Monday, January 28, 2013

Thoughts on Why/How 'Argo' Became the New Best Picture Front-Runner

With a win for the Producers Guild Award earlier in the day and then a Best Ensemble win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (an award that could be more interesting, but more or less becomes SAG's version of Best Picture every year) later that night, Argo has seemed to have vaulted to front-runner status amongst the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. This comes only a few weeks after people seemed to think Affleck's snub in Best Director was a death knell for the film's chances (documented earlier in the month here). But when Affleck won the Golden Globe for Best Director - and the attending crowd gave him a standing ovation as if he were Jimmy Valvano - moods shifted toward Affleck and Argo. This has been an interesting development for me for two reasons: 1) Upon the announcement of the Oscar nominations, it was Kathryn Bigelow's snub that got the most press, and you would have thought she would have been the beneficiary of the sappy "oh-we-didn't-nominate-her-so-lets-award-the-film" sympathy; and 2) The sudden rush by Hollywood toward "Let's get Affleck an Oscar!" seems to ignore the fact that Affleck already has an Oscar ('97 Original Screenplay, Good Will Hunting).

So why the change of heart toward him? There are several reasons. First and foremost, Argo is very good. I thought it was one of the ten best of the year and so do many others. It's stirringly taught, very well acted (though, for the fucking life of me, I don't understand why the only person they want to showcase for that is Alan Arkin) and directed with the steady hand of a filmmaker far more specialized than someone who is only on their third film. But let's be real here. Oscars are rarely won on merit - they're mostly won on stories - media-generated narratives that will give the Monday morning newspapers the chance to sprinkle in a nice headline and a great cover shot. So, what is the story with Argo? Have people really fallen for Affleck that hard? That's certainly a possibility. Oscar has a very long history of going out of its way to show affection toward good looking male movie stars turned directors, which explains why Kevin Costner, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood all have Best Director Oscars, while Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles don't. (Now, that doesn't totally apply here since Affleck can't win Best Director without a nomination, but its fitting that Affleck may win the second Oscar of his career - for producing Argo - while his contemporary, Paul Thomas Anderson - a filmmaker Affleck specifically name-dropped in his Globe speech - still doesn't have any).

So has everyone just fallen in love? I think its something a little more complicated than that. After all, Argo did come out all the way in October, and if the love for it was really this fervent, why was their the sudden lull in enthusiasm in December/early January? The Oscar season essentially sounded off when Argo came out to huge fanfare last year, and the fact that the season has come full circle and come back to Argo suggests something to me that's a little more sinister. To me, it's less important to think about why Argo is now the front-runner, and more about why the other films that used to be at the front of the line now are not. So let's go through the rounds and see why certain films - and there have been more this year than usual - took their place atop the mantle and then subsequently fell off.

Lincoln (released Nov. 16)
Probably the most anticipated film of the season, Lincoln was released to blisteringly great reviews and when Affleck was left off of Best Director, it seemed like it was Lincoln's year to dominate. Not to mention that Lincoln has six nominations in the major categories, while Argo only has three. So, how did this movie lose its thunder? In a lot of ways, the fact that Spielberg was the only major player to make the cut in the big shake-up in the Best Director category may have gained the film a little bit of resentment. Spielberg may be the most overexposed film director of all time, and I think there may be the feeling that we've given him enough credit (and really, many film lovers have felt that way for a while), and we don't need to rig the system by eliminating the competition. In a lotta ways, Argo may be getting a head of steam toward Best Picture because people are upset that they want to give it Best Director, but can't. People have been told that Lincoln is the best for too long. It's too prestigious and too obvious a choice - it has the feeling of a movie specifically made just to win awards. Ironically, I think Lincoln may actually still be even with Argo if Affleck had managed to sneak in.

Zero Dark Thirty (released Dec. 19)
While Argo getting snubbed in Best Director may have given it a underdog-like boost in the media storylines, Bigelow's snub was a much more devastating blow. It came at the culmination of a feisty tug-of-war between the film's fans (Zero Dark may have gotten the most hyperbolic "best of the year!" boasts - and most of those came before people got a chance to see it) and the film's critics (a smaller, equally as rabid group that shunned the film's apparent approval of torture methods). By the time people were actually given the opportunity to see it, they were either upset about the waterboarding, or upset about being waterboarded by over-enthusiasm. Zero Dark's meteoric plummet from front-runner to non-contender is particularly interesting since all of the outcry over Bigelow not getting nominated was swept under the rug once Affleck won the Golden Globe. As I said, this time of year we migrate toward the stories that are better, not the films.

Silver Linings Playbook (released Nov. 16 - though not wide til two weeks ago)
I'm throwing this one in here even though it has never really been a "front-runner", as we tend to define it (ie, for the previous three films, there was a point where it seemed like a lock - never so with Silver Linings). At the same time, its an overwhelming crowd-pleaser that managed to load up eight nominations, and it wouldn't shock anybody if it managed to come out on top. The eight noms (which seemed like more than expected) gave the film a nice boost which was accompanied by the Weinstein Company FINALLY giving the film a wide release after nearly two months of being in limited theaters. The Weinsteins sure are shrewd this time of year, but it seems to me that they have unloaded the chamber on this one, as it still hasn't made it to the summit. Likely, it never will.

Now, I don't mean to sound like Argo is definitely going to win. Thoughts can change between now and February 24th, and we already thought Zero Dark Thirty was a lock less than a month ago. After all, if we concede that Lincoln will win Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and (probably) Best Director, is it crazy to think it can win Best Picture too? I don't. Argo is in front now, but for reasons that have very little to do with cinema. There's still time for one more shift if there is one, and I think that this current maneuvering has made the Oscar ceremony next month suddenly more exciting than it had been when the nominations were initially released. How will Argo handle the home stretch? I believe the Weinsteins and Spielberg will have their say before things are decided officially.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Promised Land (***)

Directed by Gus van Sant


The last time Gus van Sant and Matt Damon worked together on a film, they produced Good Will Hunting. Hunting became a huge splash, won a couple of Oscars, ran through a gauntlet of cruel backlash haterism and has now settled into a place in cinematic history that it truly earned: a sentimental, albeit heartfelt melodrama that combined fantastic performances and a smart script to tell a really effective story. Good Will Hunting's meteoric rise still has many detractors, but I love it. So that being said, Damon's reunion with van Sant in this latest movie, Promised Land really peaked my interest. This time, instead of writing with hometown friend Ben Affleck, Damon penned the script with another popular actor, John Krasinski. The result is a film that falls short of the greatness of Hunting but is still pretty damn good.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Impossible (*1/2)

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona


The 2004 Tsunami disaster was one of the biggest natural disasters in our memory, an unrelenting force that blew through several countries and wrecked havoc unlike any we've ever seen. The Impossible takes a peak at this phenomenon through an interesting prism: an English family visiting a Thai beach resort. What follows is a brutal display of just how powerful and destructive this tsunami was through the eyes of a single family. We see just about all you'd expect from this kind of film, and lot of things you wouldn't expect. What we don't get though, is the tight, coherent film that this story deserves.

Best Director Blame Game

One thing that people have not been able to STFU about since the Oscar nominations were announced this Thursday was the big surprise in the Best Director category. Here's the official line-up:

Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

The big shock? That only one of the high profile directors expected for a nomination (Spielberg) actually made the final five. Left off were the legitimate contenders in Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Ben Affleck (Argo), as well as two other directors that made uneven films and puzzling directorial choices but that were also late-season megahits (Hooper for Les Mis and Tarantino for Django). It's become a big deal, getting media coverage even in non-movie-lover's circles, including the influential sports writer, Bob Simmons, who took to Twitter with his complaints.

So, technically speaking, this is the final five that would have made general audience Oscar followers happy (and I'm using "general audience" in the pejorative, slightly condescending sense in that these are the people that, more or less, only go to the movies to watch easy-to-swallow, basic-three-act kinds of movies - which makes up a majority of people but doesn't exactly make the best subjective choices):

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ten Things I Liked/Didn't Like In This Year's Oscar Nominations

As I'm sure many of you have already heard, the Oscar nominations were released this morning (here's a full list of all the nominees) to much fanfare. Today is always like my second Christmas, even though I'm not always fond of what Oscar Santa comes to bring me. This morning brought quite a handful of surprises and at least two SHOCKER!'s, so here are ten things that I liked/didn't like - in no particular order or ranking.

1) Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour hit the jackpot
Both Beasts and Amour were nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay (Beasts in Adapted, Amour in Original), fairing far better than most probably predicted, and it brings me GREAT delight since these were probably the two best movies of 2012. Beasts director Behn Zeitlin (all things considered, a very pretentious name) getting the Best Director nod was probably the biggest surprise of the morning. I'm not sure how well they'll do when it comes to actually winning, but if this gets lots of more people to see these movies, then I'm happy.

2) Paul Thomas Anderson shut out
You knew I was going to talk about this. His movie, The Master, amassed three overall nominations, all for acting (Joaquin Phoenix - Lead Actor; Amy Adams - Supporting Actress; Phillip Seymour Hoffman - Supporting Actor), but the eccentric writer/director was nominated for neither Best Director (which was expected) or Best Original Screenplay (which was less expected). It's hard not to feel bitter when P.T. Anderson can't scurry up a nomination for Original Screenplay, while John Gatins' heavy-handed script for Flight can.

Considered a lock throughout the whole race,
Affleck ends up without a nomination
3) Best Director shake-up
As I said earlier, Paul Thomas Anderson had fallen off and was never really a true contender for Best Director. But Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Ben Affleck (Argo) were. Their movies managed to get Best Picture noms, but it seemed like Affleck and Bigelow were the front runners to win Director, so when they get left off completely - it's very surprising. Especially considering that Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) managed to squeak in. Les Miserables director Tom Hooper, also a safe bet before this morning, was left off the list as well. Suddenly, Spielberg's third Oscar seems imminent.

4) Silver Linings Playbook goes 4/4 in acting
Silver Linings Playbook became the first movie since 1981's Reds (that's 31 years, folks) to get a nomination in all four acting categories. Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro were pretty much locks, but Bradley Cooper was still lingering around the edges and Jacki Weaver was a total shock. To be honest, I didn't think Weaver had a whole lot to do in the movie and I didn't think she was in the running at all. That enough people liked her so much in it to get her a nomination is something outside of my realm of understanding, but considering how weak this category is this year, it makes some sort of sense. The other three performances? Good to see them recognized.

5) Oscar actually liked Django Unchained
Though I didn't see it this way, many thought that Django Unchained's high marks were more internet-generated, Tarantino-fanboy noise rather than actual buzz. But Django walked away with nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz), Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson) and Best Original Screenplay. I personally would have swapped out DiCaprio for Waltz myself, but don't have much issue with Waltz getting nominated EXCEPT for the fact that....

6) Best Supporting Actorzzzzzzzzzz
All five of the actors nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year are previous Oscar winners. I know that is just circumstantial and shouldn't matter a whole lot when it comes to actually nominating actors, but when Alan Arkin and Christoph Waltz have already been held the statue for reheated versions of the same characters, I would have liked to have seen something a little spicier added to the mix (like DiCaprio playing against type in Django; Samuel L. Jackson creating a villainous character unlike any other in the same film; and if they really had the balls they would have considered Dwight Henry's incredible work in Beasts of the Southern Wild).

7) Hushpuppy and Riva
I know I've already talked about Amour and Beasts crashing the party, but what a charming little factoid that we have here. Beasts little powerhouse Quvenzhane Wallis is the youngest ever Lead Actress nominee (at 9 years old), while Emmanuelle Riva (at 85 years old) is the oldest ever. I love how this piece of trivia connects these two considering that they are probably my two favorite performances from this category and neither were really considered locks going into nomination morning. Really, I'm just glad they got in and that they get to share that piece of history.

In this round of Lincoln vs. Zero Dark
, Lincoln wins in a landslide
8) Exciting Oscar nominations, boring ceremony
As exciting as it was to see how the nominations ended up shaking out, this has pretty much led to what will be a very uneventful ceremony on February 24th. With Zero Dark Thirty failing to get a nomination in Best Director or Best Cinematography, is there any doubt that Lincoln is just going to crush it and hog all the awards? Unless you think Life of Pi's surprising haul of 11 nominations means it's a threat to win - I don't. That's the one issue about Beasts and Amour getting all the nominations that they, cause we essentially know that the industry considers that awards enough for them and they don't really have a legitimate shot at winning. It's still early but it may be time to just fast-forward six weeks.

9) Seth MacFarlane might actually be good at hosting
I know it was only for less than ten minutes and he owes a lot of credit to Emma Stone who stood next to him, looked absolutely adorable and got just as many laughs, but MacFarlane was actually really funny as he wheeled off the nominations. This pains me as an admitted Seth MacFarlane hater. The announcement was a lot less stiff than usual, which I imagine was MacFarlane's idea, and it actually made the whole thing watchable (usually its just the president of the Academy and some actress staring blankly at the camera). If he manages to de-stiff the actual Oscar ceremony in the same fashion, then that's a real achievement.

10) I'm still sad about Paul Thomas Anderson
Let's just not talk about it.
I know, Paul. I feel exactly the same way.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

FINAL Oscar Nomination Predictions

This year's Oscar nominations come earlier then ever, early Thursday morning. So, for anyone participating in any pools, here's what I see getting announced. I will have to admit that I'm more hopeful for The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild than most people, so take that with a grain of salt:

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Best Supporting Actor
Amy Adams, The Master
Ann Dowd, Compliance
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Best Director
Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Best Original Screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Michael Haneke, Amour
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Adapted Screenplay
Lucy Alibar & Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Ben Lewin, The Sessions
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Chris Terrio, Argo

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

The tech awards and everything else after the jump.

That's A Wrap: The Best Everything In Movies From 2012 (pt. 2)

So, last week I made my list of what I thought were the ten best films of the 2012. Now, I will breakdown all of my faves in the specific categories - think of this like my own personal Oscar ballot. Off we go!

Best Actor
TIE - Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Separating these two performances is just impossible for me. Phoenix is ferocious, capturing the attention of the audience every second he's on the screen. Hoffman is conniving and jovial, with constant simmer of a breakdown coming. I really don't know if either of the two have ever been better on the silver screen.

Overall Ballot:
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour

Thursday, January 3, 2013

That's A Wrap: The Best Everything In Movies From 2012 (With a 2011 Make-Up!)

For all intensive purposes, 2012 was a pretty great year for movies. There always seemed to be quality product in the theaters no matter what time of year, and even the worst movie I saw this year (The Expendables 2 by far) was enough dumb fun to make it seem like it wasn't a total waste of a movie ticket. I even enjoyed the few franchise box office candy that I just so happened to see as well. Like last year, though, 2012 lacked that one great movie. It wasn't like there was a No Country For Old Men or a Hurt Locker roaming around to soak up the instant classic mojo, but it did have consistent awesomeness. Because I'm lacking a de facto, front-running "best movie of the year", I will comprise my 10 Best List into alphabetized tiers. After all, it's almost unfair to compare the few films I've spent brooding over for months (The Master, Ruby Sparks) with the ones I was rushed to cram in during the holiday season (Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty). So, here are the 10 Best Movies in 2012... in three sections:

The definitive best. All could probably be considered for the #1 spot depending on my mood.


Beautifully told, stupendously acted and so overwhelmingly heartbreaking, Michael Haneke's Amour is a story about facing mortality. Through the harrowing tale of Georges and Anne (an incredible, Oscar-deserving Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), Haneke navigates the evolution of there decades-long marriage after a stroke slowly and surely begins to strip Anne of her health and later, of her most basic physical and cognitive functions. Being a director so obsessed with manipulating and affecting the viewer's experience, this may be the very first movie by Michael Haneke that I've actually enjoyed, and I must say that when he works for me, he really works. This film is stark in its portrayal, unflinching in the details, yet still manages a warmth because the love these two people have for each other. This isn't a love story, per se, but a story about the strength and power of true love.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

"Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in The Bathtub", so says the infectiously watchable main character - Hushpuppy (an otherworldy performance from the six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis) - at the beginning and the end of the year's most wonderful spectacle. When you watch this movie for the first time, it's hard to tell where it takes place, what takes place in reality and what's in the imagination of a five-year-old girl. But you never feel off-balance, the basic plot holding strong: Hushpuppy and her abrasive but loving father Wink (Dwight Henry) fight to survive a hurricane in their impoverished neighborhood. But even after the storm, they must still fight to keep their scavenger society alive. A film about facing fears - whether it be the loss of your father or the emergence of pre-historic beasts - and the importance of heritage and society, Beasts of the Southern Wild holds two very different but very effective performances from Wallis and Henry that make this unlike any movie that I've ever seen.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (***1/2)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow


I've forever been fascinated by Kathryn Bigelow's career. For two decades she seemed to succeed in a man's business making "manly" products. But more than that, her projects were also so varied and striking. There's the cult favorite and pre-Twilight tween monster movie that she made in 1987, Near Dark. Then there's the equally beloved and scrutinized Point Break which brought with it a self-aware snark so high that it made it almost impossible for me not to fall in love with (plus Patrick Swayze and surfing). Her movies always seemed closer to Michael Bay than Penny Marshall, and it all came to a head when she became the first female ever to win the Best Director Oscar for her 2009 masterpiece The Hurt Locker. The media coronation of her seemed a bit strange, cause she always seemed more interested in being a great action filmmaker than 'The Great Female Director'. But it was a great story, either way.