Month: February 2013

Personal Film Awards/Will The Academy’s 2012 Leave a Film Industry Legacy?

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A mere nine hours from now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will have awarded Argo its top prize, making it statistically one of the weakest winners in the history of the Oscar ceremony. It heads into the Best Picture race without a foreground position in other key categories, most notably without a Best Director nomination.

Only three other films in the 85-year history of the Oscars have reigned supreme over their respective year without a Best Director nomination; Wings (1927/28), Grand Hotel (1931/32) and–most recently–Driving Miss Daisy (1989/90). Argo will become only the fourth exception to the Director nomination/Picture win rule, but lacks the cultural relevance and staying power of those it joins the ranks of. By next week, after Argo‘s rental profits are raked into their respective hawker’s pockets, the film will fall into obscurity, becoming notable only for the reasons it won Best Picture versus its legs as a quality film. Argo‘s legacy is already sealed as a film that made a late-season sweep at the biggest industry pity-party on record. The “snubbing” of the film’s helmer, Ben Affleck, has unfortunately translated into industry backlash against the Academy’s Director’s Branch, which simply didn’t think his work was strong enough to warrant a nomination. If he’d made it into the category, would Argo still win Best Picture? The 2012/2013 Awards Season would appear vastly different if so, with Lincoln likely taking top honors at precursor ceremonies and guild awards alike. This year’s Oscar race is reaffirming only in the sense that Ben Affleck’s likability within the industry, strong enough to guarantee his subpar film the industry’s top honors, will prove beneficial to continuing his transition from mega-star to definitive auteur. Affleck’s skills as a director are undeniable. The Town and Gone Baby Gone reek of quality craftsmanship which, to some degree, is partially why Argo is such a disappointment. Where the two Boston-set pictures reflect a director with a keen sense for location (Affleck is personally connected to the city), culture, and dramatics, Argo feels like a massive exercise in painting-by-numbers, with easily interchangeable direction without a personal mark. Argo will be forever known as the procedural that could, a film with merits based only on the misfortune of its director, who really didn’t deserve anything in the first place. The film’s successes tonight will be empty, remembered only for the pitiful circumstances surrounding them.

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What we must remember, however, is that the Academy’s decision is not binding–at least in a cultural sense. Crash might have trumped Brokeback Mountain in 2005, but where the latter gave a nation perspective, the former gave us a  Showtime series cancelled after the first season. The Kings Speech might have been the perfect frame for its actors to shine, but The Social Network held a mirror to a generation. The Academy has a tendency to make in-the-moment decisions that don’t necessarily highlight the “important” films of their respective eras. Audiences and academia have embraced such films as the “better” offerings of their respective years, making them the unofficial “Best Picture” in their own right. We remember Brokeback Mountain and The Social Network–hell, even Black SwanJuno, There Will Be Blood, Mulholland Drive, etc. have all taken on more prestige and cultural prevalence than their respective year’s Academy-designated Best Picture.

Which films from 2012 will we have to look for to fortify the year’s presence for future generations? Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour are too small-scale with little commercial appeal, as they’re difficult to grasp in many ways (Beasts for its artistic oddities, Amour for its insistence on eliciting negative reactions combined with a complex structure). Django Unchained will be remembered as an interesting blip on Tarantino’s map, but withstanding little beyond that. Lincoln is a film drawing more on an audience’s affections for its real-life subjects than its strengths as a film, and Les Miserables is eye and ear candy with built-in nostalgia, forgotten beyond the late-night rooms of aspiring drama majors until the next incarnation of the it-needs-to-die-already musical comes along in 15 years. This leaves us with Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, and Life of Pi. Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi are both based on previous works of fiction, already with built-in audiences. Both films offer fresh takes on their source material (crafting “cinematic” casings for them) and yielding high box-office returns (both grossing over $100 million domestically). They’re quality productions and will prove popular at retailers after their DVD releases, but Zero Dark Thirty will emerge as 2012’s crowning achievement as future generations look back. The film is notorious for its depiction of our government using torture as a means to gain information, but it doesn’t lead to much. The only thing the death of Osama bin Laden proves–at least in the world of Zero Dark Thirty–is that steady enduring unrest doesn’t have a solution solvable by putting a bullet into human flesh. So, then, where you “want” to go (as a nation, as a society, as a world power) becomes an issue, as there is no foreseeable place to go. The next target gives us no time for celebration, and the uncertainty of the United States’ position in the world is a questionable state of reality future generations will be living as they reflect back on Kathryn Bigelow’s film.

It’s difficult to accept the Academy as a cultural preservator for this reason, or maybe films that withstand years and decades have simply disappeared from production slates. When was the last time we saw a Bonnie & Clyde, a Sunset Boulevard, a Casablanca, a Psycho? Only time will tell if our spectacle-laden society has actually produced anything worthy of standing the test of time next to such classics, but Argo and its industry pity-win will be lost in the shuffle come April.

I’d also like to present my personal film awards for the prior cinematic year. Every film I’ve seen (released in the United States from January 1st through December 31, 2012) had its fair shot at breaking into one of the categories I’ve designated below. I’ve limited the number of nominees in some categories and expanded them in others (*makes jack-off motion at Academy*), but for the most part I’ve kept the numbers pretty standard. The bolded people and films are the winners. Enjoy.

Motion Picture

1 – Zero Dark Thirty

2 – Beasts of the Southern Wild

3 – The Master

4 – Silver Linings Playbook

5 – Celeste and Jesse Forever

6 – Holy Motors

7 – Seven Psychopaths

8 – Life of Pi

9 – Django Unchained

10 – The Impossible

Close Calls: Flight, Rust and Bone, Amour, Your Sister’s Sister, The Sessions, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Prometheus, Magic Mike, Damsels in Distress, The Grey, Pitch Perfect, The Deep Blue Sea, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables

Actress

Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty

Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Rashida Jones – Celeste and Jesse Forever

Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Close calls: Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Actor

Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables

Denzel Washington – Flight

Denis Lavant – Holy Motors

Joaquin Phoenix – The Master

Matthias Schoenaerts – Rust and Bone

Close Calls: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Jack Black (Bernie), Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)

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Supporting Actor

Phillip Seymour Hoffman – The Master

Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained

Matthew McConoughey – Magic Mike

Tom Hiddleston – The Deep Blue Sea

Close Call: Guy Pearce (Lawless)

Supporting Actress

Sally Field – Lincoln

Kelly Reilly – Flight

Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables

Emily Blunt – Looper

Rosemarie DeWitt – Your Sister’s Sister

Close Call: Ari Graynor (For a Good Time, Call…)

Director

Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty

Leos Carax – Holy Motors

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained

Close Call: Gary Ross – The Hunger Games

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Screenplay

Silver Linings Playbook

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Zero Dark Thirty

Amour

Your Sister’s Sister

Seven Psychopaths

Close Calls: Flight, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Cinematography

The Master

The Impossible

Rust and Bone

Life of Pi

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Close Calls: Django Unchained, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables

Production Design

Anna Karenina

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Impossible

Les Miserables

Prometheus

Close Calls: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Lincoln

Visual Effects

Life of Pi

Prometheus

Looper

Rust and Bone

The Impossible

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Costume Design

Anna Karenina

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Django Unchained

Lincoln

Les Miserables

Close Calls: The Girl, Life of Pi

 

Hair, Makeup, Prosthetics

Holy Motors

Hitchcock

Lincoln

Les Miserables

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Close Call: Prometheus

Editing

Silver Linings Playbook

Holy Motors

Zero Dark Thirty

The Master

Django Unchained

Foreign Film

Rust and Bone

Holy Motors

The Deep Blue Sea

Amour

Holy Motors

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“Argo” Slops Into First: Predicting the 85th Annual Academy Awards

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It’s a fitting conclusion (and how very “Academy,” too) to one of the most unpredictable Oscar races in recent memory. Argo, the standard procedural helmed by big-name Hollywood power player Ben Affleck, has emerged as the clear frontrunner for the Academy’s top prize after garnering major recognition from the likes of SAG, BAFTA, the HFPA and the DGA, all organizations with Academy crossover membership.

It’s putting a glum damper on my awards season because  Argo, a film which pales so miserably in the face of the other nine nominees, is merely succeeding on the misfortunes of its director-star. After the Academy “snubbed” Affleck out of the Best Director category, a sort of bourgeois, first-world rage swept through the voting community and they began lobbing awards at him like he was Peter O’Toole in Venus and everyone thought he was going to die before they had a chance to nominate him for anything ever again.

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I can’t remember a time a snub was so actively met with reactionary sympathy. It’s tough for a community to accept that one of its most successful members simply wasn’t liked well enough by the branch of Directors who decide the Academy’s Best Director nominees. So, then, what makes the Academy favor Argo more than, say, Zero Dark Thirty, a film with massive pre-awards season buzz (and five Oscar nominations to its credit this year) but also went without individual Academy recognition for its director, Kathryn Bigelow? Where Argo is a slick by-the-numbers procedural which reinforces stereotypically souped-up “American” ideals, Zero Dark Thirty uses the frame of one of the most momentous manhunts of all time to tell a much larger story about gender politics and the dangers of letting faith linger in the hands of the powers that be, forcing us to confront an uncertain future and false sense of security–an idea Argo works against. Where Zero Dark Thirty ends with its “climax” putting no one at ease and forcing our nation down a path with nowhere to go and no end in sight, Argo literally drapes an American flag behind a picture-perfect nuclear family standing on the porch of their suburban paradise. Argo creates idealized fantasy out of actuality, Zero Dark Thirty uses cinematic fiction to force us into a state of consciousness.

Is Kathryn Bigelow’s star not bright enough to warrant her vastly superior film taking precedence over megastar Ben Affleck’s? The sympathy votes for Argo that have been pouring in over the past month will carry it to Best Picture greatness on Sunday, but with that decision, are we deviating too far away from the medium itself? Industry politics have trumped the Oscar voting process for decades, but we can justify the Weinsteins campaigning for films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Artist because they’re products of quality. Argo‘s only legacy will not be that it was the best film of 2012; it will merely be the film that won because its director was snubbed; the film that is forgotten as soon as the ceremony is over, as it is a tool to award sympathy on behalf of a voter base that sees Affleck as invaluable. That’s all fine and perfectly acceptable, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It’s not like the Academy’s next best in line is any better, as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a difficult pill to swallow at this year’s Oscars as well. Sure, its depiction of a nation intensely divided might have coincidental implications on contemporary (equally-split) societal mentality, but I find it difficult to accept that people are falling in love with the film as a film and not merely loving the historical events and happenings the film depicts. We can all agree that Abraham Lincoln’s dedication to ending slavery is admirable, but do we need a film to reaffirm our acceptance of the man and funnel such feelings into passive, built-in acceptance of a basic film structured around it? By default, Spielberg’s direction will take the top prize in the Best Director category, as will the film’s lead, Daniel Day-Lewis, for his portrayal of the ill-fated President. Expect some technicals to be thrown Lincoln‘s way as well, categories where its superiority as a production outweigh its strengths as a film.

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We’ve all known we’ll have to endure another acceptance speech/irritating assault on what used to be an intense love for Anne Hathaway as she wins Best Supporting Actress, but the Best Actress race is still precarious even to speculate upon, as its seems a new frontrunner emerges every day. After leading the race for months with Jessica Chastain hot on her tail, Jennifer Lawrence now faces a battle with Emmanuelle Riva, whose performance in Amour has seen its female lead ascend from the mere novelty of being the “oldest Best Actress nominee ever” to the ranks of a serious threat to win the category after her BAFTA win last week. Anthony Breznican’s survey of anonymous Academy voters in last week’s Entertainment Weekly also proved surprising as many of the interviewees indicated that they’d be voting for Naomi Watts’ brilliant performance in The Impossible. In fact, if we’re going by Breznican’s research polling, Watts is the frontrunner (and this is from the mouths of actual Academy voters). Seeing as Watts has been passed over countless times before and due to the fact that she hasn’t won a single major precursor award, I’d say she sits solidly in a position to upset both Lawrence and Riva (Chastain’s hunt is, unfortunately, all but dead at this point).

The Writers Guild Awards this past Sunday threw us for a bit of a loop when they announced Mark Boal as the winner for Best Original Screenplay for his Zero Dark Thirty script, whereas the Best Adapted Screenplay award went to Chris Terrio’s script for Argo.  If the Weinstein push has any power this year, it will be either in the Adapted Screenplay category or Best Supporting Actor, where Silver Linings Playbook has a shot at upsetting Lincoln or Argo on both accounts. Original Screenplay will go to Amour if the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty gets in its way of winning, as the media shitstorm stemmed largely from its script’s inclusion of torture scenes, many of which the masses have unfortunately come to misinterpret.

And that’s that. As we close out yet another Academy Awards, I can’t think of words more fitting to describe how I feel about this wildly unpredictable, fiercely enjoyable mess of an awards season; Argo fuck yours–wait, no: Argo, kindly go fuck yourself.

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Predictions:

Best Picture: Argo
Best Director: Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Best Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
Best Original Screenplay: Zero Dark Thirty
Best Adapted Screenplay: Argo
Best Film Editing: Argo
Best Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph
Best Foreign Language Film: Amour
Best Original Score: Life of Pi
Best Cinematography: Life of Pi
Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Best Sound Editing: Zero Dark Thirty
Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Best Hair/Makeup: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Best Documentary: Searching For Sugar Man
Best Production Design: Les Miserables
Best Original Song: Adele – “Skyfall” in Skyfall

A Feminist Revolution (If Only for Hannah): “Girls” Season 2, Episode 5

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You’d think after two seasons of getting it wrong, Hannah Horvath would at least have a slight grasp on how to put one foot in front of the other. Instead, Girls creator/writer/director super-hybrid Lena Dunham continues to put the character in situations which yield little crop for Hannah’s ambitious quest to acclimate into the “real” world.

The only problem is that Hannah’s interpretation of the real world is often clouded by her insistence on seeing it like a child, a self-made roadblock to the fullest extent. She knows what she wants to do; become a writer, and we assume she’s a great one (although we’ve only been treated to glimpses of her work), otherwise we wouldn’t have a running goal to frame an entire television series around. But, making “it” happen takes time, a diligent work ethic, and money, each of which–living in the fast-paced, expensive New York City–Hannah just doesn’t have.

Sunday’s episode of Girls registers as one of the most polarizing of the entire series. Social media was aflutter, as was my phone’s inbox, with people either complaining about the episode’s drastic shift in tone from the rest of the series, or praising it as one of the most uniquely impressive entries into the show’s already-impressive repertoire.

I fall into the latter category, but let me explain myself.

Season 2’s fifth episode sees Hannah developing a whirlwind attraction for a 42-year old who lives just down the block from the coffee shop where she works. Josh[ua, as he keeps reminding Hannah when she shortens it], played by Patrick Wilson, is upset because someone from the coffee shop is placing their trash into his cans. Hannah invites herself into his home after leaving work, shares in a glass of lemonade tinged with basic conversation topics, and, you know, has sex with him.

The midday affair turns into a two-day sexfest, with Hannah and Joshua both calling off work the next day to stay home and cuddle, eat steaks from the grill, muse about his aging, and have sex after playing a few dozen sets of naked ping pong (the game table facilitates the fun stuff, of course).

The tone of the episode mirrors its content. The framing is stationary, almost static at times, and highly claustrophobic. We are treated to countless shots of Hannah and Joshua fit tightly into compositions which read more like 18th century portraits versus moving images from a 2013 television series. At once this functions as a means to isolate Hannah from the outside world, seeing as she’s indulging in a sex fantasy come to life. But, on the other hand, we can also read these shots as Dunham’s insistence on attempting to push Hannah into a frame of normality, which simply doesn’t work—and for good reason.

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Hannah learns that Joshua is a doctor (hence the fabulous house, standard-sized in any other part of the country, but a small-scale castle when placed into the arena of New York City housing prices), recently separated (but not divorced) from his wife, who now lives in San Diego. “What did you do? I mean, to make her leave?” Hannah asks him, with all the terrible experience of her former loves building to a head in that very moment.

In essence, Joshua represents the ideal life for someone like Hannah, who has unrealistically dropped into her lap like a Godsend from straight girl heaven. He’s attractive, tall, sensitive, loaded, and the fact that he’s “separated” and not “divorced” adds a little bit of scandal (if harmless) to the whole affair, something we’re to believe a girl in Hannah’s position (penniless, struggling liberal arts major, twenty-something with big ambitions and no means for which to accomplish them) would jump at. He could provide her with stability, money, and good sex—things she isn’t used to (or at least things she’s only been used to in parts, but never all together at the same time). The cinematography in this episode shifts from merely isolating Hannah from the rest of the world in a bubble of sexual satisfaction to attempting to shove her into sort of picture-perfect, portrait-style framing of a typical life she could have so very easily if she were to be with a man who supports her. The problem is that Joshua is distracting Hannah from living. Having no money and trying to make it on your own in one of the most expensive, dream-crushing cities in the world is a task which takes an independent to succeed, and an even greater one to fail. Hannah realizes this when she’s revealing some of her deepest thoughts to him after sex, and the spark that was once in Joshua’s eyes dims mid-conversation. He’s not interested in feelings or philosophy. He doesn’t understand Hannah’s mind, he merely understands her body as a placeholder for the emptiness he feels having lost the “stable” part of his adult life. Hannah might be 24, but she’s by no means an adult; her experiences are yet to be had. “I just want to feel everything,” Hannah tells him, not realizing that at 42 he’s felt close to the “everything” she speaks of.

We’ve already seen Jessa get herself into this situation, and both times now we’ve seen that the “ideal” life for a New York woman is not, as it would seem, that of a rich housewife sitting at home using her husband’s money to hone her craft. It’s artificial.

After indulging in a few last-minute housewife experiences, however, after Joshua goes to work (browsing his huge closet, reading The New York Times at an outdoor breakfast nook while eating the finest organic jams his pantry has to offer), Hannah leaves the house, taking out the trash (her “growing up,” so to speak) and fitting it into a garbage can once plagued with trash from the coffee shop. She leaves the “sex vacation” behind and makes her way to the street. In a single shot (which breaks the stagnant framing of the interior) the camera becomes mobile and pans over, watching Hannah her make her way out of the static confines of immature passions (and constrictive framing) to the bustling road at the end of the stagnant avenue she’s on, towards a life where she’ll have to work for her stability. She leaves a life of ease and makes her way towards one where she has to work for herself in order to “feel everything,” not let some man from a dream world she doesn’t have the right to inhabit yet give it all to her based on a whirlwind bout of sexual passion.

The episode does something we’ve rarely seen in Girls before, a true turning point for Hannah as a character. We’re used to seeing her make a fool of herself. At 24, she makes a sincere proposal to her parents to support her writing at $2,000 a month until her book is finished. She does cocaine because a shitty blog editor tells her it will be a “good experience to write about.” Hannah has no filter between what’s conductive to her career and what’s simply an immature decision made out of desperation and destitution. Hannah generally fails to see herself for what she is. She knows she’s broke, but we get the sense that she sees that as more of a beautiful “struggling artist-chic” sort of thing than a “I have a shit job and can’t pay my rent” kind of thing. In this episode, Hannah confronts the side of her that makes her pathetic and, hopefully, had her sights on getting it together as she made her way out of Joshua’s house and down that long road back to the coffee shop. She realizes that staying with Joshua would only be indulging the child in her that relishes in the fantasy of not having to work, being with a rich man, and having it easy on Park Avenue for the rest of her life.

For once Hannah grows up, and Lena Dunham’s genius writing couldn’t have made the process any more satisfying–for us, at least.