Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I'll Take One Stab at This

Since Oscar ballots went out today, and I have a hard time imagining anything else transpiring in the coming weeks that will significantly change what we know already in the Picture, Director, and Acting races, I'm going to pony up to the bet-placing table and prognosticate. One update to follow in January to incorporate more of the non-celebrity fields. (I hate calling them the "technical categories." Emmanuel Lubezki and Skip Lievsay and Sandy Powell are artists, people. You know it, and I know it.)

Also, read this, which is lovely, funny, and beautifully thought-out, and way more valuable than what I'm doing here.

PICTURE: The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
Anything Else to Consider? Bridesmaids, because people genuinely love it and it might have helped green-light some more projects, and A Separation, if it pulls off the kind of below-the-radar City of God surge of which it seems capable (though of course I still doubt this, especially up top)

DIRECTOR: Michel Hazanavicius, Terrence Malick, Bennett Miller, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese
Anything Else to Consider? I'm wondering if emeritus contenders Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg can elbow one of these guys aside, but otherwise, I think that's your roster. Again, maybe Asghar Farhadi if Separation is getting out to more people than we realize.

ACTRESS: Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams
Anything Else to Consider? I think Tilda's going to lose her standard spot in the precursors to the same things that brought down Angelina Jolie for A Mighty Heart: film's too small, and it's not a screener a lot of folks are just dying to pop in. If there's a seventh factor, I guess it's Charlize Theron, but I really don't think so.

ACTOR: George Clooney, Jean Dujardin, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Michael Shannon
Anything Else to Consider? Unlike Kevin, I think Take Shelter will draw eyeballs; everything from Chastain Curiosity to Boardwalk Empire to a full year of strong reviews will help. Leonardo DiCaprio, Demián Bichir, Gary Oldman, Ryan Gosling (for Drive), and even Woody Harrelson are all possible threats, in about that order. Crowded race.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Bérénice Bejo, Melissa McCarthy, Janet McTeer, Octavia Spencer, Shailene Woodley
Anything Else to Consider? Can you survive vote-splitting with your own projects and vote-splitting with your scene partner? I'd like to see Chastain here, but since someone has to go, I'm guessing it's her. Redgrave's Volumnia still gnashing her war-monger's teeth in the corner, where she's been most of the season.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Kenneth Branagh, Albert Brooks, Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer
Anything Else to Consider? The longest list of possibilities, to include Max von Sydow, Viggo Mortensen, Nick Nolte, Ben Kingsley, Patton Oswalt, Andy Serkis, and Armie Hammer. Yet Plummer remains, for me, the most heavily fore-ordained winner of the night. Exciting that all five of the other races seem genuinely open as of Christmas!

(Again, one update and additional categories to follow in January)

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Eyes on the Critics' Prize: Under the Skin

I first learned about Carine Adler's Under the Skin from the trailer that showed at Boston's Coolidge Corner Theater, during an excursion to that venue in the spring of 1998. That timing means I was probably seeing Taste of Cherry, a move that made such profound artistic and intellectual impressions on me that I didn't expect to leave the cinema still haunted by a two-minute promo that played before the actual feature began.

U.S. ads for Under the Skin were full of breathless blurbs for its young, unknown star: "...and introducing international sensation Samantha Morton!" "Samantha Morton is extraordinary!" "A wild and heartbreaking actress!" This register of excitement has more recently attached to Sundance revelations like Jennifer Lawrence, Felicity Jones, and Elizabeth Olsen, but compared to the generously long theatrical runs that Martha Marcy... and Winter's Bone managed in high-traffic arthouses, Under the Skin was more of a Tyrannosaur, and maybe even less hyped than that. "International sensation" or not, you really had to be reading festival coverage or hitting well out-of-the-way cinemas to know about the movie, or to catch the preview-reel glimpses of its tiny but feral star, so instantly and intimidatingly charismatic, whether rattling at fences, strutting around in a fake fur four sizes too big, or firing off those wounded and terrible stares. The reviews that did circulate frequently compared her to recent-newbie Emily Watson, laying groundwork for Charlie Kaufman's straight-faced casting joke ten years later in Synecdoche, New York, but I remember thinking of Annie Lennox, circa "Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)."

The trailer for Under the Skin sells it, only somewhat misleadingly, as a triple-headliner in which Morton shares the screen with Claire Rushbrook, the rebarbative daughter of Brenda Blethyn's Cynthia in Secrets & Lies, and with British 60s icon Rita Tushingham, in a terrible wig that you're correct to peg as one of those huge, woolly insults that regularly gets added to the tremendous injury of chemotherapy. Tushingham, playing Morton's and Rushbrook's mother, is diagnosed with a tumor very early in the film and is dead inside of a quarter-hour, but some artfully unsettling edits obscure just how long the character has actually been ill, and how far any "treatments" have proceeded within her clearly doomed case. No matter how sudden her passing actually is, and no matter whether the wig is covering a head poisoned to baldness or just an unloved thatch of grays and whites, her daughters certainly receive the death as an absolute shock. Neither of them is recovering her breath quickly: Rushbrook's Rose because she is heavy with her first child and can't tolerate losing her own Mum just as she's about to share so many memories and seek so much advice, and Morton's Iris because as headstrong and bold a personality as she has already incubated for herself, she is clearly not ready to be a parentless girl.

Rushbrook, such a bitter pill in Secrets, is impressively comely and textured here as the pulled-together sibling, though she does not deny herself a few grandiloquent sulks and rages. Nonetheless, Under the Skin is unambiguously Morton's show. Narrative questions abound: when will Rose have her baby, and how much does Iris resent her settled domesticity—maybe even envy it, maybe even aspire to undo it? So shortly after confiding her near-virginity to her one close friend, is Iris freewheeling into a series of risky sexual encounters because this is what Iris would be doing anyway at her age and station, or because she is seeking voluptuous solace for the loss of her mum? If so, what is up with that? Or is her curiosity about her sister's body—a reaction flavored with wonder, tedium, and active disdain—making her curious about whatever her body might be capable of withstanding, or enjoying, or choosing of its own accord?

Under the Skin is a warring-sisters-who-love-each-other drama, a randier Brit parallel to Georgia, complete with closing song. Concurrently, it is a grief drama as well as an erotic adventure laced with danger, pleasure, and humiliation, refreshingly centered in a female perspective that is neither censorious of libidinal urges nor blind to their risks and ramifications. More than any of these things, Under the Skin is a collage of moods and textures, often turning on a dime: a sisterly rapprochement that suddenly tears off a bigger scab than the one it just healed, a mundane living-room bicker interrupted by some loopy and attention-seeking charades, a sexual enthrallment, physically embodied and inwardly narrated, which is simultaneously cross-cut with the blasting of a coffin in a crematorium oven. The movie gets away with almost all of it, even this last provocation, without seeming pretentious, tasteless, or desperate to shake you. Prototypical scenes involve Morton's Iris duking it out with a random passerby over the use of a payphone, Iris assaulting Rose at a train station and then rebuffing a Samaritan for intruding into their intimate scuffle, and Iris learning the hard way, in an impressively uninterrupted shot, that the slightly boring boyfriend she has recently shunned is not just dawdling around, waiting on her return. Often enough, it's Morton's electricity that lends fire or frizz to a mundane encounter. Then again, she's just as capable of lowering the temperature on a baity bit of screenwriting by underplaying in that sphinxlike way of hers, or by retreating into one of her icy, dilated silences.

In one episode, tonally daring without getting off on sensationalism, Iris attracts a one night stand who's more brutish with her than she seems to have expected or asked for. As she giggles through his rough seductions, it's unclear whether she is marshaling humor to normalize and disavow something she wishes weren't happening, or if she is genuinely finding this coercive-submissive bit more titillating than she would have thought. That she's wearing Mom's chemo wig and her matronly, garish coats and dresses as she picks these men and takes them home only adds more mystique to the psychology of what Iris is up to, and to the number of facets Morton is able to explore as she holds Iris up for us and turns her in the movie's prismatic light. Morton seems like a more intuitive than technical actress, yet she has that Kazan-style knack for appearing to observe the character and to be her at the same time. She's both a critical reader of Iris and an almost worryingly wholescale possessor of her body, both highlighting and erasing her own labors as an actress the way Gena Rowlands used to do, despite a wholly different repertoire of movements and mannerisms.

I didn't actually see Under the Skin for another five or six years after I learned about it, by which time Morvern Callar had become enough of a personal religion that it was high time to catch up on past Mortoniana. These remain the two movies in Morton's career that place her most squarely front and center, luring us with her otherworldly blend of emotional nakedness and unnerving impenetrability. They would make for quite a double feature, particularly since they share some aesthetic motifs as well: images and lines of dialogue repeated as structuring motifs, totemically recurring snatches of music, a fascination with placing Morton's mercurial visage under color-filtered club spots, freezing street lamps, and sere fluorescent side-lights. She's once again playing a character who reveals herself through behavior rather than dialogue, though the behavior seems to be surprising her almost as much as it is us. And Iris, unlike Morvern, doesn't imagine for a moment she needs to leave Britain to "get away"; she's looking for the secret city inside the city where she already lives, and skulking around the forbidden cities inside her mind and her body, too. I doubt it would even occur to her to go anywhere. Morton, stiff-necked and yet constantly darting her eyes and swiveling her gaze, plays Iris as someone with almost zero peripheral vision. She really drinks in whatever's in front of or behind her, yet she barely considers anything that might be away from her. This makes the loss of her mother all the more confounding, to the point where Iris imagines she is still around, and lies to her sister (and possibly to herself) about what she's done with her ashes.

Stylistically, as its title signals, Under the Skin does not don the kind of cool mask that Morvern does. If the Ramsay film plays 300 variations on Morton's face, Carine Adler's film (as remarkable a debut for the writer-director as for her actress) is at least as preoccupied with her body. Adler lets lengthy scenes play out as medium- and long-distance sequence shots, in which Morton is sometimes as tense as steel cording and sometimes as furious as a lynx. Sometimes she luxuriates in languid reveries, though in the biggest departure from Morvern, she's quite chatty, a pip at parties, and a passive-aggressive pest. If Morvern has the glistening surfaces and thrumming, viscous undertows of a record like PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love, then Under the Skin is more of a Rid of Me, maybe even a 4-Track Demos, both in the sense that it's got high-voltage hooks and bracing aspects that stand fully on their own merits and in the sense that it simultaneously portends even greater, more daring, more elliptical triumphs to come.

Sadly, those subsequent triumphs have not arrived for Adler the way they have for her newly minted star. Despite the Boston Society of Film Critics anointing her as their extremely inspired choice for Best New Director in 1998, Adler has never released a second feature—though I think I read recently that she is working on one. (Ring a bell, anyone?) The same group selected Morton as their Best Actress, in a year when Fernanda Montenegro and Ally Sheedy scooped the lion's share of these prizes—and when critics proved entirely resistant to the Blanchett-vs.-Paltrow duel that dominated the Oscar chatter. In recognizing Morton, the Beantown crowd proved remarkably prescient about a performer who would soon enough be wowing audiences in Jesus' Son, Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report, and Morvern Callar. They also managed to cast an even stronger vote for shoestring cinema and artisanal programming than their peer groups, although Central Station and High Art were hardly megaplex bookings.

Under the Skin was Morton's Hunger. Though she managed to be everywhere within three years' time, much like her exact contemporary Michael Fassbender has managed to be (and in a similarly broad spectrum of parts), the Boston writers earned their bragging rights, at least among the North American critical establishment, for spotting her first and in foreseeing where she was headed. Though it took me a while to catch up, I so appreciated the tip-off. To sustain the analogy, I am still eager to see Carine Adler's Shame, though in a way, that's exactly what Under the Skin already is. In any event, if I'm now paying forward to you the brilliant recommendation I inherited from Boston's gutsiest exhibitors and then from their savviest critics, I'm delighted to do it.

P.S. A gracious thanks to DVD Beaver, my source for all the images I have reproduced for this article. If you're interested in buying a DVD, use a link from this site, and keep Gary Tooze doing what he does best!

P.P.S. If you enjoy this sort of performance-centered review, especially with an actress at its center, be sure to visit the special section devoted to the Best Actress Oscar at my main site... and expect new content over there after New Year's!

Previously in this series: Dead Ringers ('88) — Safe ('95)

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Eyes on the Critics' Prize: Safe

During the latter half of the 1990s, when my movie habit was really entering its mainlining stage, the Boston Society of Film Critics was the most excitingly off-consensus of the major American critics' groups, which was a particular pleasure to me because Boston is where I was living at the time. I have written before about my love for this group and their invigorating choices during this period, made all the more interesting by the lists of people who almost won during those years (like Katrin Cartlidge and Tilda Swinton in 1997, running close behind Helena Bonham Carter for very offbeat projects, and way out in front of Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, and Julie Christie).

The first Boston citation that really made me sit up and take notice of the group, during the first year I was attending school and absorbing cinema in that city, was the Best Cinematography prize for Alex Nepomniaschy's lensing of Safe in 1995. That season, the bulk of the prizes were being posted to Shanghai Triad, a typically dazzling light-show from the Zhang Yimou factory. The Oscar eventually went to the emerald greens, flying dirtclots, and battlefield immersions of Braveheart. At a stage in my movie education where "best cinematography" still meant "prettiest pictures," the Boston crowd's recognition of Safe's intimidating symmetries, its freezing pastels, and its wide-angle hyperbolizing of banal Valley interiors was a real wake-up call. Clearly, I would need to rent the movie as soon as the VHS bowed (!), motivated not just by a plotline that sounded so nervy and elliptical but by a panel-certified promise of visual imagination.

Granted, the indelible visuals of Safe have a great deal to do with the director's labors of framing the shot and placing the camera. How much this prize ought to have been shared between Nepomniaschy and Haynes is up for debate, yet it's notable that no other Haynes film has really looked like Safe, not even in the moments of Velvet Goldmine (shot by Maryse Alberti) or of Far from Heaven, I'm Not There, or Mildred Pierce (all shot by Ed Lachman) that evoke the antiseptic domesticities or the deoxygenated atmospheres that are so crucial to the earlier film. Those tropes get a very particular and brilliantly effective workout in Safe, and all the more so since the film was made for almost nothing, inside relatives' houses and a lot of other existing, creatively marshaled locations. Beyond the 2001/Clockwork Orange-style vertical lines, flat planes, and rectilinear severity of so many shots, and beyond the Fassbinder-ish way that Nepomiaschy and Haynes frame characters within nested boxes and under flat light (such that even casual encounters feel depersonalized and stagy), look how often the air just hangs there in Safe. Julianne Moore's line readings constantly suggest that Carol is being asphyxiated, but for reasons that make sense if you've seen the film, we have to feel that Carol is definitely getting air, and that something weird might be in that air.

There's a subtly frizzy quality to the light in Safe—making sunrays and pools of color diffuse a bit even in brightly lit rooms and sharply lensed shots. This lighting casts a slight blur in the women's locker room, the hair salon, the living room with the wrong-color couch, the sitting room with its DNA-shaped staircase, and even the "restorative" ceramic igloo where Carol eventually winds up. This quality of the light, not dry but not damp, not gaseous so much as atomically dense, makes the airspace in Safe matter in an almost literal sense, holding its own against the man-made structures and objects that are made so conspicuous in Haynes's shots. Carol moves through a vacuous, plastic universe, and later proceeds to an ostensibly cleansing, fresh-air retreat, but in all of them, she is constantly and unnervingly touched by vaguely visible, vaguely palpable molecules. What are those molecules? What do they bear within them or convey between them? Is there something inside them that makes Carol sick? (All the white noise in the sound design immeasurably assists this quietly creepy dimension of the lighting schemes.)

Nepomniaschy frequently has to help us locate Carol within very long and wide-angled shots, particularly by the standard of most interior shooting. Yet at the same time, Carol White is the last person in the world who should attract a spotlight, or a key light, or a backlit halo, which would feel all wrong for this profoundly recessive woman. Nepomniaschy is really ingenious, then, at helping us pinpoint Carol without violating the invisibility and insubstantiality that are fundamental to Haynes's and Moore's conception of her, using geometries within the frame or the softest caress of color or glow to highlight her when necessary, just the littlest bit. In other scenes where the camera is closer, as when Carol attends the allergist's office, the ugly, fluorescent lighting of the space is somehow just soft enough around Carol that we feel some compassion for her, some human weight and latent loveliness in her body. In this way, lighting itself extends an invitation to empathize, counteracting the institutional chill that encases her (including, for some viewers, the chill of the script itself, though Haynes's writing doesn't register that way with me). Something impalpable in these shots provokes us to worry and hurt for Carol, not mock her as a Barbie doll, or reject her as a zombie, or think of her only as a rhetorical stand-in for ourselves. Nor do we just sit there, helplessly perplexed as we might well have been by this soft-spoken San Fernando cypher. The light warms Carol as much as possible, even as it refrigerates her. I love, by the way, how Nepomniaschy allows Moore her freckles in scenes like these, more so than a lot of D.P.'s have done, and he doesn't adopt the easy strategy of making Moore's natural pallor register melodramatically as a signal of dangerous anemia.

Equally marvelous are Safe's shots in daringly low light: the overhead sex scene between Carol and her husband, the late-night prowl in the garden, the testy marital exchange across a mile-wide bed, the final straight-to-camera shot. In these moments, little except the crest of a cheekbone, the angle of a brow, or the copper sheen of her badly permed curls stands between Carol and a kind of Stygian oblivion. That such details communicate from within such broad, wide, grayed-out canvases, and that Carol's last, indelible lines ("I love you... I love you...") resonate as both encouraging and harrowing from within this world of shadow, have a lot to do with Moore's and Haynes's genius. But again, some of the credit is due to the precise calibrations of pessimism and hopeful sympathy that the cinematography invests in Carol's anxious days and in her waning, bruise-colored nights.

Safe's micro-budget miracles and nifty visual tricks don't stop here. Maybe that disastrous baby shower gets a little too pink/orange toward the end of the sequence, but there's a nice against-the-grain kick to any LA sunset that's allowed to look like lox that's been sitting too long at the buffet. I also love how the potted palms in the corners of those baby-shower shots don't remotely suggest a cute, predictable oasis of greenery and fresh air. If anything, they look brackish and black-leafed, as though the plants have got environmental illness, too, but like so much else in Nepomniaschy's shots, the effect isn't so strong that you notice right away. In general, Nepomniaschy cooperates well with the movie's smart production design, delicately highlighting props, shapes, and other visual triggers that make a suburban kitchen look subliminally close to a therapeutic center, or that foster a rhyme between a living room and a hospital room. The images guide our eyes in these and other ways, despite an overall aesthetic and a thematic framework that absolutely require the austere dehumanization of the film. The camera can't look like it's guiding us, or gratifying us at all, or even speaking our language.

Nepomniaschy hasn't had nearly the career one would project for the guy who made Safe look like a million bucks, despite having nothing but nickels to work with. He gave Joe Carnahan's Narc a nicely enervated texture and tint, but there's not much in it you haven't seen in other policiers. He filmed Julia Stiles falling in love with a prince, Drew Barrymore with a teacher, and a multi-culti group of high-school students with Antonio Banderas's dancing. He was the second-unit photographer on Country Strong and on most of D.J. Caruso's movies. I have no idea what to make of this successful but undistinguished résumé, but clearly, the most important signs of Safe's legacy fall elsewhere than the D.P.'s own filmography. I have thought a lot about Nepomniaschy's work in Safe while noting the rise of recent indie phenom Jody Lee Lipes, whose lensing of the apartment in Tiny Furniture recalled the deadening homespaces of Safe, but just a bit more preciously. His low-lighting of Martha Marcy May Marlene is often clever or evocative, and a few times, as in the swimming/diving scene, extremely resourceful, yet his images don't "stick" with me in the same way, and his visual strategies for coaxing inchoate, internalized trouble out of Elizabeth Olsen's remarkable face seem just a shade coarser and more obvious than how Nepomniaschy's camera interacts with Moore's equally remarkable face. Even the images I think I know best in Safe continue to pay new dividends the longer I dwell on them. I'll never know why Nepomniaschy doesn't have more filmmakers begging to work with him, but I'm glad he has one critics' prize to call his own, in recognition of one of the best and best-lensed American movies of its decade.

Previously in this series: Dead Ringers ('88)

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Eyes on the Critics' Prize: Dead Ringers

The other day I was chatting with my pal and yours Joe Reid about how exciting the annual critics' prizes can be, especially when the voters feel cleared to ignore the publicist-stamped and buzz-backed contenders in a given vintage and to venture off the prix-fixe menu. This doesn't mean that critics' organizations should be obligated to avoid the worthiest among the Oscar frontrunners, only that it is disheartening—and increasingly frequent—that many of these groups seem disinclined to entertain the possibility. If you're a paid critic or, one way or another, a moneyed cinephile (the situation I project, sight perpetually unseen, onto most members of the National Board of Review), there is simply no way that you don't see, for example, five better performances by women in second- or third-tier roles than Shailene Woodley's in The Descendants. Not to pick on Shailene, who does as much as anyone to try to make that beached whale float, if not actually swim. But also: come on. That's a lot of movies in a lot of genres from a lot of countries to comb through just to find one gal who can seem convincingly drunk while throwing shit over a fence, and then Stick Up For Dad when the script decides, quite abruptly, that the time has come.

Then again, the coverage of the critics' prizes is often so indistinguishable from a guessing-game about who will win the Oscar that you cannot easily fault the balloters for playing right into the hands of that discourse. Pundits, subsequent voters, and PR flaks pay much closer attention to them than the public at large does, and periodical editors seem determined to package the story this way, rather than running the kind of press that might encourage us to consider, say, the National Society of Film Critics as a body on the order of the Pulitzer or Booker juries: a body whose approval is an accolade in itself, which I'm certain is how many recipients perceive it, and not as a stepping stone to some later, very different, peer-administered prize. Voting critics, finding themselves in this climate, inspire me whenever they try to launch a Marcia Gay Harden or a Jeremy Renner or a Pan's Labyrinth or a Gosford Park or a Fernanda Montenegro—a plausible longshot, but a longshot nonetheless—further into the hunt for Academy Awards. This seems like an apt, exciting use of their professional pulpit, though it's at least as exciting when they rally around a Luminita Gheorghiu, a Lupe Ontiveros, a Bill Nighy, or a William H. Macy (circa 1998, not 1996), not so much daring AMPAS to follow their lead as demonstrating some measure of indifference. These choices feel inexplicable except as honest responses to the self-presenting virtues of the hundreds of movies that critics see in a year, and as showcases of the integrity of a critic's labor and purview. (Or maybe it's the only way to get a nutter of a Montenegro disciple or someone mad for Vlad Ivanov to end the filibuster? If so, don't tell me.)

In any case, I'm interested in knowing what someone who spends the whole year watching hundreds of movies really thought was the best—someone whose tastes have been ratified by readers and editors, even if I don't always agree with her or him, or with those readers and editors. I don't just want to think of these verdicts as irreducibly uncertain tea-leaves or even as self-consciously activist interventions into the Oscar narrative. They should have more standing in themselves than I feel they are often given.

So, following this mammoth intro, Joe and I thought we might post a couple short pieces this season that fondly recall some moments when one of the voting groups we care about most (NSFC, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, or even that dotty old dowager, the NBR) lent their imprimatur to some really distinctive choice that meant something to us, or wound up meaning something substantial to the fortunes of the recipient. AMPAS didn't bite in any of these cases, and we don't care. Or at least, the point of this exercise is not to blow raspberries at Oscar, whom we'll never divorce, for better or worse, no matter how much he abuses us, and regardless of how many good things we got goin' on the side. (After The King's Speech, though, and Tom Hooper specifically, I'm very tempted to adopt separate residences, and file our taxes independently. Thank God I never took Oscar's name, though I prefer it to mine.) The point is rather to toss bouquets to the LAFCA, or the NYFCC, or whomever endorsed the work in question—sometimes creating the very prompt that led us to see the movie, and thereby facilitating a really moving encounter with an interesting piece of work.

These entries will be brief; the details are boring, but Joe and I are both having to spend a lot of extra energy on work these days and away from the movies we wish we could write about, read about, and talk about a little more. This is a small, stop-and-start contribution to awards season we can afford to make, and hopefully a welcome aperitif to other, more number-crunchy, more crystal ball-obsessed coverage. If you haven't seen the movies, or didn't realize they had won something big, check 'em out!

For example, if you haven't seen David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, and especially if your cinephilia was born in the era of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, then you should really run, not walk, to pick up the DVD wherever you can still buy a DVD anymore. Dead Ringers got strong but divided reviews when it premiered in 1988. The Fly, which had done excellent box-office in 1986, and whose star, Jeff Goldblum, might have scooped some critics' prizes of his own if Bob Hoskins hadn't claimed them all that year, had at least primed mass-market critics to start extending Cronenberg new benefits of the doubt. Still, I think it helped Dead Ringers's case even more at year's end that 1988 was such a diffuse vintage in terms of critical consensus. Of the five groups I listed above (NSFC, NYFC, LAFC, BSFC, NBR), all five picked a different Best Picture, all five picked a different Best Director, and only two of them opted for the same movie in both categories. Furthermore, only two of the films (Accidental Tourist in New York, Mississippi Burning for the National Board of Review) and only one of the directors (Parker, for Mississippi) was slated at Oscar time. None won.

Within that climate of atomized opinions, it helps for a film to nail a tough, highwire task—the broodily philosophical eroticism of Unbearable Lightness of Being, the hilariously philosophical eroticism of Bull Durham, the, uh, unnervingly philosophical eroticism of Dead Ringers—in a way that galvanizes a self-selecting but implacably committed fan base. That's what seemed to happen for the Cronenberg movie. Jeremy Irons's unshowily showy double-performance as the doomed gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle had earned standout notices even in reviews that seemed uncomfortable with the film. Maybe it was no surprise that at least one group (the NYFC) would sing his praises, though this was still nervy territory for a group that had opted for upscale comedies or semi-comedies, all of them unmistakable as Oscar Pictures, for their Best Film prize in five out of six years from 1983-1988. Irons was so conscious of the boost in pedigree, reputation, and (best of all) creative opportunity that he gleaned from Dead Ringers and its critical laurels that, unusually, he thanked Cronenberg ("...and some of you may understand why...") in his speech when he later won his Oscar for another movie.

Irons's win was a great critics-prize moment, but I feel even more indebted to the Los Angeles crowd for gold-starring Cronenberg's disquietingly sleek, hypnotic, technically virtuosic, scarlet-and-chrome direction as well as the distinctively strong impression that Geneviève Bujold makes in the crucial role of Claire Niveau, a part that could easily have been played as a misogynistic freakshow, a histrionic addict, or a disembodied "everyone's addicted to something" placeholder within the script's thematic architecture. Bujold takes a woman who could be boiled right down to a grotesque high concept—a pill-popping actress and bondage enthusiast whose mutated, three-chambered uterus is an object of horror and fascination for the Irons characters—and she makes her mordantly intelligent, frankly self-confident, and incongruously "normal" without being boring for a single second. She never seems like she's not doing something for her scenes, whether inserting an unexpected pause or offering a smile when you expect a grimace or playing a confrontation as a seduction, and yet she never ever feels like she's acting for a camera. She suggests a filthy mind, a fond self-image, and a feminine practicality all at the same time, with zero signs of strain. She also puts as human a face on Cronenbergian mutation, in the unexpected register of wry understatement, as Goldblum more flamboyantly does in The Fly, in the (context-appropriate) register of operatic tragicomedy.

The arc and reception climate around Cronenberg's career shifted after Dead Ringers, but it shifted even more palpably after these prizes for Dead Ringers. At the box-office, the film had been neither a hit nor a miss on release, relative to its production cost. With respect to its genre, though, whatever you'd say its "genre" is, and with respect to its pair of admired but hardly bankable leads, and with respect to a filmography whose back-page titles included They Came from Within and Rabid, its awards haul was an absolute bonanza. The last 20 years of Cronenberg's career, if you ask me, turn as much on the pivot of December 1988 as on any other single moment. This is as perfect a case as I can think of of the critics on two coasts voting for no discernible agenda beyond their sense of what work most merited a trophy, and in calling out achievement for what it is—not for how plausibly they could vend that achievement to AMPAS or to the HFPA. In so doing, they effectively certified the film for a lot of connoisseurial audiences, in and out of "the industry," who would have ignored the slightly Guignol marketing and the skin-crawling storyline. The risk they took would have been very similar within a comparable career tone and timeline—and in valorizing spiky creativity and sudden transcendence of cult-driven status—to some group anointing Fincher, Norton, and Bonham Carter for Fight Club in '99, which of course no one seems to have even thought about doing. If that's a more historically accessible example for you, and you know what it would have meant to set aside a sprawling field of "safe" pictures as well as exciting experiments in 1999 to endorse David Fincher's schizophrenic demi-ode to pugilistic nihilism and to masculinity eating itself alive, then you've got the flavor of what the NYFC and LAFC did in '88.

You can't expect such prescience every time a critics' group meets, much less can you expect a validation of your own tastes, which of course this series is certain to flatter. Still, the Dead Ringers prizes in 1988 managed the gorgeous hat-trick—the three-chambered glory, if you will—of being perfect choices in the present, a bold endorsement of a filmmaker with a highly idiosyncratic past, and a direct propagation of his increasingly interesting future, built to an unusual degree off the boost the critics gave him and continued to give him. (The gongs for Naked Lunch in 1991, especially from the National Society and the New York crowd, were hard-won, delicious, and perhaps even more surprising, given the sturdiness of competition and the rococo uncanniness of Naked Lunch.) If that's not a perfect summation of year-end voting bodies at their absolute best, then it's at least a perfect summation of why they interest me so much... and why I have my fingers crossed for December 11, when the Boston and Los Angeles crowds both weigh in. Give us change we can believe in, dames and fellas, and any Cronenbergian film critics sporting your own self-evolved genders! Go ahead, win the future!

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