Celeste and Jesse Forever

The Road to Oscar; the Relevance of Originality in the Race

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There’s no denying the social and cultural force that the film industry has grown into for the American people. Ushering in new ideas, fantasies, and stories for a willing audience to indulge in, letting us live out the dreams that play over in our heads night after night, the film industry is a longstanding conduit between our reality and the “reality” we so desperately seek to inhabit in times of need. Movies are our escape, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences champions the very best of such devices year after year.

If we look back at past winners of the Oscar ceremony’s top honor, the significance of each year’s respective Best Picture to American culture is glaring. 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, a ravishing, colorful emotional epic of renewed perspective and undying hope for a better future paralleled the historic Presidential Election which saw Barack Obama give “power” in America a new face. A year later, The Hurt Locker not only attempted to delve deeper into Middle Eastern conflicts that took up a huge portion of topical discussion during the 2008 Presidential Election, but also catapulted a female director to the forefront of Oscar recognition. At a time when issues of women’s/gay/”minority”/civil rights in general were gaining momentum in the political arena, the Academy again asserted film’s social “relevance” as a sign of the times as Kathryn Bigelow (whether fully deserving or not) became the first woman to notch a win in the Best Director category.

The social climate of the nation has changed drastically throughout much of recent memory. The first four years of Obama’s Presidency haven’t gone over well with the American public. His election to a second Presidential term over Mitt Romney this past November proved the nation is divided almost evenly. The economic downturn (whether attributed directly to George W. Bush or diffused onto the shoulders of Oabama) has seen record numbers of unemployment, working families living in homeless shelters, and the disappearance of the middle class becoming a very tangible reality for average American households that form the bulk of the film industry’s consumer base. Thus, 2011’s Best Picture, The Artist, took us back to times of grandeur and prosperity; the silent era of Hollywood’s roaring heyday, when film stars were poster children for the prosperity of a nation versus a distant metaphor for the unattainable life so many Americans have given up dreaming about.

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Anne Hathaway, likely Best Supporting Actress winner in Best Picture contender “Les Miserables”

The road leading to the 2012 Presidential Election drove a wedge between Americans not unlike the Union/Confederacy split depicted in this year’s Lincoln, which chronicles a time in U.S. history bearing resemblance to the social climate we endure today. Slavery, violent opposition to the man we call President, and an increasing hostility between opposing views of social, civil, and economic ideologies make Lincoln a timely piece of perspective for contemporary unrest. It’s no surprise, then, that the filmis an early frontrunner to take the Best Picture prize in February. Les Miserables, another heavyweight contender, bears parabolic similarities to the Occupy movement, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo bringing up the rear with musings on the ever-sizzling conflict in the Middle East and the boiling pot of uncertainty that no politician, country, or war could put a lid on over the past decade.

The bleakness doesn’t wear off until we examine the latter half of 2012’s Best Picture contenders; i.e., the Silver Linings Playbooks and Beasts of the Southern Wild—multiple pictures that are still “in the race” but don’t stand a chance at taking home the Oscar come February 24th. Silver Linings Playbook and Beasts of the Southern Wild tap into an almost fantastical notion of optimism amidst tragedy, the former chronicling post-personal-meltdown recovery and the latter compartmentalizing pure, individual struggle of residents trapped within with a weather-ravaged, poverty-stricken, fantastical Katrina-esque village fighting oppression from a class of bourgeois oppressors. While Silver Linings and Beasts are adapted from other works, they capture the spirit of perseverance post-trauma. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence overcome adversity and create a unique emotional environment as “minorities,”  whereas little Quvenzhane Wallis, portraying a six-year old girl in Beasts, captures the “rebirth” of youth, her character forced to grow up (yet retain the undying spirit of optimism) in a world with no time for innocence or purity.

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Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in the Oscar-worthy “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” that will most likely go unnoticed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The thematic nature of Beasts makes me question why the Academy (and its precursor award brethren) hasn’t embraced a more fantastical branch of filmmaking 2012 was rife with. Films like Beasts, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and Holy Motors use their whimsical nature to make powerful statements on the persevering spirit of humanity in times of dire opposition. Grounded more in “reality” but still spiritually ambitious, films like Celeste and Jesse Forever, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Master, The Hunger Games, and The Grey delve deep into territory which sees humans overcoming obstacles far beyond their control. Celeste and Jesse Forever, being the most “human” of the bunch, sees a woman’s journey to spiritual homeostasis come after learning to cope with the absence of a lover while keeping him close as a “friend” in her life. It’s a task that seemingly pales in comparison to overcoming the psychological control of a cult (The Master), fighting back against an oppressive government (The Hunger Games) or finding true love amidst the end of the world (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), but one that shows the evolution of the human spirit endures even in the simplest of vignettes involving a boy, a girl, and the universal thread of love.

Another interesting contender (only for technical categories at this point, it seems, although Emily Blunt still has slight buzz for her supporting performance) is the sci-fi actioner Looper, about do-overs, internal strife, self-hatred, and the often intangible idea of fresh beginnings. The sentiment could be applied to anyone at any given time, but Looper’s insistence on ridding our reality of darkness and preserving it for fresh perspectives of change are, perhaps, the most “relevant” to the culture of 2012 America as we head into a second term with President Obama.

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Jessica Chastain, only slightly behind Best Actress frontrunner Jennifer Lawrence, struggles between her duty as an American and her impulses as a human in Best Picture contender “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The lack of “originality” in what’s vying for the Oscar for Best Picture this year frightens me a little. Out of the ten films Awards Daily (one of the most accurate prediction sites on the web) acknowledges are in the running for Best Picture (Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Flight, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom), only two are not “based” on some other form of media/socio-cultural figure or event (Moonrise Kingdom and The Master). With the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle naming Zero Dark Thirty their Best Film of 2012, and other precursors pointing to either Argo, Lincoln, or Les Miserables, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom find themselves somewhere near the bottom of the pack (if they pick up a nomination at all). Small buzz for Michael Haneke’s Amour, about aging, death, and the degenerative mental capacity that comes with them, has been building since its screening at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. While likely to win Best Foreign Language film but almost assuredly out of the Best Picture race, perhaps it taps into the most terrifying element of humanity, which is not oppressive governments or masked supervillains blowing up football stadiums; it’s the potential for human fracture, the potential for degeneration, the potential to “forget” the very things that make us who we are and, in turn, losing the ability to preserve the “feelings” of our times within original fiction that seems to be slipping by the Academy’s scope of interest in a time where “escape” is needed the most.

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Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 2 of 2 (5-1)

#5 Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)

The allure of seeing Adam Rodriguez and Channing Tatum in the nude was all it took to convince millions of people to flock to one of this summer’s most talked about box office successes, Magic Mike. The hunky cast’s bulging biceps and bulging…well…bulges (“bulgi” ? Is that the plural form) came flying out of left field from director Steven Soderbergh, whose uniquely varied oeuvre includes everything from the bio-pocalypse (Contagion) to a porn star making her “acting” debut (Sasha Grey in the fantastic Girlfriend Experience). Whatever his subjects are, Soderbergh’s perspective has always been dark and dramatic, but here he goes all softie on us in his latest release, which is surprisingly a saccharine love story disguised as a tanned-and-toned exploitation of the male body. The vibe is part “Miami Vice,” part Showgirls, but with only a fraction of the campy silliness of both; Magic Mike stands erect (I’m sorry, I had to) on its own as a compelling exploration of gender roles and the amount of power & control either sex is willing to sacrifice in order to reach a happy medium in any given relationship.

#4Hope Springs (David Frankel)

Meryl Streep masturbation scene. Are you sufficiently intrigued? If your answer is “no,” then Hope Springs is your kind of movie. The subject matter sounds as provocative as that image does. An aging couple (Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) seek to stimulate their dying sex life at a week-long couples therapy retreat, following a step-by-step path to sexual bliss forged by a renowned therapist (Steve Carrell). The meatier bits of the film, directed by David Frankel (who catapulted Streep to an Oscar nomination for 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada), exude a tangible sense of defeat we often associate with getting older and “losing” our sexual appeal; but the juiciest parts don’t necessarily involve any wrinkle-on-wrinkle sexcapades, either. Instead, we’re treated to a delectable questioning of what it means to “age” or, in the case of Hope Springs, merely meander from the trail a much younger version of ourselves traversed and tucked away, but never forgot.  Meryl Streep masturbating is just hilarious icing on the cake.

#3The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)

The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

#2Celeste & Jesse Forever (Lee Toland Krieger)

I’ve really been digging all of these actress-screenwriter powerhouses taking Hollywood by storm as of late. Kristen Wiig made perhaps the biggest splash of them all last year with her mega-hit Bridesmaids, and Lena Dunham (hot off the heels of writing and directing Tiny Furniture) stormed cable television sets across the country with the best show of the year, “Girls.” Rashida Jones (of “Parks & Recreation” and “The Office” fame) joins their ranks as a fresh-minded, endearing actress-screenwriter with “Celeste & Jesse Forever,” a quirky “female” romantic comedy that’s content with anything but sitting in the corner and simply looking pretty. Jones’ performance and writing shows pure beauty of the movies; as entertainment (some of the most hilarious juvenile humor I’ve ever encountered can be found here) and mirrored life, hand in hand, in a film that refuses to give in to stereotypes of a crumbling relationship. Celeste and Jesse were once a couple, now separated but still very much “together” seeing as they live in the same house, hang out, and spend what seems to be every waking moment in each other’s presence. Jesse seems to find letting Celeste go a bit easier than the other way around, but that doesn’t stop the fairer half of the duo from “accepting” her place as being forever known as “ex-wife” in casual introductions when they show up to the same party. Jones’ writing here blazes through the bullshit of Hollywood romance, exposing us to an unconventional relationship with fresh eyes, allowing us to see anew something we thought we’d long become familiar with, sort of how Celeste traverses through Jones’ breathtakingly beautiful script.

#1Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

In these times of political and social turmoil, a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild comes as a much-needed dose of pure inspiration. Telling the story of a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in the fictional land known only as “The Bathtub” (think Katrina-era, low-income New Orleans), Beasts of the Southern Wild pits a tiny soul against a big world, one that’s far too encompassing for her to understand on “adult” terms. Instead, she resorts to talking to animals, indulging in fantasy (even though the world around her just wants her to die because of her social status), and enjoying the simple pleasures of being a kid; anything to escape the oppressive, prejudiced society that exists on the other side of The Bathtub’s walls. But she’s a child who, by all means, shouldn’t find pleasure in anything at all. The Bathtub is a destitute place, with the majority of residents living in run-down huts in the middle of the woods, dining on raw fish and crustaceans, and whose homes give the people on “Hoarders” a serious run for their money; but that’s just the thing, while Bathtub residents have no money, they make the most of life for themselves. Hushpuppy tells us that The Bathtub has more parties than any other place in the world and that its residents are the happiest. Aligned with her innocent perspective and unflinchingly optimistic spirit, we believe it. The film’s conclusion reads depressing and inspirational all at once, and drives the impact of this powerful parable home exquisitely. The film has a heart and soul that drips with sympathy for anyone who can relate to social oppression, but the true driving force behind Beasts’ greatness is the radiant spirit exuding from that of little Quvenzahne Wallis (practice the name—you’re going to be seeing it a lot come Oscar season), who plays Hushpuppy with a quiet ferocity that manifests in moments of haunting authenticity and the earnest, undying will of a child making something great out of what she’s given, which becomes of tangible importance to the finished product of the film she’s playing in as well.

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