Monday, December 21, 2009

How the Grinch Quit the Oscars

Isn't The Hurt Locker spectacular? Aren't you elated that it exists, and that it's been heralded so loudly by so many of the year-end critics' groups? I notice it's been quietly re-booked into one downtown Chicago multiplex, and I cannot wait to see it again.

And I'm so pleased to have something nice to say in this post. Please don't forget that I started on a sunny note. Because it wasn't easy to find.

With about ten days left to go in 2009, I only have five planned theatrical rendezvous remaining with the year's commercially released features. I don't much care about seeing Sherlock Holmes, though I hear it's fun, and Screen Media Films, whoever that is, seems insuperably challenged at getting The Private Lives of Pippa Lee into Chicago. Which does not, from friends' accounts overseas, sound like a tremendous loss, though I'm still curious.

That leaves Crazy Heart, The Last Station, The Lovely Bones, Nine, and The White Ribbon. Formal elements and performances in all five films promise to make them worth seeing, though the middle group feels intensely dubious. Reports by people I trust and the films' own advertising campaigns give me trouble imagining any of them except The White Ribbon hanging in there as projects that, six or twelve months from now, I'll be remembering clearly and fondly. Go figure that Ribbon is also the title that faces the biggest uphill climb getting any attention from Oscar, much less the multiple nominations that most or all of the others seem able to expect.

But that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for a bigger problem. By my estimation, the newly expanded Best Picture derby has these 20 movies jockeying for a spot: Avatar, The Blind Side, Bright Star, District 9, An Education, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Invictus, Julie & Julia, The Last Station, The Lovely Bones, The Messenger, Nine, Precious, A Serious Man, A Single Man, Star Trek, Up, and Up in the Air.

I gave only five of those movies a grade higher than a C+, even though more than half the 2009 releases that I saw scored above that particular bar; and come on, I'm not even counting highbrow festival screenings, and it's hardly as though I stay out of the malls and multiplexes, monastically holing myself up in some Sharunas Bartas retrospective at the edge of town. The Hurt Locker, which I find to be unquestionably the best of these films, is an object of almost universal adulation, so bully for me, for you, for Summit, and for Kathryn Bigelow. Bright Star, my B+, has missed all the precursors so far by such a wide margin that it barely belongs in this list of persistent contenders. That leaves three B's, for The Messenger, aesthetically modest but full of integrity, against which the odds are stacked in any contest "higher" than Best Supporting Actor; Precious, whose many prepossessing virtues I found to be limned with reasons for social and aesthetic concern; and Up, which I barely think about, and consider firmly in the middle-to-low range of Pixar's accomplishments.

Screening out, temporarily, the three movies I haven't seen, this means that 60% of the pack was roundly underwhelming—and this, coming directly off a year where I liked one Best Picture nominee, my second-favorite was rather generously scored at a B–, one was thuddingly mediocre, and two were dementedly horrendous.

Apart from The Hurt Locker's precursor success and the high likelihood of seeing a woman (and Kathryn Bigelow specifically) winning Best Director, there are only two things that don't depress me about this year's award season. One is the expansion of the Best Picture field, which should have raised the likelihood of at least a few more decent movies getting the visibility and advertising boost of a top-shelf Oscar nod, but has at least made the sport of predicting more interesting up to this point (more on that later). The other is Mo'Nique's refusal to play the campaigning game, at least not in a straightforward way, which if/when she wins for Precious has the potential to set an inspiring precedent for letting quality of work, rather than vehemence of desire and scale of self-advertising, determine the eventual Oscar winner. This would entail a huge victory for actors, who ought to be able to prioritize their creative work over their own grossly expensive and almost inevitably canned gabbing about it, and also a victory for us, since the ubiquitous obsessions with horse-racing and self-perpetuating publicity are threatening to overwhelm what almost anyone has to say about the actual movies. And yet people have been giving her shit about it for months! For God's sake, why?

The way I see it, given all of the above, and since, in addition, from my perspective...

Avatar is embarrassingly self-fetishizing of a world it forgets to fully explore or even make us curious about, is full of the same old alien-planet crap (jump off the waterfall just in time! big weepy death scene for the last person who deserves one! hide in the tree-roots just inches away from the beastie's teeth!), and, despite being by the director of Aliens, is remarkably blithe about concluding that the best way to cast the film's lot with the Na'Vi is to foist an increasing number of Paul Haggis lines into the mouths of Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi and to authorize all sorts of grisly close-up deaths for all the troops, because we're not supposed to care when they get pulverized and garroted, because we don't like the policies of the people they work for, even though the "heroes" also work for these people;

The Blind Side has some charming work from Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, and it's at least less self-serious than its more somber cousin The Green Mile, but is in most ways unspeakable;

District 9 is excitingly eccentric and superbly acted by its lead, but makes a notably careless botch of a faux-documentary conceit that it doesn't even need, and has a vicious anti-black African streak a mile wide, despite styling itself as a critique of Apartheid;

An Education, indifferently shot and gruesomely scored, has no inclination or ability whatsoever to imagine that its lead character should be complicated for us by her active role in her own fate, and prefers to make her an unfathomably winsome gamine, allowing her to lecture just about everyone around her at some point in the film, including that hambone Alfred Molina;

Fantastic Mr. Fox devises an engaging, ruddy, excitingly textured style of animation but only to convey the same kind of promising but quickly stalled narrative, featuring (as ever) too many characters, that Wes Anderson is always trying to pull over with increasingly dim results, and in this outing, he is not at all helped by the ever-urbane, paradigmatically ironical George Clooney, who apparently isn't clocking how hard the adapted script has asked us to accept that at heart Mr. Fox is a wild animal;

Inglourious Basterds had me reeling out of the theater so furious about its patent unevenness as a formal and narrative construction, its naked bloodlust, and its arrogation of "Jewish vengeance" as some kind of ennobling closet for its own point-blank overkills that I never finished the long screed I was drafting against the movie... even though I have to concede that there's an excitement and a deep debatability to Tarantino's project and his imagination that I can't detect in almost any of these other films, and which is in some ways to be commended;

Invictus is so literal-minded that it takes Mandela's plan at absolute face value, that this rugby game really is uniting a nation, and then lazily backseats the more interesting facets in Freeman's characterization as well as everything else that he might be witnessing at this unprecedented juncture in history—in fact backseats everything so that we can watch the damn rugby in what feels like real time, give or take the usual passel of amateur-hour supporting performances in an Eastwood film, plus some off-puttingly jerry-rigged suspense involving an airplane pilot;

Julie & Julia is a fun night at the theater but hardly what you'd want to submit to even your most lenient filmmaking teacher for grading, and it pushes even the wonderful Meryl into some embarrassing semaphores, especially about all the children she wishes she could have but can't (oh, hold me!);

A Serious Man zeroes in with relish on the odiousness of almost everyone in the protagonist's life, lights him as pitilessly as possible (which still can't compete with how the movie treats its women or its nonwhite characters), and tries to shape this bitty, sour, disjointed narrative into a coherent film by invoking shaky allusions to Job as well as three chapter-marked visits to three rabbis, each of them written at a level profoundly below what we should expect from the Coens, although they're at least frustrating and clichéd in three separate ways;

A Single Man has the brilliant idea of so transparently flagging its infatuation with Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Almodóvar, Mad Men, etc., that we can't help but clock Tom Ford's gigantic failures to come anywhere near the formal strength and psychological penetration of the texts he emulates, and it not only rehashes a dated gay fable that would have smelled musty even 20 years ago in The Celluloid Closet, it pivots on a lame, doe-eyed, half-baked, risibly written teacher-student flirtation that absolutely everyone would deservedly be pouncing on, for political as well as dramatic and aesthetic reasons, if the participants were a man and a girl;

Star Trek, even making exceptions for Zachary Quinto and Bruce Greenwood, has a wan and inconsistent cast, a terrible opening followed by a boy's-rebellion sequence that's even worse, a whole lot of gobbledygook in the script to "explain" a narrative that still doesn't make a whole lot of sense (and wouldn't need to, if people would just shut up about it), a bunch of gum about Simon Pegg getting stuck inside a pipe or something, and a 10- or 15-minute commitment toward revising Uhura into a "stronger" character for 2009 audiences, only to make sure she gets nothing to do through the rest of the movie except dress like a stewardess from View from the Top; and

Up in the Air, beyond its unnecessarily cruddy cinematography and its garish overdirection of the bafflingly lauded Anna Kendrick, makes a smug show from the (extremely compacted) opening montage to the (sadly sketchy) closing song of being "relevant" to and "in touch" with the current recession, before bolting to get away from anything plausibly topical, or anything unseemly about the Clooney character and his rationalizations about firing people "with dignity," or anything specific to his ethics and self-consciousness as a white-collar hangman, so as to re-code him as a witty, typecasted bachelor who has to be convinced like 1,000 other movie protagonists that the only acceptable way to live is as a member of a romantic heterosexual couple... so that he can be saved from his insultingly emphatic White Soulless Apartment and, hopefully, cued to live a little bit more like the optimistic, sad-eyed, but irreproachably "real" people that you can only find in places like Wisconsin (and when it doesn't work out—oh, hold me!);

... then consequently I am officially signing off for the rest of this awards season from writing any Golden Globe predictions or recaps, any SAG-related features, or any Oscar nomination predictions or follow-ups, and also from contributing to any blogathon entries or any more podcast conversations or other enterprises about what's going on with all of these dispiriting movies and their jostlings for unearned position. I got in on Nathaniel's second podcast of the season last week, before Avatar brought me crashing down (and I get a big on-air rant about Up in the Air), and I definitely encourage you to listen to it. Nathaniel, Katey, and Joe are, as always, a joy to talk to when I detach myself from my feelings about the films in play, and if you like these movies so much more than I do that you're eager to keep tracing their fortunes, there's no better company in which to keep reading the tea leaves.

But from now on, I am boycotting. I will still watch the Oscars, no doubt with some eagerness, and if Bigelow or Sidibe or their films do pull out the win, I'll want to celebrate that. I'll still do the Best Actress write-up, since my ongoing and historical interest in that category remains exciting to me. But that's it.

Maybe the incredible bitterness that hit me after Up in the Air and Avatar will eventually relieve itself, and this will only be a one-year hiatus from publicly caring about Oscar. Maybe I'm just firing myself from this particular position, so that I can go build an empire or whatever bullshit Ryan Bingham would tell me—with dignity!—that I am now free to do, having renounced any coverage of this year's Academy Awards.

For now, I am throwing (almost) everything Oscar-related out of the backpack that is my life. I have other things to do, even on this blog. For instance, all through this month, I have loved shining a light on so many other movies and personal memories of the cinema, and I want to keep doing that. From my own perspective, there's no way I would relinquish any of that joy so as to deduce more energetically how AMPAS will or will not make a further cock-up out of the limited, dispiriting mound of studio-, publicist-, and advertiser-selected options that they now have in front of them. It's not quite Christmas, but consider that my New Year's Resolution.

So anyway. Back to the movies.

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Blogger Bill C said...

Feeling sheepish about having been part of the Anna Kendrick chorus now, and only hope my intense dislike of both A SINGLE MAN and CRAZY HEART will keep my street cred intact. (Oy, CRAZY HEART.)

12:20 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Bill: You will always have street cred on this site. Besides, you're my big Lorna's Silence ally! If anything, I'm the one losing street cred by being such an Oscar nerd for so long and now feeling like I have to cut bait, at least for this year. This pissy rant doesn't make it clear, but I haven't suddenly started thinking other people don't have their own equally valid opinions. I'm just so far off consensus this year that I'd rather not go to the party than be the contrarian in almost every part of the room.

As for Kendrick: I just thought she was way too locked into Hair Yanked Back = Wound Tight, Karaoke Machine = It's All Out Now, total caricature of an upwardly mobile early careerist but playing it at such an aggressive pitch that I couldn't imagine her getting a toe in the door with someone like the Bateman character, much less becoming his prize apprentice. And that breakdown scene in the hotel lobby just seemed way overdone to me.

My strategy for the rest of the winter when Up in the Air comes up will be to steer things as quickly as possible to Farmiga and Morton. Love those two. And then take a sip of whatever I'm holding when the rest of it comes up.

12:25 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Jeff said...

Sorry to hear that the emptiness that is Oscar has just hit you all at once. Maybe this will cheer you up:

12:34 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Dame James said...

Half of these movies haven't even come to my town and I'm already sick of the Oscars this year. When I have to (most likely) sit through both Invictus AND Avatar after watching their shit trailers just to keep my manic Best Picture nominees-watching obsession alive, I am not going to be a happy camper. Add to that the yawn-inspiring Best Actress line-up which is standing dutifully to honor mostly typical Oscar performances (from what I've heard anyways--I've only seen Sidibe and Bullock) when there are so many more interesting performances in non-Oscary stuff (Tilda, Maya Rudolph in Away We Go, Henson in I Can Do Bad and, don't laugh, Beyoncé in Obsessed). It's getting to the point where I'm turning against Streep, Mirren and Mulligan before even seeing their performances. Wake me up when this horrible year is over and good films come back.

12:39 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Jeff: I totally take your point; the Oscars have been comparably if not equally compromised during all the years I've been as fixated on them as lots of other people. But to have even fewer available causes in a year that opened the gate twice is wide is, for whatever reason, my Damascene moment! I'll go look at your video.

@DJH: Glad that I'm not alone. I'll definitely stick up for Sidibe as giving a stronger or at least a different kind of perf than Oscar usually goes for; we may or may not agree, but in the larger scope of things we definitely sound like we're in the same place this year.

12:49 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Babs Johnson said...

Oh God, but you were such a great contributor to those podcasts! Taking Mamma Mia's Globe nod and giving it to the sneezing panda? Genius. And those few minutes where the talk was centered around J-Lo's "Mama's talkin!" moment were just blissful. And it was TOTALLY Eileen Atkins.

Are you including StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress blogathon in the boycott? I hope not. I know you already do Supporting Actress write-ups for your year-end honors, but I have to say, your Julie Kavner post from '07 was what drew me to this site...think of all the other lost souls (as I was...hold me!) who could benefit from the exposure!

Looking forward to the non-Oscary gifts to come in the new year...

1:07 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Sad that you're vetoing, but I can definitely understand. Pippa Lee is quite tame, I can imagining you giving it anything from D+ to C+, but I think it's goodish. The performances are good, but it's boggled down by a director and screenwriter [one person] who doesn't know what to cut and what to keep. Ah well.

I still have to see An Education, but ok I gather you didn't like it [sad] but do you think Mulligan is worse than Streep? I'm not sure I want Sidibe to win after seeing Precious, I don't want J&J to get any love and that only leaves Mulligan.

1:21 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I am very sad to lose you -- who I consider my strongest ally in loving the Oscars obsessively while also realizing that you need to love the movies a whole lot more than that -- but I get it.

This year isn't pissing me off (I like a lot of these movies...but find your takedowns hilariously incisive about their weaknesses!)

but I wanted to say WORD on Mo'Nique. I cannot believe how badly the media punditry wants her to lose the Oscar. It's shameful. Two years from now (if she loses) they will all bitch about how she lost when she was so deserving and Oscar doesn't care about quality.

I wonder sometimes if AMPAS voters get tired of all the impossible-to-please-people whiplash.

7:42 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

Awww this is kind of sad. After last year's horrendous Best Picture lineup was announced I felt similarly negative towards AMPAS and their questionable motivations. I think the element of competition is always enough to drive me back towards the Oscars, and though I agree that the whole winners/losers/buzz media circus distracts from the films themselves Awards Season always seems like such a fascinating whirlwind tale of "success" and "failure".

I disagree with you about Avatar. I was curious about Pandora. The F/X element of it was always going to be distracting, but I feel that it tries to demonstrate the mechanics of nature as much as its visual splendour. It felt more experential than an exhibition, like an artist didn't invite us to see his work but to glimpse inside his thought-process when he was creating the work. Perhaps the problem is that it doesn't feel alien enough? The standard political strand was annoying though, I concede. I may even go lower than Paul Haggis and suggest it was more Mel Gibson territory.

I'm with you on almost everything else, apart from Fox, which I thought was dry and delightful, and Inglourious which I admire for the complete lack of protocol, and three scenes that had everything. I also didn't care for Precious and thought it was badly directed.

Not a fan of Pippa Lee but Wright-Penn (Is she still a Penn?) is great. So too one of the girls in The White Ribbon, which I was a tad disappointed by but still liked.

Don't give up hope. But when The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture you'll be back. False confidence works wonders.

12:08 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Babs: So nice of you to read and listen to all of this material, much less to remember it all! I appreciate the encouragement. Since, admittedly, a particularly pivotal year in my job is part of why I need to scale back (and the bad Oscar year is giving me just the extra push I need), I'm not sure which other projects I will or won't be committing to, but I'll think of something. It's always, always interesting to hear how people discover the site, and it's certainly a prompt to keep writing in those areas.

@Andrew: I'm not just being coy, I promise, but I still haven't worked out my relative preference between Streep and Mulligan. I will say that Streep in It's Complicated is way more my speed than Streep in J&J, if that's at least a morsel to chew on.

@Nathaniel: You are kind and generous of spirit! You know if there was any Oscar party, literal or metaphorical, that I was going to attend this season, it would be yours, always yours.

So glad that you're feeling the same way about all the short-sighted and weirdly vindictive anti-Mo'Nique'ism. Not coincidentally fomented, from what I gather, by a few key individuals whose bread and butter would evaporate if the Oscars became a meritocracy instead of a campaign trail. I wonder why they're so miffed about this? And I wonder how many of the people who resent her position would be glad to give interviews and fly hither and yon and meet a bunch of people she doesn't need to know for five or six months, without getting paid for any of that, after doing an independent movie that can hardly have been a big salary day for anyone involved?

@Cal: Thanks for such a detailed and typically kind response! I can totally see the sticking-points in the direction of Precious, though I love and agree with what Nathaniel said about it in the podcast, that Precious's flaws actually make it more interesting, whereas a lot of other movies' flaws make them more conventional or dubious.

That sounds like the running line on Pippa, but it's so hard not to be excited about a movie with that many talented actresses. I'm fully prepared for this to be How to Make an American Quilt all over again, but that's a part of me that's even less fixable than my Oscar dependency, apparently.

@Everyone: I'm definitely still interested in the competition angle. I just don't want to give that horse-race aspect any extra publicity when I already think it gets too much, and (more importantly) the films this year, for me, just don't deserve it. And on a related note, I am totally played out of vocab-reflexes like "snub." Why is everything a "snub" when it doesn't make it onto a very short list? And how come some of the same writers and commenters who seem so wrapped up about the "spoiling" or "downgrading" of Best Picture with 10 nominees - implying that they think the list should be as short as possible in order to be prestigious - seem equally quick to call "snub" when not everything is on it?

I can't even get into "backlash." And I'm sure I've used these terms myself, if I word-searched my own site, but gaaaaaah.

See, what happens to my mood, when I talk about this year's Oscars? I'm putting down the needle...

12:46 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Lev Lewis said...

Sad, but understandable.

It is dispiriting, year after year, to watch the same performances and films nominated by everyone, especially when so much of what's being praised is so mediocre.

I'm absolutely in love with "Avatar" (strangely), so I can't agree with you there, and I found "Precious"'s direction to be so overwrought and misguided that it almost ruined the bevy of good performances within it, but I am truly relieved to have someone who finally recognizes how pedestrian and false "Up in the Air" actually is.

I saw the film way back at TIFF and it was a long three months of listening to a loud chorus praise the film's "intelligence" and "timeliness". So even if you're signing off on discussing it, at least I know I have one internet ally.

1:07 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

It makes me sad that you were driven to this state of frenzied bitterness by Avatar, a movie that I bought into 100%, although pretty much every word you wrote about it is demonstrably true, except for "or even make us curious about".

But about your greater point: aye, this is shaping up to be an even more thunderingly mediocre Oscar year than 2008, and after the 2008 nominations, I was pretty damn sure that I wouldn't be seeing anything that miserably boring again for a long time. Hah!

Anyway, I mean to say that you have an absolute and unquestioning ally in me - I've felt the same way for a few weeks now (really, I've felt the same way for months, when it became clear that the Academy had picked the worst year in recent memory to expand the BP slate to 10). I'm even planning on taking it one further and skipping the ceremony outright, but that has more to do with the absolute bullshit about the honorary Oscars.

I'm still following the horserace, myself, but only because I follow a couple of particular writers (Hi, Nathaniel! *waves hand*) who are pretty well locked into horserace reporting at this point. But I think you'll be pleased by how quickly your soul is purified once you stop trying to care.

Look at it this way: it gives you more time to start working on those "need to catch-up with" lists from the Backwards-Forwards series. Which is at any rate going to be a much more satisfying thing than thinking about Up in the Air ever again.

2:21 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Lev: I will absolutely take two disagreements about Avatar and Precious (and on the latter, I doubt I'm even disagreeing with you, I'm just impelled by the movie to give more weight to the good stuff), if what I get in return is such an ardent ally in the anti-Up in the Air camp. All of these comments are making me want to actually review the movies instead of reviewing their Oscar chances, which is probably what I'm better at or at least is more worth my time to begin with. Anyway, thanks for chiming in!

@Tim: If I've put myself in a position of needing to repeat it, there is nothing I would trade for great horserace trackers like Nathaniel and Katey and Joe Reid and Guy Lodge over at In Contention... but it's because they're as insightful and exciting in writing about the movies as they are in quantifying the race. I just wish that were more true of most of the other reportage, much less of the major critics' groups, whose year-end choices seem more and more unimaginative in pretty close proportion to their reviews being less and less challenging (and, to be fair, as the great ones are having less and less promise of a secure job, when they aren't actively being sloughed from their publications).

So, no intended slight to the people who are staying on the competition beat: I hope amidst all my dudgeon, that much was clear, especially to the crystal-ballers and shot-callers whom I know and love. I personally just can't swing it.

But hey, wanna watch the ceremony together and not tell anybody? :)

4:00 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

Team Tim on Avatar is now Team Two Tims, because I was totally curious about Pandora too. The panto baddies don't help, but for what it's worth I got a lot less bored with Ribisi than I did with Stephen Lang, who is almost down there in the Billy Zane zone... anyway, this movie is becoming oddly argument-proof, don't you find? I don't know if anyone digs it for the politics, exactly, but I'm not sure I'd want to know them. Or watch it with them. I'm strictly in it for the gawping.

Deeply worried I will find Up in the Air as vapid and hypocritical as you say on second pass, but I'm hoping the Vera-George chemistry (which I thought was certainly popping) is enough to head off a major downgrading. And you already know we differ on A Serious Man.

But Team Nick is entirely my comfort zone on Single Man, An Education, District 9 and (more or less) Basterds.

I understand the general dismay, but look on the bright side: Benjamin Button can't get any more nominations this year. Right? Not even as a withered foetus. The only way is up, surely.

5:18 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Catherine said...

Arrrrgh! I'm devastated you're abandoning the podcasts - although I totally think you have a legit reason for doing so and I realise I'm just being selfish - because you crack. me. up. Last night I was listening to the latest installment in bed and I actually rewound it five times just to relisten to you losing your shit over the trailer for The Young Victoria. I think the four of you work really well together as a chorus, so you'll be dearly missed.

...which sounds like you died. Whoops.

50% of the Oscar buzz movies haven't opened here yet, so I don't have an opinion on them yet. For what its worth, I am virulently anti-Avatar and it's really weirding me out to be so far off the critical consensus - I'm usually fairly on target. On the flip side, I'm way more positive than most about the general merits of An Education, including but not limited to Carey Mulligan's performance. I totally get why people feel let down by it, but that was not my reaction at all. I thought the production captured the time period very effectively and I found it a very cosy-looking film, which I suppose might turn others off. This next comment might be misconstrued, but whatever; I just completely identified with her character (well, except for the whole sleeping-with-older-man deal, I guess that's where we differ!); I just totally glommed onto her personality and outlook. Fairly narcassistically then, I didn't mind that the film perhaps fetishized her a little. I do disagree that the film doesn't work towards complicating her at all - I think Mulligan herself is making subtle efforts towards this effect. I saw a lot of scenes where she slightly underplayed her emotions or looked almost shifty or reacted kind of ambiguously. Plus, I thought the ending was far less stolid than most people gave it credit for; okay, maybe not that hokey voice-over, but the scene where she recieved the Oxbridge acceptance letter. Watching that scene, I really could not guage how she was reacting from one second to the next. I also loved the score! thoroughly.

Inglourious Basterds began to stagnate the moment I walked out of the theatre, but while I was in there I was having an extremely good time for about 60% of the film (Brad Pitt and the Jew Hunter took up the other 40%), so while I'm iffy on it as a whole, I am enjoying its surprising success in the precursors. I think it's a muscular piece of work and it's certainly unlike what their usual fare.

...Pippa Lee is a total hot mess. I'd say one of the weirdest films of the year, in terms of casting and tone and editing and framing and basically EVERYTHING. I really want you to see it - Julie is a lecherous hoot, there are some other nifty perfs and you'll get a laugh or two. It's by no means good, but it's so baffling that you'll want a look.

I really don't want Meryl to win for Julia Vs Julie [I honestly did not mean to type that...I cannot seem to refer to than film any other way. Seems kind of reductive, it's fairly obvious who'd take the KO there...]. If she did, it'd just add fuel to the "it's easy to win an Oscar by playing a mentally handicapped person" screed. [Is that too harsh? That performance was definitely heading in that direction].

Anyway, I'll stop now. Like I sad, I'm sad you're bowing out, but I'm glad if it means you can keep your sanity! Like everyone else, I'd be delighted if you blogged some more about older, better films, but we won't revolt if you don't [...well, maybe]. Work hard, spend time with Derek and your loved ones, watch a sleigh-load of (quality) flicks, read good novels, eat way too much, and have a wonderful Christmas. Reading your blog has been one of the constant pleasures of my 2009. Here's to 2010!

7:00 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Nick: I think liking Meryl in It's Complicated more seems to be obvious. Though I'm not a fan I always prefer when she's playing original people [for some reason loved her Clarissa in The Hours] than those accented weirdos [Bridges, ugh]. Still, it seems obvious that It's Complicated ain't happening, no matter what the Golden Globes think.

OT, kind of, about Mo'Nique. I'm wondering if this is going to turn into one of those performances you can't hate [Eliza Taylor's Martha or Kate's Eleanor of A.]. Granted I think Mo'Nique's damn good, but I just can't love her enough in it. I blame it on the script, and having seen 1/4 of the films you have I still think Cotillard is the best in the category. I guess what I'm trying to say in this annoyingly round-a-bout way is, am I crazy for not thinking Mo'Nique's Oscar should be sign sealed and delivered?

PS. Do you plan on seeing Brothers?

9:36 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

I'm gonna have to join Team Two Tims, 'cause boy if Avatar isn't a great anthropological - zoological - botanical experience, and a great first 3D experience (whoo! predictable but irresistible cliff-diving!), except that I wanted so much more of both and Cameron instead threw in a perfunctory narrative. (I'm now eagerly awaiting a vertiginous 3D thriller that strands its protagonists atop a tall spire and watches from above as they make their way down.)

Commiserations on being dispirited by the Oscars; honestly, I'm glad that I came into the Oscars the year Brokeback Mountain was the frontrunner, so I've never gotten to let my guard down or take the Oscars too seriously after that. Nonetheless, I will miss your presence on the podcast; your sudden incoherence at the mention of Whip It! was as much a bright spot for me as Katey's ruminations on the real moon.

Plus, I loved and still love your retrospectives on theatrical experiences and over-/under-estimated or unseen films of the decade, which are so fresh and creative especially with the deluge of "Best of 2000s" that every other film site is churning out, and I can only hope that you can do more. =)

9:38 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

@Andrew: Ouch, knocking Meryl for her "accented weirdo" in Bridges when it's a far superior perf to her Julia Child caricature? I love that she was already working her modern "pantomimey" I'm-Meryl-Streep,-prestige-actress,-but-look-how-much-fun-I'm-having! groove while rocking her more classical tragic groove (and I'd argue it's a more understated and mature tragedy than her career-making ones), so I can't even hold that overthick "Italian" accent against her. It's one of those rare star performances that works as much to comment on the actor playing it as on the character being played.

9:50 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Colin: Hee, your analysis of the performance is spot on, though I still don't like it. I'm not saying it's any worse than Julia Child. It's better. But that's not saying much from me. I just don't like her when she gets all affected. Her accents I suppose are "flawless" but, aaargh.

"It's one of those rare star performances that works as much to comment on the actor playing it as on the character being played." That line makes perfect sense, when it shouldn't :)

10:52 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

@Andrew: Her accents are rarely "flawless", and that's exactly what I love! What can I say? Meryl is paradoxically the only actor whom I love more when she's overbaked. For instance, beyond the gum-chewing chuckles and boob-flashing and suppressed laughter and sex-mindedness of her Karen Silkwood, I couldn't stand how technically flawless the performance was, accent and all; but I lapped. it. up. when she slipped in and out of her "Wisconsin" accent in A Prairie Home Companion, or twitched those way-too-obvious "STOP SLAMMING THE DOOR" body-jerks at the start of Bridges.

Whereas J&J couldn't stop boring me with how little it could invite Meryl to flounce: after her glance at a pram got amped up into a contrived bawling-at-the-good-news session, or her third "something to doooOOOOOooo", I was ready to kill things. Really, Nora Ephron, that's all you've got?

@Who Am I: Welcome to the club ;)

12:13 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Paul Outlaw said...

Nick, as Tom Waits said to Bette Midler, "You must be reading my mail."

A truly underwhelming awards year, with one film that I'm not interested in seeing (Avatar) and another that is a promising director's career worst (Up in the Air) front and center.

It would be a hoot, though, if The Hurt Locker and Precious end up snatching more than two Academy Awards between them.

1:13 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger gduncan said...

I'm with you 100%. I'm done with this season as well. I'm going to be focusing on the TV awards and the Grammy's from now on. It's pathetic how the same films keep getting recognized over and over and over and over again. If Ben Foster, Samantha Morton,or Abbie Cornish happen to get more honors or hopefully Oscar nods,then maybe I'll start following again.

1:52 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Will said...

I Completely agree with you on everything including the Monquie situation. i cannot understand this backlash against her especially from Gold Derby's Tom O'neil. The One film and performance i'm really passionate about this year is 'Moon' and Sam Rockwell - i don't know if you have seen it yet but he deserves at least a nomination but i'm 99% certain he won't and thats one of the problems with the AMPAS.

6:20 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Nate Tyson said...

"...and has a vicious anti-black African streak a mile wide, despite styling itself as a critique of Apartheid"

Thank You! I have been saying this since I saw the movie, and I've discovered that very few people have even considered the blatantly racist aspects of the film.

10:08 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

Am also underwhelmed by the slate of this year's "Oscar" films. Considering how weak the Best Actress field is, it's really ridiculous that there's seemingly no room anywhere for any kind of nomination for Tilda Swinton's amazing work in "Julia."

I actually went to a screening of "It's Complicated" because I saw you liked Meryl in it on Nathaniel's site. For myself, I was embarrassed for her most of the time; she never went in for that movie star "don't I look great? aren't I charming?" stuff when she was young; it's very strange that she's fallen into that trap at 60, after 150 Oscar nominations and an Everest of acclaim.

At the screening, I was surrounded by older women anxiously saying, "Doesn't she look great for her age?" every five minutes. I'm sorry, but Streep needs a part, a role, a person to play. She can't just show up and be asked to radiate star presence, a la Diane Keaton, or Julia Roberts, or whoever. I hope you do a review of that film so I can understand more where you're coming from.

I liked her well enough in "Julie and Julia," though she does overdo the "joy" every now and then. But her best moment this year is when her Mrs. Fox tells Clooney's Mr. Fox that she loves him, "but I shouldn't have married you." The way she says that line is so breathtakingly tough and final.

And "Precious"! I really enjoyed your roller-coaster ride review of that movie, but after reading so much about it, it seemed like a comedy sketch played semi-seriously. For Oscar-baiting, Mo'Nique's final meltdown sets a new bar for confusion; even the camera doesn't know where to go or what to do while she fumes and cries and fumes.

In "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges is nicely sour, unsentimental and big-cat sexy in his first scenes, but the film gives him literally nowhere to go.

There was a lot of value this year, acting-wise at least, but it's hidden away in nooks and crannies, unfortunately.

2:48 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Persona said...

This is the first time I've read your blog. I'm a Chicago (suburban) boy, so I don't know how I missed it, but wow, great rant. I haven't seen quite as many films this year but I think I already agree. And even though you are being way too hard on the Coens, I will forgive you because you seem to love The Maid.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Oscars just basically admitted to the fact that the world has changed and the best films aren't being made in America anymore? Do away with a "Foreign" category, and just be honest about the whole thing? How many years away from this admission can we really and truly be?

5:47 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim R.: The Button line was laugh-out-loud funny, so thanks especially for that! I agree that the Vera-George rapport was pretty sizzly and infectious, and there's not a thing I'm going to say against her. And I appreciate his coming to life around her, though it's not enough to get me excited about the whole perf (which I don't think is bad, either, if a little self-contented). But it's just too hard to yank away from the movie that encases it to give me too much joy. I agree that Lang was really underwhelming, but I think Ribisi was just as boring, and (sorry) Weaver was a very, very close third place in that department.

@Catherine: Another laugh-out-loud line about Meryl in J&J. She seems to me like she's still in her "pushy" mode in this movie, like she has been in her last few turns. I think your points about An Education are totally interesting, and in a significant way I think we largely agree: I can see Mulligan acting a much more interesting version of this story than Scherfig or her teammates are inclined to tell; it's like they keep turning her so that we see the intoxicating sense of intelligence that Mulligan projects from almost any angle, but they tend to cut away or de-frame her attempts to make the character more complex, or more obviously attuned to what's in store for her if she goes down this Sarsgaard road.

@AEE: "Bridges, ugh" is pretty high up there on the list of dangerous things to say on this site, but I'm going to let it slide. This once! And I can already tell you that Mo'Nique wouldn't win my personal Supporting Actress prize if it was up to me to dole one out, but none of the (relatively few) people I would rank above her have got any Oscar traction whatsoever. So if you're asking about quality of work, I'd agree that she doesn't strike me as "unbeatable," but if you're asking about pragmatics, I just don't see how she'd lose. But you keep tricking me into talking about the horse-race! Don't do that! ;)

@Colin: I think Tim's right that Avatar is almost argument-proof to the extent that you either felt enchanted or different. I am just at a loss about what made Pandora any more interesting than the Pixar jungle-planets in The Incredibles or Up, and it just pales to me in comparison to Middle Earth or even Skull Island, care of so many of the same WETA technicians. Lots of foliage, some floating mountains: it was pretty, but I just can't imagine wanting to pause on any of the details. The tree in The Fountain sort of kicked this one to the curb, for me, and that visual analogy of the laddered, spiraling inside of the main tree to a strand of DNA just seemed killingly overbearing, just like the word "unobtainium." But, to each his own. Great defenses of Meryl, though! Took the words out of my mouth on almost all those point.

@Who Am I?: History will remember you for that substantive interjection. There's no question I'm in a grade-A POUT right now, and it's my own fault for investing so much in the Oscars in so many earlier years that I'm this annoyed when the crop of films and the attendant publicity are this galling. I will certainly give you that. But I like plenty of commercial films from the past year (Whip It, Drag Me to Hell, I Love You, Man, Where the Wild Things Are, Paranormal Activity, Funny People, Adventureland) way, way more than almost any of the Oscar group, even though of course those films leave themselves just as open to succinct dismissal as the ones for which I just expressed my distaste. So once you've worked up to a place of being able to comment under your own name, you'll need to try harder than "film snob." Although then again, I've certainly been called worse.

11:17 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Paul: The team is getting bigger! I do appreciate the irony that a PR season and constellation of contenders that have got me feeling this feisty could, quite plausibly, lead to a field of winners that I prefer tremendously to almost any recent one. A Locker / Bigelow / Sidibe / Mo'Nique / Waltz evening would practically make me dance. But I'm only willing to be that excited on that one night, and if it even happens. I just can't keep up the enthusiasm for 10 weeks, and have to gab about all these other drossy films along the way.

@GDuncan: Ben Foster was spectacular, wasn't he? I really wish he were part of the situation, especially since from my POV Best Actor is so much weaker than Best Actress (though the media perpetually likes to tell us otherwise), and he surprised me and drew me in so much more than virtually anyone who's in line for that prize, Renner aside.

@Will: I wasn't what you could quite call a Moon fan, but nothing about it got under my skin the way these others did; it just seemed a little less clever and less capturing of my imagination than I wanted it to be. But I can absolutely see how its own poor showing thus far would rankle a Moon fan as much as I'm rankled by all of the above. I'm not convinced it's out of the running, though. Chin up!

@Nate: THANK YOU. I just can't tell you how flabbergasting I found that, and bless Neill Blomkamp, all of the responses to that critique that I've read or heard him give in interviews (i.e., "No, but this is how these people really are!") just make matters worse, though it's clear this isn't his intention.

@Dan: I actually think part of what I loved about IC is that I think Streep can show up and do "movie star," without so much of a character on the page. Though I did see a character, certainly at least as much I saw one from Diane Keaton. I found her much breezier and able to make the lines pop because she wasn't hung up on quite so much Personality and "character details" as she was in J&J. And The French Lieutenant's Woman certainly looms large as evidence that she's never been above a performance that's heavily weighted around the assumption of how fascinating she expects us to find her. It's just that she usually delivers on that expectation so beautifully (though not, I feel strongly, in FLW). I do agree that her definitive admission to Mr. Fox was a, and maybe the, high point of her movie year. Though I found Steve Martin's rebuttal of her morning-after apology in IC just as bracing, frankly.

You'll understand if I can't even get started on the neglect of Julia and Tilda.

@Persona: A new reader - lovely! And you've definitely got my number on The Maid. A late-summer release of that one, à la La Vie en rose, surely would have had Saavedra more heavily in the Best Actress convo. Ah, well. I absolutely think you're right about the archaism of ghettoizing "foreign" films, not just because "the best" movies aren't always made in America, but because the corporations that own the studios and the ticket-buying audiences who often lift the tentpole pictures into profitability aren't in America, either. It's always been an international industry, and I'd be sanguine about using the wider BP field as a reason to repeal the Animated and FF categories if I weren't fairly sure of almost all non-English-language titles getting effectively wiped out of the ceremony. The same principle holds, frankly, for documentaries, and you can imagine the toll of visibility and recognition it would entail for those films if they were left to fend for themselves in the open-call categories.

11:32 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Bryan said...

You're probably much too modest to ever understand this, but here goes anyway: You will be soooo missed! I only recently discovered your site (I was using Google and typed in something totally geeky along the lines of "best actress critiques by year"), and boy do I love what I've found! I can totally respect your frustration this season, and I hope that some sort of Oscar coverage will return next year! And I can't express how relieved I am that you'll at least continue writing your yearly actress profiles. 'Cause lets be honest... that stuff is my crack.

So thanks for all of your insight, and especially for your ridiculously wonderful prose! You can bet I'll be back for next year's race, pestering you to divulge your opinions and predictions!

Until then, Nick!

12:50 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Bryan said...

That's kind of embarassing... cole.533 is me, Bryan. I guess my Google thing wasn't fully activated. Don't any of you start prank-emailing me at OSU, now!

12:56 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Bryan: In absolutely any case, but particularly in response to such a hissy-fit post, it is incredibly kind of you to credit me with modesty! I really appreciate hearing this, and don't worry, the Actress feature won't go anywhere. Part of why it moves so slowly is that I just have so much else to do, and I hate to write up the performances without having re-screened them, but the other reason is that I'm hoping to snare a book contract at some point for that feature. People would read it / buy it, right? Anyway, thanks so much for keeping up, and for saying such kind things.

1:38 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

@Nick: I admit that my Avatar-proofing came courtesy of my tempered expectations; for me, the gulf between Cameron's early classics and Titanic primed me for his shift towards blatant self-inserting romantic fantasy and insular movie dialogue, while my skepticism towards 3D sealed the deal in Avatar's favour. From the moment the film opens from an enclosed space into the very first shot of that spaceship tunnel, I gaped: a whole dimension (ahem) of film composition felt like it had been opened to me. And while I registered so many of your objections even during my viewing, the film threw enough 3D money shots at me that I yielded. I doubt any other Avatar-lover shares my feelings about which shots of the movie were the best. For me: a shot up a tree instead of a side-profile; and a bird's-eye view down at two characters, with the forest floor beneath them one league below where a movie would normally place it.

The rest of the forests and mountains and waterfalls, as you point out, didn't intrigue me much. But the movie tossed me pretty quickly into a palpable sense of Pandora's ecology, starting with the standoff between the herd of hammerheads and the Big Bad Carnivore, which is flattered by comparison to my childhood experience of watching the Fishy Food Chain in Phantom Menace. And of course the much-derided "organic USB cable" fascinated me on an anthropological front, since the psychic connection it allowed seemed always to cede domination to the Na'vi. Of course I'm ceding too much credit to the movie, and on a grouchier day and in a more 3D-advanced year I'm sure Avatar will age very badly for me. But there's just no mistaking that first flush of awe, especially since it just came out in theatres which makes it mine, in a way that far superior classics before my time can't fulfill. If that makes any sense.

Hmm, was it my bait-switching of Andrew's dislike of Bridges for my own reservations on Meryl's Silkwood that earned that "almost"? I know you so love that performance...

Oh, and I'm certainly not unbiased on this front, but people would totally buy that book. Is there even a competitor, and how many out-and-out actressexuals are there now?

11:35 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger UncleVanya said...

Thankfully, I saw about 30 or so films at TIFF this year, otherwise I would have felt as gloomy as you, especially considering the nadir this years' Oscars seems to be courting. Perhaps I had my hopes up too high after that string of good years (2005-06-07). You would have thought 2008 would have snapped the bliss out of me, but it didn't. Now I see that last year was a portend of things to come. Luckily, you have two films that you are championing, but I have none. The front-runner (The Hurt Locker), for me, was self-masterbatory, American nationalistic hog-wash. The side story concerning the young, cd/dvd selling, Iraqi boy, is the worst kind of narcissism that attempts to forgive the crimes of war-mongers and the sheep that follow. "War is a drug", indeed! Especially for bullies. I know I am in the minority on this film, and I get flack for it ALL the time, but, so be it. And Precious was made by a director who doesn't know when to stomp on the breaks. In my mind, I still get the scent of pigs feet every time I burn my toast.

If I had missed TIFF, I would have thought that 2009 was a vacuous air-bone, pleasing, only, to one of Pavlov's dogs. But having seen such films as Police, Adjective., A Prophet, Still Walking, Summer Hours, The White Ribbon, Mother, Lake Tahoe, Tokyo Sonata, Lorna's Silence, Thirst, Fish Tank, Samson & Delilah, The Milk of Sorrow, Bad Lieutenant, Mammoth, Where the Wild Things Are, The City of Life and Death, In the Loop, Humpday, Julia, etc., I am reminded that 2009 was, indeed, a rich year for film. No thanks to Oscar.

That aside, I keep having this dream that when the Best Actress award is announced, the envelope is opened only to reveal that nobody won, so the award is given to Tilda Swinton to commemorate Oscar's folly. However, there is one person, who if nominated, will resuscitate my interest come awards night. And that is Samantha Morton. Should she not be nominated, I will not be watching.

9:41 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger The Pretentious Know it All said...

I'm certainly not anti-Up in the Air, but I'd be more pro-Up in the Air if it gave me any reason whatsoever to want to revisit it and find out what exactly I'm missing when I contemplate the disconnect between my lukewarm reaction and the general hoopla. So in a way, Nick, I'm totally with you there. And I also thought it was peculiar how it only attempts to be about the recession in the most tangential, surface-y ways.

I think that speaks more to Jason Reitman who, before "Up in the Air" went wide, was going around to colleges and different theaters showing the film and then talking about. Let me just say that he spoke to the students at AFI about how resonant the film was (really awkward, considering that the consensus in the room was "good not great") then he proceeded to go into his spiel about how "nepotism failed him" and how he didn't get a foothold in this industry due to nepotism. He said the same thing, almost verbatim, same cadence, same inflection on the directors roundtable posted on Awards Daily. So, Nick your reaction to the canned, inauthentic nature of "Up in the Air" may be due to the apparently canned, inauthentic nature of Mr. Reitman himself.

4:53 PM, December 24, 2009  

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