Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2015 Educated Guesses

Every year's Oscar nominations come with surprises, often unpleasant ones. This year took that to a whole new level with a slew of startling omissions that riled up movie buffs in a way that I haven't seen in a long time. We can (and will) discuss individual snubs, but the cumulative effect of them is that the Oscars didn't live up to their promise this year. Ideally, they are a celebration of a year's great films, but that didn't quite work out. It's hard in a year where the great stuff was so diverse but then again, there were some pretty boneheaded choices on the Academy's part. Still, it could be worse. It could be the Grammys. Let's get to it.

Best Animated Feature
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Who Will Win: The first and perhaps most inscrutable controversy of this year's Oscars was the absence of The Lego Movie from this category. Popular with audiences and worshiped by critics, it would have been a clear front-runner. It may have been disqualified for its live-action sequences, although the Academy hasn't clarified that. Without it, there's no obvious winner. It will likely be one of the CGI blockbusters, but which one? The original How to Train Your Dragon would have won this category in 2010 if it didn't have the misfortune of getting matched up against Toy Story 3 and it's four-hankie finale. The sequel isn't quite as good, but it packs an emotional punch that I think voters will remember.

My Choice: Princess Kaguya has a level of thematic ambition that is far beyond what you usually see in animated films, in addition to being stunning to look at. An upset in this category is certainly possible and I would love to see this one pull it out.

Best Documentary Feature
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth

Who Will Win: The most popular documentary of the last year was Life Itself, a moving portrait of the late critic Roger Ebert. It's not on the list this year, which suggests that the Academy is in the mood for more serious fare this time around (although this category is not very consistent about this). The two docs about photographers, Finding Vivian Maier and The Salt of the Earth, are probably out. Last Days in Vietnam is compelling stuff, but the Fall of Saigon was over 40 years ago. Virunga's central African setting probably feels too far away from your average voter. It doesn't get much more timely than Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA that puts the viewer right in the room as history is being made. Any movie that can feature the brave but insufferable journalist Glenn Greenwald so prominently and still be tolerable deserves something.

My Choice: Citizenfour is an impressive piece of film journalism, but as a viewing experience it has nothing on Virunga. The combination of intense subject matter, haunting music and beautiful scenery shots was incredibly potent. Netflix knows how to pick 'em.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jason Hall for American Sniper
Graham Moore for The Imitation Game
Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
Anthony McCarten for The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle for Whiplash

Who Will Win: Graham Moore's screenplay for The Imitation Game accomplished a few different things - it gracefully meshed three separate periods in Alan Turing's life and it boiled down the incredibly complex mathematics behind the decoding work of the main characters in a way that any audience member could understand what was going on. I suspect he'll have an Oscar to show for it, although Damien Chazelle is a potential upset.

My Choice: I don't have a strong preference here. The Imitation Game was impressive for the reasons listed above and Whiplash's layered exploration of ambition is a good conversation starter. Either of them would be cool, just please don't give it to American Sniper. That movie was downright ludicrous.

Best Original Screenplay
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
E. Max Byre for Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dan Gilroy for Nightcrawler

Who Will Win: Three of this year's heavy hitters are squaring off in this category. Birdman's got four writers attached to it and this category typically favors a single recipient. Linklater has a great ear for dialogue but it will probably hurt him that so much of Boyhood's dialogue sounds improvised. That leaves Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot of nominations and it probably won't go home empty-handed. This category, with its hipster bent, seems the ideal place to recognize it.

My Choice: Dan Gilroy. Nightcrawler was a brilliant look at how modern work culture rewards sociopathic behavior and not just any writer could pull off a lead character who speaks almost entirely in canned self-help jargon he read off the internet. This movie was overlooked in general and really deserves some props.

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Laura Dern in Wild
Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game
Emma Stone in Birdman
Meryl Streep in Into the Woods

Who Will Win: Patricia Arquette. Her vanity-free performance as a mother who is in over her head but refuses to give up stays with you long after Boyhood ends. It helps that she's also at the center of the film's most emotional scene. She's been sweeping the preliminary awards and there's no reason to think the Oscars will be any different.

My Choice: Arquette deserves the win, although I was also pretty impressed by Emma Stone. As the angry, drug addict daughter in Birdman, she really looked and sounded like she had just gotten out of rehab. For someone whose looks are always being praised, it's not a "beauty queen" performance at all.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall in The Judge
Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
Edward Norton in Birdman
Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Who Will Win: The other four nominees have no chance against J.K. Simmons and the evil genius music teacher he played in Whiplash. Although it's in the "supporting" category, he dominated that movie and it is truly an unforgettable performance.

My Choice: I'm a huge J.K. Simmons fan. Whether it's the sweet father in Juno or the hilariously cantankerous J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films, this guy brings it every time.

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Who Will Win: If you're hoping to get an Oscar, the best narrative you can hope for is that it's "your turn." This is what's happening this year with Julianne Moore, to the point where it seems like people don't care about the actual movie she's in. The focus is that she's given a lot of strong performances, has yet to win, and is not getting any younger. She's got this one in the bag.

My Choice: I honestly don't care. Julianne Moore's done good work for a long time, let her have it. This category needs an intervention because it's becoming the laziest and most consistently disappointing one in the whole lineup. The Academy always seems to choose from a ridiculously small pool of actresses to fill this one out. Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike are some new blood, but the other three are regulars. People always say there aren't many good roles out there for women, but there are more than this. Essie Davis in The Babadook? Rosario Dawson in Top Five? They're out there if you look for them. Look a little harder, please.

Best Actor
Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton in Birdman
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

Who Will Win: Here we have the only acting category that's actually competitive this year. The three Cs (Carell, Cooper & Cumberbatch) have taken a backseat to the neck-and-neck contest between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne. In one corner, you have an actor with a long and (mostly) distinguished career who got the role of a lifetime in Birdman. It's hard to believe this is Keaton's first nomination ever and sentimentality might carry him over the edge. However, statistics are against him. In the other corner, we have an actor who is playing a real English disabled person, the holy trifecta of award bait. Redmayne's eerily convincing performance as Stephen Hawking is the sole reason why The Theory of Everything, a trite biopic that ignores Hawking's groundbreaking contributions to science in favor of a conventional awards bait romance, has done so well. He's already got a SAG award to show for it and I have to give him the edge...but this one is super close.

My Choice: First things first. Where the hell is David Oyelowo? He was outstanding as Dr. King in Selma and this lack of recognition is going to go down as one of the great boners in Oscar history. If only Dr. King had Restless Leg Syndrome or something...any kind of disability and the Academy might have taken more notice. Another omission that bugs me is Jake Gyllenhaal, who brought to life one of the year's most vivid characters in Nightcrawler. In terms of the nominees, might as well give Keaton the gold while they've got the chance. He might not get another shot and Redmayne will surely be nominated again at some point.

Best Director
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher
Alejandro G. Inarritu for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game

Who Will Win: For a while, it looked like Richard Linklater was going to take this one home not just for Boyhood, but for 25 years of great films. Then Inarritu upset him at the Director's Guild awards, which are a highly accurate oracle for this category. Given the large overall support for Birdman, it makes sense although it's still fairly close. If I'm right about this, Inarritu will be the second Mexican director to win in a row after Alfonso Cuaron last year. Guillermo Del Toro might want to start planning a 2016 speech.

My Choice: Ava DuVernay pulled off some beautifully staged scenes in Selma and would have made history if she was recognized, but as with a lot of that movie's talent, she got the cold shoulder. This category's always been a little unpredictable so it's not quite as surprising as what happened in Best Actor, but it's still unfortunate. As it stands, I'm rooting for Linklater. He's made so many great movies, from Dazed and Confused to Bernie to School of Rock to Waking Life, but he doesn't really make "Oscar" movies so I'm not sure he'll get another chance.

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Who Will Win: Despite a list of nominees loaded with typical Oscar bait, it's the two least traditional of the films that are fighting it out for Best Picture. Let's knock out the others. The Theory of Everything has little going for it outside of Eddie Redmayne's performance. The Imitation Game is held in higher regard but still feels too much like a typical winner for this year. Whiplash is a small film that had a very small release. Selma was torpedoed by an ugly combination of various double-standards (more on that soon enough). American Sniper is not the evil piece of propaganda that its detractors fear and that Fox News so desperately wants it to be, but it is a crude, silly movie that is far too polarizing to survive the Academy's preferential ballots, which reward films with more universal acclaim. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a serious challenger, but I think that in the end, Wes Anderson's work doesn't do so well outside of his niche (although that niche is steadily growing).

That leaves Boyhood vs. Birdman. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that Birdman's support among the actor's branch would be balanced out by the other branches going with Boyhood. But then Birdman started winning all the preliminary awards. Not just the Screen Actors Guild, which was expected, but also the Producers and Director's Guild. Clearly, it has more wide-ranging support than it was given credit for. If it does pull off the win, it will easily be the weirdest Best Picture winner ever. If it were about any other profession than acting, I don't think we would be seeing this kind of reception. So I'm going with Birdman but don't count Boyhood out. After all, if we're talking about identifying with the work, everyone voting was once a child.

My Choice: My opinion of the nominees goes something like this: Boyhood > Selma > Birdman > Whiplash > The Imitation Game > The Grand Budapest Hotel > The Theory of Everything > American Sniper. I think it would be wonderful if a gentle, personal film like Boyhood took the top prize, but I feel like my own preference means even less than usual this year. There's other stuff I gotta get off my chest.

I don't typically go this in-depth, but this year's Oscars come with a lot more baggage than usual so let's talk about Selma. The conventional wisdom about its weak amount of nominations (only 2, which is unheard of for a Best Picture nominee) is that the exaggerated portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as cranky and obstinate about the Voting Rights Act backfired. Indeed, some Academy members have spoken anonymously about how the movie "misrepresented history." If this is really how it went down, then the whole situation comes with the pungent whiff of bullshit. In a documentary, getting all the facts right is important. But movies like Selma, often given the misleading label of "docudrama" are still technically fiction, even if they are heavily based on history. These films are not simple recitations of textbook history, they interpret history, often to comment on the era the film is made in rather than the era it depicts. Selma spends a lot of time demonstrating the work involved to make change happen - building up grassroots support and exploiting the bad habits of politicians and media to get the word out. If the movie's Johnson had been on board from the start, none of that work would have seemed as necessary. Selma's LBJ strikes me as less a representation of the real man, but of modern politicians who can't hide their exasperation that all these protesters can't just be happy with their black president and stop complaining. This creative choice may cost Selma some credit as a historical document, but not as a movie.

Movies like this have been playing loose with the truth ever since George Arliss won Best Actor for playing British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1930. Even in this very category, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and especially American Sniper also alter the reality of their subjects to suit their purposes. Regarding the latter, the Iraq War is turned into a Sergio Leone western where the good sniper has to battle the bad sniper, very little of which is supported by Chris Kyle's actual experiences. This change isn't necessarily a surprise given that the director, Clint Eastwood, always tends to frame issues in ways that are reminiscent of classic westerns. Yet American Sniper was rewarded with surprise nominations while Selma was punished. So tldr, if you're going to start bringing the hammer down on artistic depictions of history, be consistent about it or shut up. A lot of people can't stand it when race gets brought into the Oscars, but their frustration seems better directed at the Academy for making it so easy. I've said enough, but I do have some further reading. Here is a great article on the racial elements of the issue and here is an article going into the specifics of the movie's portrayal of Johnson.

So that's all for now. Last year, I had a perfect score for predictions. I'd be surprised if that happened twice in a row, but we'll see!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Birth of A Nation - 100 Years Later

In The Harlem Hellfighters, a graphic novel by Max Brooks, a World War I regiment comprised of black soldiers gets unexpected respect in Europe for their bravery on the battlefield. In the midst of this, one character flashes back to his pre-war life as a janitor in a movie theater. In 1915, just a few years before the war began, he had watched a huge white audience embrace a film that would become notorious for its racist content - D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation. Despite putting their lives on the line on behalf of America, these soldiers knew what was waiting for them when they returned home.

When I started my life as a film buff back in high school, I sought out as many classics as I could. Most of us start with the ones that get name-dropped the most when it comes to the history of film - Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Seven Samurai, etc. Another name I had heard quite often was The Birth of a Nation, although I avoided it because of both its massive length (nearly 3.5 hours) and its reputation as a horribly racist movie. Did I really want to spend that much time on something so pernicious? Not really. During my second year at NYU, the choice was made for me.

The silent film course was one of my favorites. I discovered all sorts of brilliant films from that era. We even had a professional musician come in and play the piano accompaniment to the experimental Russian classic Man With A Movie Camera. It left me with a love of silent cinema that continues to this day...and it's a strong love indeed if it could survive a screening of The Birth of A Nation. Most of the students in the class were also seeing it for the first time - perhaps they had avoided it for the same reasons. Movie classes at NYU typically ran 4 hours in order to accommodate a movie screening and a lengthy discussion afterwards, but Birth took up almost the entire class just to watch. The experience was far more memorable than if I had simply watched it alone.

When you go into the movie with knowledge of its reputation, you sit there waiting for the bad stuff to start. It doesn't come right away. At first, it's a Civil War re-enactment played straight with most of the racism relegated to subtext. For example, the movie never acknowledges the Southern attack on Fort Sumter that began the war and treats the conflict as this mysterious force that just came out of nowhere and disrupted everyone's lives. There is also one scene I remember where black onlookers cheered for a Southern victory (Hooray! We're still slaves!). Strangely enough, Abraham Lincoln is treated with a lot of reverence and the scene of his assassination is probably the most impressive moment in the film. Unfortunately, it's also the point at which the movie conjures up this bizarre alternate history of the Reconstruction era where blacks took over the legislature and began to punish the defeated South. A lot of problems here, the biggest being that the movie doesn't believe this history is "alternate."

The class had been dead silent through the movie up until this point. I remember when the first gasps came. It was a scene during the election where white people were intimidated into not voting while black officials stuffed the ballot box (A century later, conservatives are still afraid of this). The new black legislators recline in their chairs and put their feet up while guzzling liquor and eating fried chicken. I am not kidding. As viewers, we're meant to be appalled at the lack of respect these men had for a system of government that had endorsed their slavery until just recently. The leader of this radical movement is a half-white/half-black man named Lynch. Not kidding about that either.

On one fateful day, the white hero is depressed about all the black people and sits alone on a tree stump. Suddenly, he sees two children pretending to be ghosts by wearing a white sheet. You can practically see the light bulb appear over his head. Sure enough, the Ku Klux Klan is born and The Birth of a Nation treats them like the goddamn Fellowship of the Ring. They ride across the land in epic scenery shots that were far beyond anything audiences had seen at the time. In the climactic sequence, distressed white people hide inside a shack while hordes of angry black men tear down the walls, a scene that would later become a staple in zombie movies. Contrary to popular belief, D.W. Griffith did not "invent" parallel editing with this sequence, but he did demonstrate how effective it could be in regard to building tension.

Speaking of tension, it hit a fever pitch during my classroom screening during one infamous scene. A young white girl is chased through the woods by a black man and when she gets cornered at the edge of a cliff, jumps to her death rather than risk miscegenation. The obnoxious intertitles tell us not to mourn because she chose death over being defiled. The man is hunted down by the KKK and put on trial. Cut to a horrifying image of a Klan mob restraining him with burning crosses in the background while the screen has a hellish red tint. A brief intertitle pops up. "Guilty." At this point, the class abruptly broke out into laughter. As if there was any doubt how that scene would end. The sheer cognitive dissonance of this sinister image of persecution being presented as an example of righteous justice was too much. The man is killed and the Klan drops his dead body at the front door of the statehouse cause you know, that's just what civilized people do.

Were we assholes for laughing? I don't know. But we had been sitting through this nonsense for two and a half hours and we needed some kind of release. The class continued to laugh at the rest of the film's racist moments because what else can you do at that point? The final scene, of a translucent (and obviously white) Jesus giving an approving smile to everything that has just happened, was the jaw-dropping cherry on top of this shit sundae. We had all expected something pretty bad, but wow. Needless to say, the conversations as we left the classroom were memorable.

The movie was controversial from the start but still a sensation with audiences. President Woodrow Wilson even screened it in the White House. It was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK and is said to have been the inspiration for many spontaneous acts of violence against black citizens. Makes Natural Born Killers look pretty harmless by comparison. D.W. Griffith was bewildered by the accusations of racism (I know, I know) and tried to make amends with another three hour epic, Intolerance, about the struggles of oppressed people through the ages. The Academy Awards wouldn't exist for another 14 years and I'm sure current members are grateful for that, given that an honorary Oscar was given to Al Jolson for his blackface routine in The Jazz Singer during that first round of awards in 1929. Ten years later, the Best Picture Oscar went to Gone With The Wind, a less outwardly offensive film than Birth of a Nation but still infused with that victimized plantation mentality.

Film critics still tie themselves in knots trying to reconcile their feelings about this movie. Never has the difference between a "influential" film and a "good" film been so glaringly apparent. Griffith's innovative techniques and the overall grandiosity of the movie ensured it a permanent place in American film history, a curse on our otherwise impressive contributions to cinema that we brought upon ourselves. As repulsive as it is, I still think anyone seriously interested in film, history and the intersection of the two should watch it. Most of the time, movies about America's sordid racial past depict a conflict between good white people and bad white people in an effort to make us feel better. By showing us the kind of mentality that was mainstream 100 years ago, this movie is actually far more educational.