the average person doesn’t care who wins the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing, that doesn’t mean the award shouldn’t exist. It should. But the point is that the Oscars have actually given us comparatively few ways to really discuss the year in film via normal conversation. That doesn’t seem right, does it? We actually talk about movies in so many more ways, don’t we? Yes, yes we do.

So let’s double the awards slate and add 24 more categories, representing topics that people debate and care about when looking back on the year in film.

Without further ado, I present the inaugural Third Man Alternative Oscars.

*The awards are presented alphabetically.
*The 24 categories are designed to be discussion points that exist every year, so some of them might not have particularly strong winners this year.
*Especially strong categories have second place and honorable mentions listed. Weak categories do not. 

Best Accent by an American Actor
Seriously, American actors tend to be terrible at accents. While British actors are staging a coup on American film and television, we’re completely incapable of exporting our most famous commodities because they’re completely incapable at sounding like they could ever be from somewhere else. But occasionally, a great exception emerges, like Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai, the Russian gangster and professional nude fighter in 2009’s Eastern Promises.

Winner: The dearly departed Phillip Seymour Hoffman as G√ľnther Bachmann, the umlauted German intelligence officer in A Most Wanted Man.

Best Action Sequence
This was a bizarre year in which there were a lot of very good action films of all kinds—super-hero action, sci-fi action, and old school action—but very few of the films really had great individual action sequences. Except one.

Winner: The climax of The Equalizer, in which Denzel Washington sets up a Home Alone-style death trap for the Russian mob at a Home Depot, was pretty damn sweet. And Killing the main villain with a nail gun in slow motion while the sprinkler systems are on full blast made for some cool action flick imagery.

Best Animal
Last year’s Best Animal winner was obvious, because the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis became the first cat in the all-time history of cats to actually do everything it was supposed to. If animated animals were eligible, the dog from the Oscar-winning Animated Short, Feast, would be the clear winner. But I decided animated animals aren’t eligible, and these are my awards. So for lack of a better candidate…

Winner: The dog from John Wick, which may only have a few minutes on screen, but in death, became a great action movie plot catalyst. The lesson: You can steal a man’s ‘69 Mustang, but you just don’t fuck with a man’s dog.

Best Chemistry
Truly great star chemistry is a priceless commodity that appears born from film divinity when it happens. And it’s priceless because it happens so rarely. (See kids, that’s economics!) Because this year really didn’t have many great options, I was tempted to go with something snarky, like Reese Witherspoon and her hiking boots in Wild, which memorably opens with her violently screaming “Fuck you bitch!!” as she chucks one of them over a cliff. But this category is about romance!

Winner: In Love is Strange, Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a recently married gay couple in NYC who must overcome losing their home and staying (separately) with relatives while they attempt to rebuild their lives. It’s a small, lovely story that partially works so well because of the deep affection you believe these two have for one another.

Best Climactic Scene
This is the easiest one on the board.

Winner: The final confrontation in Whiplash, when the sadistic Fletcher has set up Andrew to either reach true greatness or publicly die trying, and Andrew responds by launching a triumphant solo, shouting “I’ll cue you in” to the rest of the band, and then lip-syncing a particularly venomous “Fuck you!” to his nemesis.

Best Comedic Scene
And this is the toughest one on the board. The only good comedy of 2014 was Neighbors, which came out so long ago (and wasn’t quite that good) that I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it. 2013 didn’t even require a good comedy to make this pick a cinch, as anyone who saw The Wolf of Wall Street can attest to. The Lemmon Quaalude scene, which culminates in what the film refers to as “cerebral palsy phase,” was a time capsule worthy moment of hilarity.

Honorable Mention: The funniest scene of the year was actually on television, when the Silicon Valley team of stoner geniuses try to create an algorithm for how long it would take to jerk off 800 dudes, including such memorable quantifiers as “mean jerk time” and "dick-to-floor ratio."

Winner: The final sequence of Wild Tales, which takes place at a wedding reception in which the bride finds out the groom had been cheating on her with one of the guests, had me laughing out loud so hysterically that I actually shouted out the words “Oh, Jesus Christ!” in a packed theater. Part of me was hoping I wouldn’t have to pick this one because no one’s seen it yet, but it’s a deserved winner.

Best Credit Sequence
Credits, both opening and closing, often feel like waiting at a red light—an interminable but necessary part of getting where you want to go. But some movies make credit sequences key parts of their artistic arsenal, and when it happens (like in Apocalypse Now and Catch Me If You Can), it’s always particularly memorable.

Winner (Opening Credits): Mr. Turner was a fairly ho-hum movie that never lived up to its potential, partially because it gave us its most beautiful imagery during the opening credits, which showed J.M.W. Turner’s greatest paintings through swirling billows of smoke, playfully dancing across a black screen. Everything after was downhill.

Winner (Closing Credits): The end credits of 22 Jump Street, with the next 20+ sequels to the film quickly and ridiculously playing out on screen, was the best part of the movie.

Best Dance Scene
Winner: This.

Best Death Scene
Everyone that follows pop culture unanimously agrees that 2014’s best on-screen death was in the Game of Thrones episode “The Mountain and the Viper,” when the Trial by Combat between the two characters ended with The Viper gloating just a little too much, The Mountain seizing a brief opportunity, and then squeezing the Viper’s skull until it burst like a watermelon. Even for a show that’s conditioned us to be ready for any character dying at any moment, that was still pretty sobering and jaw dropping. It was the best TV moment of 2014.

But I digress. Even though 2014 didn’t give us a “Sonny at the tollbooth” level death, or anything as good as the dozens of memorable slayings in the Kill Bill films, there were still some good choices.

Honorable Mention: The gloriously insane Argentinian Oscar nominee Wild Tales has at least three on-screen deaths that would be contenders for this award if anyone had seen the movie. But it’s still a few weeks away from opening in most markets, so we’ll hold that thought.

Runner-Up: Edge of Tomorrow was kind enough to give audiences their movie wet dream: Tom Cruise getting killed dozens of times. Over. And over. And over. And over again. 

Winner: The Godzilla reboot was a decent movie with exactly two incredible moments. The first appears further down these awards. The second is in the climactic fight, when a struggling Godzilla gets his second wind, grabs MUTU’s jaws and pries them open, and then shoots an explosion of hot blue flame down MUTU’s throat. In what was mostly a pretty slow and methodical movie, that sudden moment of giving the people what they want prompted cheering in my theater.

Best Facial Expression
Sometimes, a perfect marriage between film/actor/character gives us a moment where a facial expression is forever seared into our collective brains. Think of the first moment Clarice Starling sees Doctor Hannibal Lector standing in his cell, unblinking and perfectly still, or the look on Michael Corleone’s face when Kay tells him she had an abortion.

Runner-Up: When Amazing Amy finally returns in Gone Girl, hysterically driving home in her nightgown, covered in the blood of NPH’s throat, she gets out of the car, limps over to Ben Affleck, and fake faints in his arms. Affleck fulfills our dreams by incredulously looking down at her and saying, “You fucking bitch.”

Winner: There’s a scene about a third of the way through Foxcatcher, where creepy billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) is asking wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to get his brother Dave to train with them, no matter the cost. Mark tells John that Dave simply doesn’t want to come, and no amount of money will change his mind. Carell then just calmly stares at Tatum for a few moments, with his face and eyes completely unmoving, before uttering a high-pitched “Huh,” as though it’s the first time it’s ever occurred to him that money actually can’t buy everything. It’s an amazing moment, and one that stays with everyone who sees the film.

Best Final Shot/Moment
One of my favorite and underrated aspects of the cinematic arts is the way a film chooses to leave you. And I don’t simply mean a final scene, but rather a final few seconds, with a particularly powerful image before the credits start rolling.

Two recent great examples would be the final shot in Michael Clayton of George Clooney in the back of the cab, slowly coming to grips with what’s happened, and the ending of Zero Dark Thirty, where Jessica Chastain is sitting in the plane, Bin Laden’s corpse in front of her, with absolutely no clue what to do now that the singular obsession of her life has been eliminated.

Runner-Up: The two teenagers skateboarding off into the Brooklyn sunset at the end of Love is Strange is quite beautiful, signaling that the lessons of affection from the older generation have been properly passed down.

Winner: Mommy ends in such a perfect way that you can’t figure out whether to be sad for the fate of the characters or happy that they reached the tragically inevitable conclusion to their stories on their own terms.

Best First Appearance in the Zeitgeist
Some awards giving institutions like to honor things like Best Newcomer, but that’s always hard to pinpoint because most “best newcomers” have actually been working for a while, they just hadn’t been noticed yet. And even some people that receive huge accolades for their first film role, like Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, for example, already existed on the cultural radar in a different capacity. But what about those who made their first appearance on the Pop Culture radar in 2014?

Runner-Up: Whiplash’s Miles Teller and Damian Chazelle (respectively, the star and writer/director) did such amazing work on that film that greatness is now expected to be their new norm.

Winner: As comic book characters, no one had ever heard of The Guardians of the Galaxy before 2014. That will never, ever be the case again…

Best Franchise Opener
…And the reason the Guardians of the Galaxy can never again languish in character obscurity is because their namesake film of 2014 was the best popcorn movie in over two years. At a time when every Hollywood studio is trying to find old properties to dust off, reboot, and cash in on once again, Marvel reminded everyone that it’s actually still possible to create a franchise out of thin air if you just make a really damn good movie that appeals to mass audiences. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of everything that was 2013’s disastrous Lone Ranger reboot.

Winner: The Guardians of the Galaxy. Obviously.

Best Inanimate Object
ESPN’s Chris Connelly, who covered the Oscars for many years with ABC, recently said in a Grantland interview that he thinks the Oscars should have an award for Best Inanimate Object, and I enjoyed the idea enough to go with it. Wilson, the Volleyball from Cast Away, is probably the best recent-ish example. He totally should have gotten a 2001 Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Runner-Up: The poor lava cake that Jon Favreau demolishes in Chef. “It’s fucking molten!!”

Winner: When we find out Amazing Amy is actually alive in Gone Girl, and she dives into her immortal “Cool Girl” speech, she’s in the car, gleefully eating the shit out of a Kit Kat bar like she’d been waiting a decade for that exact moment. A Kit Kat has never looked more delicious.

Best Line of the Year
A lot of movies have great lines, but only the best become immortal, to the extent that they enter the cultural lexicon and eventually become spoken by people that don’t know the source material, like Daniel Plainview shouting “I drink your milkshake” to Eli Sunday before drunkenly beating him to death with a bowling pin in There Will Be Blood. That immediately became the most fun movie line for an entire generation to quote at bars.

Honorable Mention 1: “Everything is awesome,” from The Lego Movie. ‘Nuff said.

Honorable Mention 2: In Godzilla, when the scientists have basically figured out that Godzilla exists to have Mortal Kombat with the MUTUs, and everyone’s panicking about what to do, Ken Watanabe comes to the forefront, dramatically stares out into the distance, and calmly says “Let them fight.” It doubled as 2014’s best fist pump moment.

Runner-Up: Two quotes from Whiplash are gonna get a lot of cultural mileage over the next several years, both actually from the same scene of the film. “Not my Tempo” and “rushing or dragging?” are words that can fit a multitude of contexts.

Winner: In Birdman, when Edward Norton says to Michael Keaton, “Popularity is the slutty cousin of prestige,” it was love at first sight for me. I knew I’d found a quote I would utter over and over again throughout my life. Especially in the bi-weekly “art versus commerce” debates I have with my cousin. 

Best Movie No One Saw
Three criteria for this award: 1) No foreign films or documentaries. Most great foreign films or documentaries go heavily under-seen, so that’s too easy. 2) Can’t have been nominated for any Oscars. All Oscar-nominated films get extra attention. 3) Must have made under $10 million at the US box office.

Honorable Mentions: Blue Ruin, a great slow-burn revenge thriller, Locke, in which Tom Hardy’s entire life falls apart over the course of one car ride, and Only Lovers Left Alive, a Jim Jarmusch film about immortal hipster vampires who hang out in Detroit and collect old guitars instead of doing actual vampire things.

Runner-Up: Under the Skin, starring Scarlet Johansson as an alien taking the form of a seductive femme fatale to lure men and collect them, until the powerful experience of being a human woman makes her feel differently towards her mission. It’s not an especially new plot (human feelings are special!), but the images in this film will haunt you.

Winner: A Most Violent Year tried to be fashionably late to the Oscar party, but arrived so late that the bouncer had already locked the doors. Because the film’s business was meant to be dependent on awards attention that it never actually received, it went completely ignored by audiences. That’s too bad, because it’s a great story about the dark side of upward mobility and the American Dream, with an incredible and intensely restrained lead performance by Oscar Isaac.

Best Opening Scene
Everyone loves a flick that has us at hello.

Honorable Mention: The pre-credit wild tale in the glorious Wild Tales concludes with what Grantland’s Wesley Morris called the best freeze frame since Pumpkin and Honey Boney stick up the diner in Pulp Fiction, and the wordless opening to Starred Up, in which the main character gets indoctrinated to British prison life, is tremendously exciting.  

Runner-Up: Part of what made Get On Up such a great James Brown biopic was its willingness to portray the totality of who he was—good, bad, and ugly. The film started off with a bang, literally, showing us an aging James Brown barging in on a meeting group that shared office space in his building, and firing a shotgun at the ceiling because someone used his private commode.

Winner: It may be exceedingly vulgar, but Dom Hemingway opening with the titular foul-mouthed gangster (Jude Law) vividly sermonizing about his penis, only for his ode to finally culminate in the reveal that he’s been getting a prison blowjob, was, at the very least, quite memorable.

Best Scene of the Year
Sometimes this is an easy category, sometimes it isn’t. Last year was not only an easy one, but one people largely agreed on—the interminably long scene of Solomon Northrup hanging from a tree, barely surviving on the tips of his toes, as normal life continued around him, was the most unforgettable moment of the year’s most unforgettable film.

This year doesn’t have a clear choice, and I still didn’t know what I was going to pick as recently as two weeks ago. But then I saw Mommy, and the answer revealed itself.

Honorable Mentions: The two best moments in the two movies everyone likes to compare to each other—the croquet scene in The Theory of Everything and the scene in The Imitation Game where Keira Knightley consoles a depressed Alan Turing about to undergo chemical castration. In the former, the future Jane Hawking sees for the first time the difficult struggle she and Steven will inevitably face, and she chooses it anyway. It’s one of the most powerful moments of true love I’ve seen in films in a long time. In the latter, with Turing lamenting why he couldn’t have been normal, Knightley tells him that, “just this morning, I took a train through a town that wouldn’t exist if you were normal,” reminding both him, and us, that his being abnormal was one of the most important gifts of the 20th century.

Runner-Up: The Are-you-rushing-or-are-you-dragging scene in Whiplash will be quoted and reenacted for years. It’s not as meaningful as the above scenes, but it’s a more visceral and memorable piece of filmmaking.

Winner: I won’t spoil too much about the scene in Mommy that won me over, because so few people have had the chance to see the film yet. While the majority of the film is framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio to maximize the emotional claustrophobia of the story, there’s one sequence just before the ending where the titular character imagines an alternative life for her son, in which she gets to celebrate all the typical parental life landmarks for her child, like graduation and marriage. For this sequence, the frame expands to the full 16:9 screen, the score crescendos with dramatic strings, and the wordless montage fades in and out of focus before crashing back to the square reality the characters face. It was a few minutes of cinema that mastered the elements which makes it my favorite art form.

Best Sequel
Honorable Mentions: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were well done summer movies, and arguably better than their predecessors…

Winner: …But How to Train Your Dragon 2 was everything you could want in an animated family film—hilarious, visually inventive, a good story with nice thematic elements, and great voice work. The only way to knock it, to paraphrase NPH at the Oscars, is that the title implies the first movie didn’t adequately teach people how to train their dragons.

Best Sex Scene
A lot of movies have sex scenes. Most of them are just excuses for gratuitous nudity or to jolt audiences back to attention around the two-thirds mark of the run-time. But every once in a while, a sex scene comes along that’s actually sexy, heavily adding to the style of the film and the emotional arc of the characters. Sadly, this year didn’t have one.

Maybe the reason we didn’t get any great sex scenes this year is because we got some all-time great ones last year. Yes, I’m looking at you, Blue is the Warmest Color. In a three-hour movie about a young and passionate lesbian relationship, so much screen time devoted to explicit sex felt necessary for the emotional core of the film. It was also damn hot.

Winner: (More like an honorable mention, since it’s really not a sex scene.) When Steve Carell—as Foxcatcher’s creepy billionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont—tries to join Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz in a wrestling demonstration for the assembled masses, Schultz obliges. What ensues is basically du Pont awkwardly dry-humping Schultz in front of a dozen people. It was really sexy, only the exact opposite.

Best Speech or Monologue
What 2014 film scene might future generations of high school students choose as the monologue they memorize for speech class? Some (inappropriate) choices…

Runner-Up: The scene in Birdman where Emma Stone goes to town on her dad, tearing him down—in one take!—for how unimportant he really is, would have probably won her an Oscar in most years. If this award were being handed out based on strength of delivery, this would probably be the winner.

Winner: From the moment Gone Girl hit theaters, the “Cool Girl” speech became one of the key talking points of the film. It may not be as showy a piece of acting as Emma Stone’s rant about human irrelevance, but as a piece of writing and dialogue, it’s amazing, to the extent that everyone who sees the film, male and female, find themselves wondering how often they’ve been seduced by the cult of the “cool girl” in their own lives.

Best Use of Non-Original Music
If I had the power to actually add any category to the Oscars, this would be it. For the 87-year history of the Oscars, we’ve been honoring original music in films for 81 of them, both via full scores and original songs. For over three decades, that was a perfectly adequate way of honoring film music. But ever since Benjamin Braddock (and Dustin Hoffman, for that matter) came into our lives on an airport people mover to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” in 1967’s The Graduate, a new breed of film soundtrack was born.

Ever since then, so many of the most memorable music moments in film—from “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, and “You Make My Dreams” in (500) Days of Summer, to the entire filmography of Wes Anderson—the way directors use music in their films has heavily moved towards utilizing music we already know to facilitate specific emotional reactions that can often be more powerful than those created by music unfamiliar to us. Using non-original music has gotten to the point now where it’s one of the most potent weapons in a director’s arsenal, just behind editing and cinematography. We’re already several decades behind in honoring it, and it’s time to right the ship.

Winner (Single Scene): The Skeleton Twins was a good film that proved Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader—playing siblings with major issues to work out—have a lot to offer audiences in their post-SNL careers, but the emotional crescendo of the flick still arrived via the fucking Starship song from Mannequin. And it was awesome.

Winner (Entire Film): Guardians of the Galaxy was the best popcorn movie of the year, but part of me wonders if it would have been nearly as successful without a perfect trailer that presented the movie as a fun and ridiculous romp with bizarre characters rocking out to cheesy ‘70s pop songs. The way that film used its soundtrack may have been less artistically ambitious than what other films do, but it's the absolute pinnacle of how to create the appropriate mood within an audience.

For as well as the trailer used “Hooked on a Feeling,” that was just the tip of the iceberg. The opening credits wonderfully had Chris Pratt exploring an alien world to the sounds of “Come and Get Your Love” (even using a small creature as a microphone at one point), and the climactic battle halted its action for a dance-off to “O-o-oh Child.” Yes, that seriously happened. The soundtrack, which featured no original music, became one of the best-selling albums of 2014, eventually going platinum. There will be a lot of imitators.

Best Villain
A truly classic villain is a rare thing. This year had three.

Honorable Mention: Steve Carell created one unforgettably creepy billionaire in Foxcatcher. Anyone that sees the movie will forever remember the way he uncomfortably weaponizes silence and makes social ostracism look like the most dangerous quality someone can possess. The main reason he’s sitting in third place is that he lacks the same sense of motivation as the next two characters. Though the fact that Carell’s character never quite seems to possess actual motivation is horrifying in itself.

Runner-Up: Will Ferrell as President Business in The Lego Movie, demanding that all toys be played with precisely as they were intended, stifling the creativity and imagination of childhood. The revelation of who he is and what motivates him in the climactic scene of The Lego Movie is what vaults the film from highly entertaining to being an all-time classic kid’s movie.

Winner: J.K. Simmons as Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash (as though it could have been anyone else). No villain this year, or really, in any other year, better evoked the way the best of intentions can be turned into the most terrifying of realities. Believing that getting pushed to the brink is the only way to access true greatness, Fletcher took it upon himself to be the merciless One Who Pushes. Like so many of the great villains, he was the hero of his own story.

For three straight years from ’07-’09, the year’s best villain also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (in order—Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, and Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa—“The Jew Hunter”—in Inglourious Basterds), and after a few years of dormancy, it’s nice to see J.K. Simmons bring that tradition back.

Best Voice Work
Ever since Robin Williams memorably brought Aladdin’s genie to life in 1992, there’s been a steady groundswell about the possibility of this being added as a real Oscar category. The big knock on the idea is the question of having enough to choose from to field three nominees in any given year, let alone a worthy winner. But the very best voice performances really do rest on the creativity of a great actor at the top of their game.

Jack Black as Kung Fu Panda and Andy Serkis bringing Gollum to life in the second and third Lord of the Rings films surely would have won this Oscar had it existed in their respective years. And Scarlet Johansson’s turn as a computer operating system that speaks passionately enough to fall in love with in last year’s Her would be the reigning champ.

Honorable Mention: Virtually every voice actor in How to Train Your Dragon 2 was fantastic, but none particularly stood out from the pack. (And while we’re here, why are Vikings always voiced by Scotsmen?)

Winner: With all due credit to Vin Diesel, who was totally great at shouting “I am Groot” in about three different intonations (and probably received the largest dollar-per-word payout in acting history), this award has to go to Bradley Cooper, who brought Rocket Raccoon so memorably to life that an anthropomorphic, gun-toting raccoon became the breakout superhero of 2014.