Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar Telecast Report Card

This year's Oscar telecast was richer in its emotions and more fleet and creative in its execution than almost any of the movies that opened last year, and while that sounds like a backhanded compliment, what I truly mean to say is that I was touched and entertained by the show, moved to moments of very fond reflection on movies to which I don't otherwise feel much connection, deliriously happy to see The Departed emerge as the big winner in all four categories where it absolutely deserved to, and impressed by the candor, sincerity, and concise eloquence of so many winners.

As of 4am, I've already watched the telecast twice, and I'm sure these won't be the last. Fair enough—that's pretty much how I roll anyway. But this year actually felt special. Tomorrow or the next day, after I've caught up on some sleep, I might run through some more of the particular highs and lows for this broadcast, but I can't go to bed without sharing Numero Uno:

The Focus on Film Somehow, Oscar almost never takes this obvious lesson, but the Academy Awards show should entertain a wide audience while also serving an ambassadorial, gently informative purpose for all of the arts it recognizes within commercial filmmaking. Repeatedly, Laura Ziskin's telecast bridged the gap between insider know-how and popular perspectives by bringing the "technical" awards (which really are artistic awards!) to clear, thrilling life: through the brilliant use of the Sound Effects chorus, the multi-screen demonstrations of film editing, the well-staged tableaus of the nominated costumes, the snapshots of sound engineers and visual effects supervisors practicing their crafts in quick, clear glimpses. The montage of scenes from Foreign Language-Film winners ceded a well-earned spotlight to a perennially trivialized category, making a good case for viewers to follow up on La Strada and Z and Dersu Uzala and Closely Watched Trains. Errol Morris' opening montage of nominees was also equalizing and accommodating of a full range of nominees, ranging from celebrity actors to documentarians to composers. For once, this show actually seemed to love the cinema, not just the clothes and the self-congratulation, and it demonstrated an eagerness to explain and to share that love.

Otherwise... Hooray for Marty and The Departed and the lovely, articulate Thelma Schoonmaker, Hooray for the heartwarming win for The Danish Poet in Animated Short Film, Hooray for new Oscar winner Ari Sandel's lovely stump-speech on behalf of live-action short films, Hooray for Al and Leo's earnest pitch about Greening the Oscars and resisting climate change (which made its point beautifully without coming across as flaky or empty idealism, like Richard Gere turning on his heart-light to Mao Tse-tung), Hooray for Ellen, Hooray for deft play-along improvs from Scorsese, Streep, Eastwood, and Wahlberg, Hooray for Robert Downey Jr. shucking the TelePrompTer and cracking a great joke, Hooray to Ennio Morricone for expressing his gratitude and generosity in Italian, Hooray to Clint Eastwood for translating on the spot, and a huge Hooray to the speeches by Forest Whitaker, Melissa Etheridge, Alan Arkin, Michael Arndt, Milena Canonero, and all of the others that implied a strong sense of the winners' individual personality while also saying something clear, admirable, diplomatic, and impassioned that all of us could relate to. A shame about Jerry Seinfeld, the writers-on-film montage, the Jack/Will/John schtick, and the same old boring-presenter twaddle, but all in all, this was an exemplary telecast. A–

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

2006 Oscar Predictions

It's probably not healthy to dwell in the past, so in deference to this year's exciting, unpredictable races among mostly unmemorable films (meow!), here are my 2¢:

Foreign Film
Film Editing
Animated Film
Animated Short
Art Direction
Costume Design
Original Score
Original Song
Sound Effects
Visual Effects

The Queen (alt. L.M.Sunshine)
Martin Scorsese (in the bag)
Helen Mirren (in the bag)
Forest Whitaker (alt. Gosling)
Jennifer Hudson (alt. Barraza)
Mark Wahlberg (alt. Arkin)
Little Miss Sunshine (alt. Queen)
The Departed (in the bag)
Pan's Labyrinth (alt. Lives)
An Inconvenient Truth (alt. Iraq)
Children of Men (alt. Pan's)
United 93 (alt. The Departed)
Cars (alt. Happy Feet)
The Danish Poet (alt. Maestro)
Pan's Labyrinth (in the bag)
D.W.Prada (alt. Dreamgirls)
Dreamgirls (alt. Apocalypto)
The Queen (alt. Pan's Labyrinth)
"I Need to Wake Up" (bag)
Letters from Iwo Jima (alt. Flags)
Pirates 2 (in the bag)
Pan's Labyrinth (alt. Apocalypto)

The Departed (alt. Iwo Jima)
Martin Scorsese (all the way)
Penélope Cruz (all the way)
Ryan Gosling (alt. Whitaker)
Adriana Barraza (all the way)
Eddie Murphy (alt. Wahlberg)
Seriously? (ok, Iwo Jima)
The Departed (all the way)
Abstain (so far, Water)
Iraq in Fragments (alt. J.Camp)
Children of Men (alt. Dahlia)
The Departed (alt. Ch.Men)
Monster House (all the way)
The Danish Poet (alt. Maestro)
Pan's Labyrinth (alt. Prestige)
Dreamgirls (alt. M.Antoinette)
Really? (ok, Apocalypto)
The Queen (alt. Good German)
Eh (ok, "I Need to Wake Up")
For God's Sake (no, really)
Pirates 2 (alt. Poseidon)
Pan's Labyrinth (all the way)
Success Ratio: 15/24 (Beyond the 22 categories listed above, I was right that West Bank Story would win Live Action Short, but I'd given the edge to Two Hands over The Blood of Yingxhou District for Documentary Short.)

If I Were Right, Which I'm Not...
  • The Queen, The Departed, and Pan's Labryinth will all check out with three trophies apiece, and only Dreamgirls and An Inconvenient Truth will join them as multiple award winners. (This feels like a major undersell for Little Miss Sunshine, and possibly of Pirates.)

  • An Inconvenient Truth would, I think, become the first Documentary to win any Oscar outside of that category. (This actually does feel likely.)

  • The only Best Picture nominee without any wins would be Babel, despite having the highest nomination tally of the five films. (That might be exaggerating things, but I still think Babel is going to stumble badly. Even in Editing, where it stands a fighting chance, I think people's objections that the stories don't hang together will pose a problem—even though that's more a fault of the script.)

  • Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design would divide themselves among three different films for the first time since 1999, when these trophies went to American Beauty, Sleepy Hollow, and Topsy-Turvy, respectively. (This outcome feels likely, one way or another, unless Pan's Labyrinth pulls out the upset in Cinematography, or Dreamgirls claws its way to Art Direction and Costume Design awards.)

  • I will win big money in the Imaginary Office Pool in the Sky by picking The Queen to win Best Picture, assuming that the macho-techie types split among The Departed and Letters, Sunshine feels too "sitcom" (which is even worse than feeling too "TV movie," like The Queen), and people turn away from Babel to the degree I'm expecting. Also, The Queen is the only one of the five movies that doesn't have a significant detractor camp—i.e., Doesn't Make Sense/Too Depressing, Scorsese Rehash/Too Violent, Eastwood Rehash/Too Quiet, and Is That All There Is?, respectively. Let's use my older brother as a test-case. He saw all five Best Picture nominees today as part of a $30 marathon by his local AMC multiplex (that's dedication! that's doing your homework!), and he liked The Departed and Iwo Jima, didn't think much of Sunshine, thought Babel was "the destitute man's Crash" and/or "the cutting-room-floor version of Traffic," but was pleasantly surprised by The Queen, which he hadn't even considered seeing until it was nominated. Nate skews toward the Star Wars/Alien vs. Predator end of things, so if The Queen can make a convert out of him, beyond its already-established fan base of actors and Anglophiles, it's got a solid shot, right? (Actually, probably not. But I haven't pulled off a big against-the-grain prediction since Adrien Brody, and I'm ready for seconds.)

And By the Way...

Before Oscar season ends and the mood passes, at least rent Half Nelson, the best movie nominated in any category, and fork over the $1.99 for The Danish Poet, the fourth-best movie nominated in any category (after The Departed and Iraq in Fragments at #2 and #3), and tie a string around your finger to look for the fifth-best movie nominated in any category, Robert De Niro's subtly insinuating The Good Shepherd, when it bows on DVD on April 3.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

13 Ways of Feeling Better about Oscar

I remember Oscar last year, and so do you, and we all know that after the telecast ends tomorrow night, all of us who have obsessed over these awards for weeks will suddenly have that unsatisfied thud in the stomach that comes from realizing, yet again, that Oscar perennially honors the wrong movies, or applies the wrong criteria, or reveals the wrong biases, or rewards the wrong actors at the wrong times or in the wrong categories. To say nothing of how the whole structure and spectacle of the Oscars is commodifying, wasteful, and competitive, premised on a xenophobic privileging of American movies over "foreign" ones and a corporate endorsement of big- and middle-budget movies over truly independent ones. The minute you even think about poking a hole in the mystique of the Oscars, the opportunities are endless.

But we love them anyway. And lest we convince ourselves that the voters never get it right, and that the Oscars serve no valuable purpose, here are 13 examples of categories from the last 13 years where the Academy found five terrific nominees to fill an entire field—drawing our attention to fine work in diverse styles. If all that Oscar does is sustain a collective memory of artistry at this level, catching our eye and stoking our attention, then it can't be all bad, right?

2005 Best Adapted Screenplay My favorite nominee was Dan Futterman's emotionally guarded, psychologically incisive portrait of Capote while he traded his soul for the literary masterpiece of In Cold Blood. But the blending of psychological tension, historical recreation, and the legacy of violence was nearly as bracing in the script for Munich; Josh Olson took great structural risks in the stripped-down parable A History of Violence; Jeffrey Caine's shrewd, uneasy script was the strongest formal element of The Constant Gardener; and the winning script for Brokeback Mountain, whatever its structural blind-spots, tells a surprising story by Hollywood standards and whittles a tough, terse bond between two people down to a strong, affecting shape. Extra points to Oscar for noticing Amy Adams' melancholy pluck in Junebug, Emmanuel Lubezki's ingenious manipulations of natural light in The New World, and Dolly Parton's brilliant lyrics, melodious gusto, and gentle topical message in the song "Travelin' Thru."

2004 Best Actress Probably the least of these performances, Hilary Swank's dogged, resilient boxer, ultimately humiliated by life in Million Dollar Baby, evokes a deceptively simple character through voice, movement, and a careful modulation between openness and reserve. Annette Bening thrives on flamboyant, theatrical openness through much of Being Julia but suggests in the closing sequences that this woman has still more unexplored depths. Those are two remarkable nominees, but even they are outshone by the smart, unsanctimonious martyrdom of Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace; the heroic, tragic blend of virtue, affection, and naïveté in Imelda Staunton's Vera Drake; and Kate Winslet's career-capping transport of her vivacity, economy, and forceful energy to the confused, electric, unhappy, and comical Clementine Kruczynski in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Extra points to the Music Branch for looking past the many idiocies of The Village and giving due credit to James Newton Howard's powerful score.

2003 Best Actor Jude Law was less generally celebrated than his fellow nominees during the 2003 awards season, but if anything his performance is the most heroic: resolutely quiet and full of subtle, internal, estranging gestures in a film that is otherwise intent on huge gestures, big acting, and pretending that the past is just like the present, only earlier. He's terrific, as are the sad, sarcastic, but uncynical Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, the tightly coiled Sean Penn, eaten alive with grief and turning his fury outward on thin pretexts; Ben Kingsley, continuing his world tour of accents and nationalities but still supplying the ramrod center that House of Sand and Fog desperately needs; and Johnny Depp, earning one of those Oscar nods that must have seemed impossible while the movie was in production, if only because of typical genre snobberies. Depp convinced the Academy, and all the rest of us, that smart, creative acting can emerge exactly where no one is looking for it. Extra points to the exemplary, historically attuned, and rhetorically controlled documentary The Weather Underground and to all those technical nods to the commercially underperforming Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which needed and deserved the fairer shake that 10 nominations afforded it.

2002 Best Original Score John Williams tends to get nominated no matter how daring or conventional the score, but his work on Catch Me If You Can found him in a brand-new mode as a modern Henry Mancini, with sly undertones appropriate to the film. Thomas Newman is also a perennial nominee, and in truth I'm not absolutely crazy about his score for Road to Perdition, but the category still places well above average with the florid melodies and exciting rhythms of Frida, the barreling, restless, melancholy rolls of Philip Glass' threnodies for The Hours, and Elmer Bernstein's peerless excavation of the bleeding, vulnerable heart inside the kitsch and occasional bombast of 1950s orchestration in Far from Heaven. Extra points for keeping the musical nominees and winners well above average with Eminem's anthemic "Lose Yourself," for including Pedro Almodóvar in the Best Director field for Talk to Her, and for the Original Screenplay nod to Y tu mamá también.

2001 Best Cinematography Director and co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet keeps falling in love with the heroine of Amélie, but cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel never stops reminding us that the ardor and whimsy of Amélie is also myopic, unreal, and mad. Which can be a good thing. Even more audacious feats of world-making bloom in every sequence of Moulin Rouge and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, with their impossibly rich colors, endless vistas, and delirious movements. Roger Deakins' gleaming, pearly black & white for The Man Who Wasn't There is equally mannered but pulls out the emotional thread of the movie, right there amidst all the artifice. Black Hawk Down won Oscars for its editing and its soundtrack, but Slawomir Idziak, one of the hundreds of genius cinematographers they apparently mass-produce in Eastern Europe, gets his camera into improbable places and frames some galvanizing sights, without calling too much attention to itself. Extra points to the Best Director nomination for David Lynch and for another of John Williams' Best Original Score nods, this time for the schizophrenias and bold tones of A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

2000 Best Film Editing Again, I'm cheating a little to work around Almost Famous, which lacks Jerry Maguire's athletic ease at moving back and forth amongst comedy, pathos, introspection, and other emotional registers, although the performance sequences work splendidly and arrive just when the film needs them. From there on out, no quibbling is required. Well, a teeny bit. There's way too much Gladiator to go around, and so much of it is so deeply silly, but the editing shares the strength and flair of the acting. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon manages to speed and slow its rhythms without pulling the dialogue scenes too far away from the action, and sequences like the surprise attack by Jade Fox are as good as action sequences get. The threading of the storylines in Traffic allows for an overall resonance and intuitive power of connection that's been missing from most of the recent multi-narrative human panoramas. Best in show, though, is Dede Allen's typically adroit cutting of Wonder Boys, a well-written, well-shot, and well-played dramedy that still wouldn't pop off the screen the way it does if Allen weren't so shrewd at picking out what we should be looking at, in what moments, in what sequence, and for how long. She's as deft and talented a novelist as Michael Douglas' protagonist, and infinitely more disciplined. Extra points for breaking from the songwriters' usual prejudices and taking a chance on Björk's sad, gorgeous dirge "I've Seen It All" from Dancer in the Dark; for giving due credit to the makeup in The Cell even though the art directors, sound designers, and everyone else ignored it; and for refusing to siphon the Soderbergh vote and giving a Best Director nod for Erin Brockovich, even though it's exactly the sort of woman-centered Best Picture nominee that the directors usually reject, and especially with another, more formally precocious film by the same director already in competition.

1999 Best Actor A field so strong that the Academy spent the next four years making up the necessary losses to Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, and Sean Penn. Winner Kevin Spacey sold his own fey, charming wiseacre persona more than he dug into the complexities of the character, though his is a beguiling and resourceful personality performance. Still, the wise, elegant simplicity of Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story amply shows him up. Extra points for the Collette-Keener-Sevigny trifecta in Best Supporting Actress, the imaginative but perfectly targeted Sound Effects Editing nomination for Fight Club, a way-better-than-average Best Original Song lineup (with the crowning glory of Toy Story 2's heartbreaking "When She Loved Me"), and the delicious, unexpected generosity toward Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, winning two Oscars in four categories.

1998 Best Costume Design Sandy Powell's double-act of the sparkling Velvet Goldmine and the resplendent Shakespeare in Love is a feat most costume designers don't hit in a decade of trying. Alexandra Byrne's duds in Elizabeth keep delicious track of the lead character and cover up so well for the low-budget sets that they, too, scored a nomination. Judianna Makovsky puts some modern wit into Pleasantville without spoiling the fun. And even Toni Morrison, who had a hard time loving Jonathan Demme's adaptation of her masterpiece Beloved, was impressed and enchanted with the sartorial detail, the period fabrics, and the evocative colors of Colleen Atwood's clothes, the second of her six nominations, and the most richly deserved. Extra points for sneaking Edward Norton of American History X into the Best Actor lineup after his shameful neglect by all of the precursors, and the recognition to Anne V. Coates' sublime editing of Out of Sight.

1997 Best Adapted Screenplay One of the healthiest rosters this race has ever seen, ranging from the poignantly evoked characters and tightly wrought suspense of two otherwise disparate crime pictures, Donnie Brasco and L.A. Confidential; the angry and absorbing communal grief in The Sweet Hereafter, which keeps yielding new facets as the complicated structure unfolds; the rat-a-tat dialogue and escalating looniness of Wag the Dog, whether Hilary Henkin had any real hand in it or not; and the expert distillation of Henry James' masterpiece The Wings of the Dove into the quiet conspiracies and delicate emotional tableaus of Iain Softley's film. Extra points for the surprise acknowledgment of Robert Forster in Best Supporting Actor for Jackie Brown, the just desserts for the thrilling set-pieces in the Sound Design for Contact, and the persuasive, unpretentious costumes of the eleventh-hour December release Oscar and Lucinda.

1996 Best Actress Still the high-water mark in the last 30 years of this category. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room is the weak link, for the sole reason that she's only very, very good. Not a new industry standard in sexing up aristocratic chilliness, stitching self-absorption to erotic, intelligent connection, like Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient; not a one-woman tragicomic opera of oscillating, overflowing emotion like Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies, dialing back to share in the ensemble without dulling her character's histrionic propensities; not an uncanny fusion of the ethereal and the embodied like Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, still the only actress who's felt totally in synch at every moment with Lars von Trier's extravagant demands and rhetorical brio; and not a wizard at conveying straightforwardness and decency through farcical affectation like Frances McDormand in Fargo, possibly the un-glammest winner in Oscar history, and one of the most deserving. Extra points for a Best Supporting Actress field that would be every bit as stunning as the lead race if it weren't for Lauren Bacall, the Original Screenplay nod to John Sayles' Lone Star, the subtle, unsettlingly entomological costumes of Angels & Insects, and the once-in-a-lifetime divvying of Best Sound and Best Sound Effects noms to totally different films.

1995 Best Supporting Actress I would have stumped for what looks like a terrific and impressively varied Art Direction lineup (including the sterling Apollo 13, Babe, and Richard III, and avoiding easy gimmes like Sense and Sensibility or The American President), but I haven't seen fellow nominees A Little Princess or the winning Restoration. So I'm back up in the acting races, grooving on Joan Allen's steel and fire as Pat Nixon, Kathleen Quinlan's inexplicable gift for turning her patient-Penelope role into something memorable, Mira Sorvino's limited but engaging schtick as the vacuous porn vixen in Mighty Aphrodite, Kate Winslet's emotional candor and impetuous energy in Sense and Sensibility, punching up Ang Lee's restrained direction while also complementing it, and my personal favorite, Mare Winningham's slow burn, gorgeous singing, and bourgeois isolationism in Georgia. Extra points for acknowledging Richard Francis-Bruce's harsh, exciting montage in Se7en and Bruce Springsteen's haunting title song from Dead Man Walking.

1994 Best Original Screenplay A category brimming with scripts so good that people are still talking about them, and imitating them. Every time a new Woody Allen movie opens, we collectively remember that he hasn't been truly spot-on funny since Bullets Over Broadway. The British film industry spent years trying to duplicate the comic zing and exportable charms of the star-making Four Weddings and a Funeral. Heavenly Creatures has managed the estimable feat of not being overshadowed by Peter Jackson's stupendous success with The Lord of the Rings, while Three Colors: Red, at the opposite end of a famous career, was the kind of worthy capstone that any filmmaker would envy. And does any argument need to be made for Pulp Fiction, a truly era-defining script? Extra points for laureling the spectacular Makeup, campy but character-specific, of Ed Wood, and the comically poignant Live Action Short Film Trevor, about a gay pre-teen. (Buy it now on iTunes!) And Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain, from Macedonia, is more formally challenging and subtly poetic than almost any of the usual nominees in this category. Maybe one day it will actually appear on DVD.

1993 Best Picture A jewel among Oscar years. Easily the sturdiest Best Picture lineup since the 1970s, still unmatched in any subsequent year. They filled the usual "slots" for this category and still excelled expectations (unlike, say, the 1996 lineup, which scored high by torquing the usual balance between studio product and critical darlings). If only every People's Choice contender were as exciting, character-rich, and technically proficient as The Fugitive. If only every late-December buzz entry were as galvanizing and unabashedly political as In the Name of the Father. If only the compulsory British period-film were as emotionally lucid and impeccably acted and gorgeously scored as The Remains of the Day. If only the obvious, inevitable front-runner were legitimately an instant classic like Schindler's List, and if only the best movie ever competed for Oscars every year. This embarrassment of riches trickled down to all the other categories, with each movie earning at least seven nods, but more greatness was on the way: Angela Bassett, Stockard Channing, Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurence Fishburne, and John Malkovich in the acting categories, Robert Altman in the Director lineup for Short Cuts, The Age of Innocence and Orlando lighting up the design categories, Jurassic Park an estimable champion in the Sound and Visual Effects races. The Neil Young nomination for Best Song took some guts, as did the underrated Janet Jackson ballad "Again" from Poetic Justice. And in Cinematography, beyond the Two Towers of The Piano and Schindler's List, plus a third spot for the less obvious but wholly deserving Fugitive, the Branch had the creativity and good sense to spring for the rapturous historical epic Farewell My Concubine and the astutely framed, sensitively shot Searching for Bobby Fischer. Anyone watching the 1993 Oscars with an eye toward learning any of the constituent arts of filmmaking—directing, lensing, editing, acting, writing, design, composing, or special effects—was served a splendid buffet of exemplars and role models. Anyone voting for the Oscars could take confidence that none of the winners would embarrass anybody. Anyone nominated could feel like they deserved it.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Brief Interruption in Service

Don't the people at my job know that I have a countdown to finish? Pardon the hideous interruption in my Ten Best list, which I'll resume as soon as possible. Blame some looming deadlines and academic over-extension, necessitating my first all-nighter inside my own office as a professional-type person. When I've had any time to write at all, I've devoted it to Nathaniel's 2nd annual Oscar Symposium, which I invite you all to read!

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Best Films of 2006

Why is Clean called Clean? The most obvious reason is that the narrative centers around the attempted detoxing of Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung), the volatile, irresponsible, casually abrasive Mrs. of a rock star named Lee Hauser. Lee lives to see the other side of his prime but dies before truly acute embarrassment sets in: Emily procures some heroin one night in Hamilton, Ontario, they quarrel, they both take hits while spending the night separately but alone, he dies, and she doesn't. She does, however, serve six months in prison, loses her home-base apartment in London, and bears the perfectly apt decision of a Canadian court to award custody of her young son to Lee's parents, the bashful but magnanimous Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and the dying but hard-willed Rosemary (Martha Henry). In story terms, Emily's renunciation of drugs is most obviously a prerequisite for securing at least some visiting rights, if not full custody, of her child—and yet, neither in plot nor in style does Clean ever take shape as the maternity melodrama that writer-director Olivier Assayas leads us to expect. Neither a Sirkian bath in rich colors and expressionist worldviews nor a visually ascetic character drama in the Cassavetes mold (such as this year's fleetingly similar Sherrybaby), Clean refuses either to fetishize or to undercut Emily's bond with her son, and it breaks profoundly with its generic templates by emphasizing narrative momentum without leading Emily toward a plane of maternal competence or demonstrating definitively that she isn't cut out for the job. Clean takes the drugs out of Emily's hands, at least kinda sorta—there are hints of back-sliding all over the dialogue, and occasionally in the images—but has the gumption to withhold any clear, compensatory object of transference, for her or for us. "Clean" Emily is a listless but not quite lost Emily: inspired to write and sing music that is neither good nor terrible, guaranteed neither success nor failure in the pursuit of her own recording career, both in love with her son and impatient with her mothering role, both humbly responsive to Albrecht's benevolence and unable to be fully straight with him, Emily doesn't come into focus—a testament not to disarray but to uncommon discipline in Assayas' film.

If the cinematography weren't so precisely choreographed and gorgeously detailed, and the editing weren't so polished and rhythmically sound, Clean might come across as a shamble instead of a film that insists on Emily's plausible existence, and the humane, unheroic poetry of her personal and professional dilettantism. Colors, angles, camera movements: they are all exerted with consummate control in Clean's diverse sequences, from the enervated hustle of a greasy waitressing job to the endorphin rush of an amped-up club gig to the fragile politeness of offering shelter to a catastrophic friend to Nolte's frightened, dignified, and subtly rebellious reactions to his wife's mortality (and, by extension, his own) to a bit of comic skullduggery surrounding a lipstick-lesbian record producer and her captive ex-lover (which teases more quickly and playfully at retrograde crazy-dyke stereotypes than do the turgid excesses of Notes on a Scandal). Few films in 2006 so comfortably wedded visual finesse and savvy editing to such a pronouncedly story-driven endeavor, and if Clean doesn't always have a strong sense of where it's going, and if the indie-rock idiom occasionally outs itself as a naïve outsider's projection, one shouldn't overlook how brave the movie is to buck the trends not just of bad-mommy morality plays but of standard drug-recovery dramas and of Maggie Cheung's high-glamour iconography and of Assayas' own recent filmography. Clean follows, incongruously, the baroque paranoias and Lynchian short-circuitries of the estimable demonlover, though in its quiet way, Clean shares with its predecessor (and with Irma Vep) an interest in the tribulations and machinations of complex women in creative industries, as well as a polyglot sensibility that presumes the smallness of the world. Clean moves in and out of Canada, England, France, and the United States with the same understated fluency of its swerves in and out of redemptive drama, tacit comedy, and voyeuristic showbiz-fantasy. A second viewing is, in my experience, a shaky proposition: the film's refusal to settle questions and the concerted affectlessness of Cheung's performance, occasionally flirting with blandness, are not as refreshing the second time around. Too, the nascent Americanization of Emily in the final scenes feels like a rhetorical move with too little warrant in emotional substance or dramatic satisfaction. Still, Clean deploys its humanistic style in the service of legitimately interesting humans, who relate to each other in plausible, demanding, and affecting ways when they aren't name-dropping Tricky. Its sense of space and of place are beyond reproach, and without a Babel-like bone in its body, it captures the essence of a contemporary life lived across the outmoded borders of nation, region, genre, or conventionally defined gender roles—a life riven with self-destructive impulses but beginning to sound the first, tentative notes of stability.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

The Best Films of 2006

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

No one is about to confuse Darren Aronofsky with John Donne. Nevertheless, just as clearly, The Fountain represents this outrageously precocious third-time filmmaker's gambit at metaphysical poetry—and also at pre-Columbian mythmaking, science-fictional mindwarp, and Buddhist parable. As I indicated below, Matthew Barney's deliberately rarefied Drawing Restraint 9 makes something of a matching set with The Fountain, the year's most conceptually ambitious (if not commercially incongruous) mainstream release. But while Barney's lovers have the mad, fervent, forlorn passion of certain figures in Andrew Marvell, literalizing the notorious injunction to "tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Through the iron gates of life," The Fountain is contemplative, numinous, elusive, in the structure it elaborates as well as the shape of love that it traces. One of the movie's glorious surprises, then, is how broadly it differentiates itself, despite the trademark mannerisms of the colors and camerawork, from the blunt, confrontational, and harshly prescriptive style of Aronofsky's earlier films. The Fountain opts for a certain fragility and porousness between shots and subplots, laying sheets of emotion and implication over top of one another rather than slamming scenes together with the arrogant, thunderclap virtuosity of Requiem for a Dream, and without extending ambiguity all the way to paranoiac ends, as in π. The cuts here are strongly but enigmatically felt. As the protagonist of Margaret Edson's Wit suffers to learn, what separates life and death at the end of Donne's most celebrated Holy Sonnet is not a period nor an exclamation mark nor even a semi-colon, but a comma. The edits in The Fountain are almost all commas, for all that they mark expansive transitions of epoch and spirit. The film accumulates and expands, growing outward and nesting inward rather than, like most movies, simply barreling forward.

In a film replete with runes and metaphors, and concerned as much as anything with the enigmatic act of writing and its powers to distract, create, mislead, and immortalize, it's hard to verbalize why the movie works so well and exactly how it operates—both despite and because of its evident limitations. To be sure, there's much in The Fountain one can't help wanting to fix: the dingy under-lighting of the laboratory sequences, the truncated narrative and graphic-novel visual conceits of the Inquisition plot, the sentimental patina surrounding the dying Rachel Weisz, and the sour imperialist aftertaste of a conquistador's utterly sympathetic, almost beatific vanquishing of a Mayan priest. And yet, The Fountain resolves and redeems itself as a movie of ripples, radiating generously outward from what is sometimes cheap or unsatisfying in a given image and accruing spectacular emotional potency along the way. Ingenuities in the editing and the script encourage us to read the ancient fable of conquest and the prismatic, shimmering future-tale as two versions, hers and his, of evading death by imagining life. The scientific plotline avoids any dunder-headed impulse to act as a foil against such ardor and creativity, but the stakes of the researcher's failure and the harsh caprices of laboratory timing lend the film its mournful sobriety and furnish an important idea of human limits, if not an insistence upon them.

All of these storylines and motifs, laced together at times by something as simple as a reiterated camera move, allow everything in The Fountain to rhyme internally with everything else. Even the tangible factors of the film's own making—the shrinking budget, the abortive plots, the simply rendered visual effects—are absorbed into this echo chamber, such that The Fountain, at every level, keens and howls with the desperate wish to beat the clock and defy the ledger, to do more with less, to defy the Fates. It's an easy movie to explode with an ounce of cynical response, notwithstanding the unqualified triumphs of its music, its lead performance, and its golden backdrops of cellular life as a galactic frontier. But for a filmmaker who's had trouble breathing life into characters beneath all the fancy plumbing of well-honed technique, The Fountain holds life in impressively high regard, honoring its mysteries by enunciating some of its own.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Best Films of 2006

Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 was one of two exciting, fiercely idiosyncratic films in 2006 in which carnal, compulsive love spanned wide dimensions of time and place, etching itself into lavishly syncretized idioms of east, west, and south, and casting the director's own real-life lover as the muse of erotic, ironically ambivalent abandon. Not content as Darren Aronofsky was with indirect (albeit insistent) authorial signatures, Barney plasters himself into his own images, characteristically using his own body as a canvas for graphic, cosmetic, and cultural bricolage, but injecting a level of self-conscious ardor and outside-observerism that the Cremaster films, greater pieces though they are, didn't often attempt. This movie is a sort of spiritual and artistic heir to Greenaway's Pillow Book, not just reflecting an Anglo fascination with Asian tropes and cultural currents, but critiquing that fascination through its own peculiar codes and complicated figures, which are just as often repellent (Greenaway's guttings and obese bodies, Barney's floating log of whale detritus) as they are sensuous (calligraphy, ceremony, costume). By adopting the central and controversial motif of whaling, Barney installs bright, cutting questions into his movie about which of these tropes and artifacts are properly Japan's, which belong more properly to nature or the world or prehistory, and which arise from that deep, aquatic, associative imagination of Barney's—a metaphorical ocean, which he trawls and patrols for inspiration in ways that are not themselves immune from critique. After all, who does this spectacularist think he is? What are the boundaries of what he can recruit as "art," or spend in the name of frequently obscure expression, or expect an audience to tolerate, particularly in the long, guignol climax?

I credit Barney enormously for planting these questions in his art, for cultivating a form of art that is premised on self-reflexive questions instead of just prompting them from a rightfully skeptical audience (like so many movies do), and for working at the scale and at the extremities that are necessary to make his artistry salient. Drawing Restraint 9 certainly has the courage of its strange, unique convictions, and if, like The Pillow Book, the movie extends itself a little too long, allowing too many of its conceits to grow overripe, the movie furnishes more than its fair share of images and sounds and ideas and juxtapositions for us to ponder. Best of all, in a way that Barney rarely gets credit for, he is shaping up terrifically as a filmmaker, not just a sculptor or gallery artist with a camera in one hand while the other is stuffed into Barbara Gladstone's big, fat purse. In the very way it is shot and edited, Drawing Restraint 9 echoes its own thematic and visual investments in tension, duration, and detail, and the film does an elegant job of showcasing its center-ring event—the molding and then the crumbling of a 45,000-pound mold of petroleum jelly—such that the movie conveys Barney's own enthusiasm for this sight, and even better, his own styles of seeing and feeling.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Best Films of 2006

To a degree that muffles my enthusiasm for the film, James Longley's aesthetic plan for Iraq in Fragments is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: that is, if you splinter your movie into discontinuous shards, you will certainly achieve an effective mimesis of splintering, although you pay a certain price in sequence-level rigor and coherence. Portions of Iraq in Fragments seem arbitrarily assembled in their montage; at other moments, the robust, aesthetically powerful cinematography poses an equal risk of distracting us away from Iraq's contemporary agon and onto the facility, skill, and conceptual conceits of the filmmaker. However, with those caveats supplied, I think Iraq in Fragments is a stirringly wrought documentary incorporating footage that I can hardly believe anyone, especially a Western man with a movie camera, was able even to record, much less to safeguard through the various trials of local unease, possible censor reviews, and what was almost certainly a bear of an editing job. Iraq in Fragments looks as immediate and pressing in its sensual life on-screen as in its political and historical convictions—witness its heightened rendering of colors, of textures, of skylines, of a city that is decimated without being the rubble-pile that American news sometimes suggests, of facial close-ups at every juncture of the affective spectrum. The movie's full-scale immersion in the catastrophe it documents is a world away from the articulate but critically distant finger-wagging that characterizes so much modern documentary, and modern reportage in general. Longley was able to "see" the artistic possibilities of Iraq in Fragments while serving as his own cinematographer, camera operator, sound technician, composer, and editor because he insinuated himself so intimately with the quotidian life of a fractured country and allowed people, not just images or ideas, to speak eloquently and emotionally on their own behalf—especially in the first and third segments. The politics of characterizing an imperiled Sunni population (largely through the sentimentalized figure of a chastised, laboring child), a martial and resurgent Shia army of true believers, and a tremulous Kurdish north will be debated for years to come by the informed audiences the film draws to itself, but the especially salient point here seems to be that Longley has crafted a documentary that is guaranteed an afterlife as both a global-political time capsule and a benchmark of cinematic expression, blending the styles of the objective, anthropological survey and the personal essay-film with uncommon and topically appropriate finesse. Iraq in Fragments arrives on screen replete with indelible images, and with its finger credibly on the pulses of a country that is simultaneously passing away and convulsing into some new, volatile iteration of life.

Honorable Mention to When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee's sprawling, humane record of the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an emphatic result of political neglect—if not, as many interviewees feel, a socially eugenic and tyrannical will. In the understandable interest of quickly accruing massive amounts of footage and reflecting those impressions back to a nation in denial, Lee hasn't imparted to this film the argumentative consistency or rhetorical polish that he might have, or the refined, artistic technique that is more typical of Iraq in Fragments. Still, the film is prodigious in scope and deeply moving. Both portraits of concurrent catastrophes, serving as mirrors in some fashions and as direct contrasts in others, will endure as indispensable artifacts of the places and moments they describe, and, in Lee's case, as a crucial node within an already broad and accomplished filmography.

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Best of 2006: Cinematography

If I had any knack for achieving the artistry of filmmaking, instead of just observing it as well and as often as I can, I would love nothing better than to be a gifted cinematographer (or at least a stunning, keenly observant photographer, like Dr. S.). Such is my lot, however, that I can barely take a digital photo without scalping somebody at the top of the frame or planting my fingertip right on the lens. From the abject inadequacy of my own image-making, I absolutely revere the kinds of talent on display for us all in the best-photographed movies of 2006.

And now, only one more category to go... and you know which one that is!


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Best of 2006: Film Editing

Timing is everything, in movies as in life, which is why film editing is one of the most important arts in cinema—perhaps the most important art—and yet, editors get precious little respect. The scriptwriters for the Oscars always foist upon the presenters some twee little quip about how a good editor would make the telecast shorter, just as the Cinematography presenters are perennially obligated to make a dumb joke about how the principal job of a director of photography is to make the actors look pretty. In reality, good editors are like ideal gallery docents, smoothly directing you to look at just the right images for just the right amount of time, and in the most suggestive, interesting order.

They are also brilliant trainers, regulating the pace and energy of the film, and they are shrewd, observant psychologists. I'm sure I've mentioned it on this site before, but Tim Squyres, the usual editor of Ang Lee's movies (though not, for whatever reason, on Brokeback) once told a Cornell audience that his first Oscar nomination came, inevitably, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was by far the easiest of Lee's films to cut: all the transitions between action and dialogue were right there in the screenplay, and most of the conversations were two-handers... whereas, in something like The Ice Storm or Sense and Sensibility, you've often got four or six or eight actors in a scene, all of them experiencing tremors and doubts and suppressed excitements, or harboring valuable knowledges that other characters don't have. To whom do you cut? Should the excitement of secrecy or the force of repression dominate the scene?

Editors are also poets: they cut expression down to its barest essentials, coordinating the meter of a film to its content and imagery, and hopefully furnishing us with something illuminating and special. These five definitely provided those kinds of experiences for me, but as you'll see from the copious runners-up, there was lots of great editing going around in 2006.


Monday, February 05, 2007

Best of 2006: Lead Actress

Predictably enough, I had even more than usual to say about my five Best Actress candidates. Amazingly, the only one of them who got any real awards-season play was Luminita Gheorghiu, whom the LAFC crowned as their Best Supporting Actress, earning my love but also stealing my damn thunder. It's a tremendous performance, but I feel sure that it's a lead. Agree or disagree, Lazarescu fans? And who's shocked (or pleased, or not, or indifferent) that, after a year of me flapping my mouth about Clean, Cheung didn't make the final five? I must admit, the picture wasn't everything I remembered it to be when I returned to it last week, though it's still mighty good.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Best of 2006: Lead Actor

For once, I came up with a list that, in some plausible version of reality, could have been Oscar's as well: two of my nominees are shared with AMPAS, two others have a People's Choice pedigree that Oscar might have noticed if he weren't so snobby, and the fifth was hamstrung by an overshadowing castmate and a ridiculous, cynical mismarketing as a "supporting" performer. (Did Jodie Foster "support" Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, and I missed it?)

If you don't believe the merits of my list, check out Nathaniel's (as you no doubt already have), and ask yourself: could we both be so wrong?

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Best of 2006: The Directors

Many, but not all, of these five artists will have their praises sung again when I post my Best Picture lineup in the next few days. But first, there will be stops along the way for Best Actor and my three favorite categories every year, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing.

Meanwhile, though it may be immodest of me, I can't resist the temptation to link to this article at the Reverse Shot Blog. Some portion of the web-writing I do feeds back into my professional life, but mostly, I do all of this for the fun, the conversation, and the challenge of practicing my writing and my thinking, especially about movies. It's enormously gratifying when people notice, and even better when they appreciate what they find here. Thanks to all of you who read and comment, and a particularly huge thanks today to the writers at Reverse Shot!

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Best of 2006: Non-English Language Films

To answer the obvious question, which only recently became a question, there are no American movies here... not just on principle, but because I think all five of these movies, as well as L'Enfant, the unnamed first runner-up, beat Letters from Iwo Jima on any day of the week, in any language.

Here, then, are my picks for the five best films I saw last year that weren't in the English language. Incidentally, there's no Almodóvar here, either, but if you were a fan of Law of Desire, I can highly recommend the fifth film on this list. Old Joy fans (oh, you zillions!) will groove on Syndromes, if it's ever actually released in the States, and Requiem is probably the great under-exploited import of the year. There's got to be a bigger American audience for this movie, and hopefully for all of these movies. I hope that audience is readying their Netflix queue even as we speak, but I also hope we'll all keep throwing money at these movies when they're actually in theaters, or soon enough our cinemas won't speak any more languages than our current president does. And we know how many that is.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Best of 2006: Best Supporting Actress

Dig in, StinkyLulu, and all the rest of you, too. I've already gabbed so much about three of these five women that there's less surprise in this announcement, but I hope you'll still find something to say in response. Next up: Best Director and Best Foreign-Language Film.

Meanwhile, Goatdog makes a great case for Amy Smart in Crank as his own pick for this year's Best Supporting Actress. If you've seen the film, you'll know exactly what it means, even if none of us would have phrased it this well; if you haven't seen the film... well, why haven't you?

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Best of 2006: Best Supporting Actor

Why beat around the bush? Here they are, along with seven worthy runners-up.

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