February 25, 2012

Oscar Thoughts and Predictions

I get why the 2011 nominations are considered boring. It’s a field dominated by household-name directors; a usually-controversial Scorsese churned out a kid’s movie; no one likes one of the Best Picture nominees. But while I disagree with the consensus (more later), there are two “risky” films the Academy failed to highlight (though I understand why)...

Martha Marcy May Marlene
We know little about Martha. From her inability to socialize to her bizarre behavior and random panics, we think she’s crazy. But flashbacks to her time in a cult provide (possible) explanations for her quirks. I went from observing her to observing life through her eyes... and I’ve rarely felt more terrified.

The dramatic but gradual shift in perception is headed by writer/director Sean Durkin. In a plot driven by curiosity, he understands the power of information: when to give it, what to give, when to stop. His characters are either quiet or cryptic, giving each scene an underlying tension. His editor knows a wide shot with a gun aimed at someone’s chest is considerably less powerful than a medium with the gun off camera. His DP leaves empty space in the frame, allowing the possibility of it being occupied. Of course, there’s Elizabeth Olsen, who led the picture’s slim Oscar hopes. As Martha she never tips her hand, acting neutral in bizarre scenarios, allowing context to dictate the arc.

It might be the most well-crafted film I saw in 2011.

So why zero nominations? A lack of exposure is the obvious answer, but more than that... The title. Martha Marcy May Marlene. I understand why this is the title, but damn... I forget the order of the names. I sometimes say Marsha. Or Mary. Titles are important. This one isn’t even bad, it’s just... confusing.

It isn't until Part II of Melancholia that the rogue planet threatening to crash into Earth is mentioned, but in a way, both parts are disaster movies. Part II, entitled "Claire", observes the titular character's fear of this planet destroying her life and her family and her eventual loneliness when disaster becomes inevitable. It's pretty conventional as far as disaster movies go. 

Part I is less obvious. Entitled "Justine", the story focuses on Justine at her lavish wedding reception with perfect-looking people, all having a great time... except for the fact that Justine is miserable. No one knows or cares to know. Her sister, Claire, can't understand why either. She's beautiful, her husband is handsome... she should be happy. But the reception is Justine's worst nightmare.

A therapist told Lars Von Trier that people with depression are more equipped for heavy pressure because they face it in their day-to-day lives. Von Trier dishes a lot at Justine. A cold mother. A careless father. Guests with veiled agendas. Her seemingly caring groom only wants to get her to bed. Even the vanity of the reception seems to force happiness upon her. Von Trier wisely presents these as triggers, not the cause of her depression. For her, the reception is a planet crashing into Earth. Claire tries to will her into happiness, but can only later grasp her fear and loneliness.

Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes for portraying Justine, and both she and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire) deserved recognition. It could have also garnered attention for writing, directing, and a slew of artistic awards but... well...

Perhaps an industry exists where you can succeed while calling yourself a Nazi while admiring the work of Hitler and Speer... I’ve just never been there. I have been to Hollywood. They don’t much care for that.

(Also, I felt the red herrings were distracting.)

The complete omission of these two films is my biggest gripe with the nominations. Imaginative and creative, they could have filled the void in an average year. But it is indeed average, not poor. Though the Best Picture field is too generous, three nominees have the imagination and skill to contend any given year. Hopefully these are made clear by my predictions:

Who should win: John Logan, Hugo
Who will: Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Descendants was disappointing. The script is uneven and clunky, the plots don’t mesh, and conflict gets resolved too easily. The dialogue lacks the texture of Payne’s prior scripts, and the voice over is a bad choice. It wins more on subject matter than quality. Moneyball was a tough adaptation (no fewer than 3 Oscar winners tried to crack it). Statistics and calculations are tough to film, and Sorkin and Zaillian were properly recognized for the amount of content in the final product. But this can sometimes become cumbersome. The writers never tapped into the book’s subtext, the je ne sais quoi of baseball that inspired Bill James to write his books or Hatteberg’s wife to hit him grounders in the rain. Still, it's a solid script from a tough adaptation. Hugo is well-imagined and has a lot of heart. It flows sequence to sequence, and each turn is fresh and surprising. Every character has dreams, fears, and personalities, and even the villain is well-rounded. Logan will lose to Descendants because his script is not emo.

"You mean, he does nothing but mope
for two hours?"  "Nope."  "Magical!"

Who should win: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Who will: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Part of me wants Michel Hazanavicius to win for The Artist. Too often, people identify good writing with snappy dialogue over structure and plot. Both are solid in The Artist, which relies on visual storytelling. The parallel action sequences are done well. His fall from grace and her rise to stardom is clear and natural, and their cause is quite clever. And it ends on a good note. The story might be a little too thin to warrant a victory over strong opposition. Props to Bridesmaids for scoring the nomination that eluded Mean Girls and 40-Year-Old Virgin before it. There are sight gags and mean observations, and all setups have payoffs. The characters are funny and likeable, none of whom distract from the universal themes. For a comedy, the nomination is a victory. Woody should get his first statue since Hannah and Her Sisters. The premise is recycled from Purple Rose of Cairo, but this is a fun movie. And you don’t require expert knowledge of ‘20s Parisian ex-pats to appreciate it. The story is less-cynical than most of his work, and he strikes a variety of notes in a thin plot. And few writers could turn a story with a single word.

Who should win: I…don’t know
Who will: Viola Davis, The Help

The category suffers because the movies represented are, by all accounts, sub par. I can say that Roony Mara in Girl With a Dragon Tattoo killed it. More than a physical transformation, she inhabits this tortured character. She’s quiet and aggressive; her stare and monotone voice mask any rare slip of sentiment; and her stone cold expression makes any smile chilling. I wish I’d seen the other noms to determine whether she should win. I have lukewarm interest in The Help and will probably avoid My Week With Marilyn and The Iron Lady. For the latter, Meryl Streep is said to be the best thing in a bad movie. But as leads are partly responsible for overall quality, I wish a great performance in a bad film were omitted for a great performance in a great film (Olsen, Gainsbourg, Dunst). I hear Michelle Williams and Glenn Close were deserving. It sounds like this is Viola Davis’ year.

Who should win: NOT George Clooney, The Descendants
Who will: George Clooney, The Descandents

He just wasn’t that good. There are stronger ways to evoke internal conflict than walking around with your head hung low, looking off in the distance. Take Paul Newman in The Verdict, or Eastwood in Unforgiven. Granted, those screenplays gave more for their leads to build on, but little about his performance feels inspired (I’m fairly certain his “we’re Hawaiians” monologue is lifted from his Fantastic Mr. Fox speech, Hawaiians in place of foxes). Everyone in the category was better. Brad Pitt was the perfect choice to play Billy Beane. He’s temperamental but fun; a handsome jock with deceptive intelligence; good-natured but knows how to play the managerial chess match. With more to work with in the first hour, Pitt would have been a shoe-in. 
"Can I do something awesome yet?"

The Artist lives and dies on its performers. Jean Dujardin’s memorable scenes are of him dancing and those with the dog, but the story is told on his face. It’s so expressive and malleable that rare instances of stillness command attention. He could score the gold, but I wonder if not speaking hurts his odds. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman keeps those around him (and us) guessing through a difficult story. His expressions and speech remain unchanged, regardless of context. A difficult monologue at the midpoint would have fallen flat with a lesser actor.

Who should win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Who will: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

The intro to Midnight in Paris is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. If the latter is his love letter to New York, in many ways, Midnight in Paris is a more strongly-worded letter to the city of lights. The present scenes are full of life and promise, the past is warm, inviting, and nostalgic. You get the feeling that while his lead yearns for the old days, Allen begs him to just look around. He could win this year. So could Martin Scorsese. Hugo has so many great ideas that you don’t know whether to credit Scorsese or Logan or the source material. We’re told that in the early days of film, a film with an approaching train caused the audience to jump out their seats in fear that it would charge off the screen. Later, during a chase sequence, Scorsese takes advantage of 3D as a train literally jumps out the screen at the audience. It’s an interesting choice, using 3D to tell a story of early film. Traditionalists frown upon the new medium, but Scorsese – as great a film historian as he is a filmmaker - seems open to the ever-evolving art form. Still, I think this goes to Hazanavicius for The Artist. Directing is a balancing act to begin with, but to omit a key component of modern film requires extreme precision in every other element. The story works and doesn’t need dialogue to cover any lapses in logic. The performances – from everyone to Desjardin to the dog – are spot on. And everything looks perfect.

Who should win: Hugo
Who will: The Artist

Midnight in Paris would be my choice if not for one glaring flaw: Rachel McAdams, as Owen Wilson’s wife. For Wilson's character to yearn for the past, the present cannot be inspiring, and that includes his wife. I get it. But she has absolutely no redeemable qualities. None. It's partially Allen's fault, but McAdams is way too aggressive. At some point, I was annoyed at him for tolerating her.

"Quit it! When you kiss me I can't yell at you!"

In a two-race horse between Hugo and The Artist, I choose Hugo. There’s not much else to say to support my pick, I guess I just... still love being a kid at the movies.

Other Oscarvations (sorry about that...):

- Supporting Actor will go to Christopher Plummer; for Actress, Octavia Spencer. I'd vote for Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. She finds a good balance in a role that’s tougher than meets the eye.

- I saw the animated shorts this week at IFC. There were some great ideas in both the nominees and honorees. My favorite was Wild Life, about an Englishman who moves to Canada to become a rancher. It had the most impressive animation and was the first animated mockumentary I've seen of any length. The Stroll was also clever and well-executed. The Pixar entry La Luna left something to be desired.

- People cite Jessica Chastain, but Jonah Hill also had a better performance in 2011...

- John Logan not only penned a Best Picture contender, but the front-runner for Best Animated Feature. The most underrated writer in Hollywood.

- Drive is overrated, but count me among those who feel Albert Brooks was robbed. The thing is, he doesn't play against type; his comedic persona is what makes his acts so sinister. Very clever.

- I'm surprised Bennett Miller was ignored for Moneyball. He's a big reason the difficult subject matter works, and the baseball scenes are very well shot.

- War Horse. There, I acknowledge it.


  1. Midnight in Paris was such a weak script. The entire thing felt dumbed-down. "WOW! It's [historical figure] doing [thing they did]!" None of the historical figures are the least bit reticent about sharing their life stories like a cheap biography. The main characters were painted so broadly (obnoxious know-it-all romantic rival, attractive young shopkeeper, dreamer, etc). The plot was so basic.

    The movie only works due to close-ups of Owen Wilson and the scenery of Paris.

    1. Andy, agreed on most accounts. The thing is, its simplicity works for it. Allen isn't trying to tell a complex story; he just wants a clear contrast between the time periods, which is why everyone is painted so broadly (McAdams was overdone). It would waste time to have reticent historical figures. Comedy is about speed. It's not Crimes and Misdemeanors. Nor is it trying to be.

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  3. I see what you're saying. I think the simplicity worked for what the story was trying to accomplish, I just didn't think what it was trying to accomplish was worthy of Best Original Screenplay of 2012. It felt, to me, like it was trying to be a movie they show 7th-graders in English class.