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 underwhelmingand 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 historyin 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 outoh, 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 mewith 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.