Here they are … read em and weep.
I acknowledge having no personal experience of filmgoing in the Studio Era (my seen-lists from that era are heavy on the established classics), but I’m still confident that, for the most part, the Oscars honored the best films of the 30s and 40s, because the Hollywood studios MADE the best films of the 30s and 40s — the indie movement didn’t exist yet, the distribution of foreign films in the US was spottier than now, the “art house” concept wasn’t really mature, the market and nonmarket barriers to entry were far higher than now, etc.
But I can pretty definitively say that these are collectively the worst batch of films ever to get the five Best Picture slots. I have seen all five already, and I can’t give a “thumbs up” to any of them. Not a one. On my 10-point scale, their combined grades are 18 (out of a possible 50), and a 6-grade or higher = a Siskel & Ebert “thumbs up” or a Variety Crix Pix “pro.” Not a one.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE 4
THE READER 4
BENJAMIN BUTTON 3
Yes … FROST/NIXON is best of the Best Pic nominees: in one phrase, it’s a well-made lie (and the lie is central to the movie’s raison d’etre, not a peripheral thing or a matter of emphasis) featuring a for-the-ages performance by Frank Langella and first-rate in every other way bar Opie’s usual merely-functional direction. And that functionality is the right choice for a movie like this; certainly better than DOUBT’s John Patrick Shanley trying to tart up his stage play with every eccentric angle he could think of).
But I decided to see if it was true … are 2008’s nominees the worst collective batch ever? Here is a list of all the nominated films, broken down by year. Going all the way back to 1944, when the Academy began limiting the Best Pic race to five films, and counting only the years in which I’ve seen at least two nominated films (most years I see 3 or 4, and 1 is simply too small a sample size) … this is in fact the first year since 1961 in which I can’t recommend any of the five nominated films. More damningly, this is the first time I’ve seen all five nominated films and the films went 0-for-5 (to pick on 1961, it was just 0-for-3 — WEST SIDE STORY, GUNS OF NAVARONE and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG).
I’m not under any illusions about what the Oscars are about: commercial A-list English-language movies. All eligibility issues aside, I still would have been stunned had the Academy picked 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS or SILENT LIGHT, although they are the two best films of the year in a walk. But what about WALL-E, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, DOUBT, THE DARK KNIGHT and THE WRESTLER — five commercial American A-list movies that were better than any of the five that got nominated. While that entire precise lineup would be unrealistic (MILK and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE were locks and remain the frontrunners), all of them would be reasonable choices on the nonartistic things that matter to the Academy — box-office success, token indie, December prestige releases, etc. And I’m not just parroting my own taste — only 3 of that 5 makes my Top 10.
Not that there aren’t plenty of headscratchers in the other categories —
- in what universe was St. Angelina of the Millinery’s beatific posing for the whole last hour better than Sally Hawkins’ HAPPY GO-LUCKY Poppy (and how on earth does that film get a script nomination without Hawkins getting an Actress nod)?;
- did Kate Winslet get nominated for THE READER (which she will almost certainly win) rather than REVOLUTIONARY ROAD because playing a Nazi counts for more than playing a bohemia-wannabe or because in the former film she’s naked for much of the first act and (I think) never is in the latter?;
- is reading Hallmark-card dialog and having your face made up and pasted onto others’ bodies in an “important” film like oh … BENJAMIN BUTTON … better “acting” than creating one of the most memorable screwballs in the Coens brothers entire ouevre, as Brad Pitt did in BURN AFTER READING (the Academy obviously thinks so)?;
- was it a surprise that Michael Shannon picks up this year’s Going Full Retard Award for his unspeakable performance in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (he’s even up against Robert Downey Jr., who had that brilliant monolog about “Fell Retard”; there is no other category in which I will be rooting so hard).
So that names one of the good and correct choices the Academy made — Robert Downey Jr. for the comedy (yay!!) TROPIC THUNDER. Any others besides the no-brainers even the Academy couldn’t blow (Heath Ledger for supporting actor; Mickey Rourke and the aforementioned Frank Langella for lead actor; Anne Hathaway for lead actress; WALL-E for animated film, etc.) Just really a couple … I was relieved by the snub of the vile REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, gratified to see Melissa Leo get a nod for the indie FROZEN RIVER, happy to see Austria’s REVANCHE get a foreign-film nomination (neither of these last two have a chance of winning). And though I don’t consider ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (best doc) or SLUMDOG MILLIONARE (best score/songs) to be either man’s best work, the possibility of hearing “Academy Award Winner Werner Herzog” or “Academy Award Winner A.R. Rahman” is something I wouldn’t miss. And c’mon … a Werner Herzog acceptance speech? Tell me you can resist that possibility.
And that’s why unlike Jeffrey Overstreet, I’m not gonna boycott the show over the lameness of these picks. There are still some things to root for or hope for. The spectacle of these liberal glitterati either trying to hold back on the O-gasms or letting their libidos run free for the Lightworker’s Message Of Hope And Change has just too much potential car-wreck value.
I hope to finish up some lengthy movie-related content later tonight.
But here’s what I spent much of yesterday working on — an obituary for Father Richard John Neuhaus, which Times religion editor Julia Duin polished and updated in my absence this morning when, as expected, Father died. (He had received the last rites of the Church the night before.)
I’ve been meaning to blog this item for a couple of weeks, so forgive the delay.
But leave it to scholars at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh to trash Romantic Comedies as bad for real-life romances, because they promote notions of romance that are unrealistic. Or as the BBC headline-writers put it — “Rom-coms ‘spoil your love life’.”
Rom-coms have been blamed by relationship experts at Heriot Watt University for promoting unrealistic expectations when it comes to love.
They found fans of films such as Runaway Bride and Notting Hill often fail to communicate with their partner.
Many held the view if someone is meant to be with you, then they should know what you want without you telling them.
The university’s Dr Bjarne Holmes said: “Marriage counsellors often see couples who believe that sex should always be perfect, and if someone is meant to be with you then they will know what you want without you needing to communicate it.
“We now have some emerging evidence that suggests popular media play a role in perpetuating these ideas in people’s minds.”
While I’ve never had a marriage breakup over a Julia Roberts movie (though frankly no man should touch a woman who likes a movie called “Runaway Bride” — something about that title), the story put the finger on why I don’t like most happy-happy-joy-joy romantic comedies. They promote a view of life and love that is both false and fundamentally unhealthy, or at a minimum, one I absolutely cannot tap into or sympathize with. (It hasn’t failed to occur to me that I generally prefer dark, grim movies; tragedies or extremely astringent dramas.) I don’t mean to go all John Gray, Mars and Venus, but at least with respect to the expectations of the rom-com, I’d say this is typical of why guys don’t generally like “chick flicks” — that we’re too hard-headed to believe in romantic destiny. Here is one of the juxtapositions:
As part of the project, 100 student volunteers were asked to watch the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, while a further 100 watched a David Lynch drama.
Students watching the romantic film were later found to be more likely to believe in fate and destiny. A further study found that fans of romantic comedies had a stronger belief in predestined love.
I hold no brief for David Lynch, but the plot of SERENDIPITY is one of the stupidest in movie history (which might have been OK had there been any chemistry between John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale on their first date, but there wasn’t). Couple has the date of their lives and Beckinsale leaves her address and phone number in a book that she knows Cusack will find if they were meant to be together. Years later, they’re both set to be married, but Cusack is unsure and makes one last effort to retrace their steps, find the book and find his destined love (not his fiancee??). Re anybody who could find all that inspiring, four words: Stay. The. Hell. Away.
I’m aware that these movies are all played as fantasies, and that everyone realizes that at a certain level. But what this research confirms is that movies don’t mostly affect us at the level of conscious thought, where we sort movies into “real/unreal,” “moral/immoral,” “laudatory/condemnatory” and the rest of that. And even calling a movie a fantasy is still to set it up as some sort of ideal — “sure, it couldn’t be true, but wouldn’t it be good if it could” — which is just as bad in some ways. But more importantly, the mere fact of having seen Movie X automatically and necessarily makes Movie X part of your experience of life, and automatically and necessarily turns you into “a person who has seen Movie X.” Indeed, Pauline Kael wrote in “I Lost At the Movies” that one of the glories of movies was this very capacity — “new films are judged in terms of how they extend our experience and give us pleasure.” But every extension of experience affects your implicit worldview and range of understanding — what is, what can be, what should be (three different things; all equally relevant).
GRAN TORINO (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2008, 6)
I don’t have for Clint Eastwood the boundless contempt that I do for Jean-Luc Godard, but I have the same rating problem with GRAN TORINO that I had with SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL last year, namely how does one rate a movie that is terrible by every possible objective standard, but which you yourself had a high ol’ time laughing at.
In fact, I enjoyed GRAN TORINO so much that I nearly did a Mike D’Angelo last night and retitled my blog in its honor. I was told by Craig Lindsey of the Raleigh News-Observer via Twitter that I wasn’t “a part of the crew” until I contributed an alternative title for the film based on its jaw-droppingly awful dialog (plenty of samples coming). I eventually decided on “OVEREDUCATED 27-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN” and decided I’ll renominate my sight that, at least for the temporariliness. But alas, the font size on the WordPress template’s header was too big to make it work.
The problem with GRAN TORINO is very basic. The acting is appallingly bad, from top to bottom; the script is worse. We’re not talking weak — we’re talking jaw-dropping, head-grabbing, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” bad. It’s the story of a very grumpy old man Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood. A Korean War veteran and retired Ford factory worker, he can barely tolerate his family (the film begins with his wife’s funeral) and he sees his working-class neighborhood being “taken over” by “Hamung” immigrants, whom he calls by every ethnic slur in the book. Not that he discriminates, mind you; he refers to everybody by such lingo.
I intend to see GRAN TORINO later tonight, after having prepared myself to take advantage of Mike D’Angelo’s suggestion that this movie, which he has dubbed LISTEN, EGGROLL, might be the funniest movie ever if you watched it drunk. Many are called, few are chosen …
But anyhoo, recently Clint went off in “Grumpy Old Man” mode (HT: Steve Skojec) that he’s apparently playing in GRAN TORINO, saying that America has gone to hell in a welter of psychologizing and sensitivity.
Tough guy Clint Eastwood believes America is getting soft around the middle – and the iconic Oscar winner thinks he knows when the problem began.
“Maybe when people started asking about the meaning of life,” Eastwood, 78, growls in the January issue of Esquire.
The actor/director recalls the deeper questions were rarely posed during his Depression-era California childhood – and says that wasn’t a bad thing.
“People barely got by,” Eastwood recounts. “People were tougher then.”
That mentality is gone, he laments.
“Everyone’s become used to saying, ‘Well, how do we handle it psychologically?'” Eastwood says. “In those days, you punched the bully back and duked it out.”
Now, I agree heartily with what Clint says … US foreign policy in particular, especially under liberal administration but also somewhat under conservative ones too, has become indistinguishable from therapy. (Or as Sicinski put it in his review of STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE: “But there is something to be said for Robert Frost’s old joke about liberals being too broad-minded to take their own side in an argument.” As if we think Hamas just needs to be understood and have its legitimate concerns addressed.)
But most of Eastwood’s last several movies, at least the ones I’ve seen, are exactly what Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name preaches against (at least in part; several are more complicated obviously).
What is UNFORGIVEN but a movie about the psychological burden of killing? What is FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS if not a film about how war and having to kill people screws people up in the head (oh … the strawberry sauce) … especially if you’re from an Official Oppressed Ethnicity? What is LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA but an attempt at psychological understanding of The Enemy, and a painting of Japan’s wartime army as Modern Asian-Americans? What is MILLION DOLLAR BABY but an apologia for euthanizing people who don’t think their lives have any more meaning? How is MYSTIC RIVER a tragedy, or indeed anything but a meaningless tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing, unless its audience is the introspective sort that frets over the meaning of life?
Three of these movies are documentaries featuring geriatric people of retirement age singing pop and rock songs from the past 40 years. Another one is called YOUNG AT HEART.
Honestly, I couldn’t stop laughing at this display when I ran into it yesterday, and so I pulled out my trusty iPhone. Let’s say this probably was not the marketing juxtaposition ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones or Willie Nelson wanted. (And also an indication of why the premise of YOUNG AT HEART didn’t excite me enough to go see it. Old people singing rock songs is not a novelty.)
DOUBT (John Patrick Shanley, USA, 2008, 7)
I said going in that this would either be awesome or vile; as the grade indicates, it’s not close to either.
I think the title DOUBT is somewhat misleading. Or rather, that some people are taking its meaning wrong, assuming that what actually happens in the movie is what is in doubt, or is indeterminable or left ambiguous. Or to be concrete, whether Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) actually interfered with an altar boy named Donald or whether the suspicions of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) were false. There is no cathartic Hercule Poirot scene of solving the crime or the guilty party saying “and I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”
To which I can only shrug my shoulders. I don’t think either the film or the play of DOUBT (I prefer the latter) is even slightly ambiguous in terms of what happens. But where I think the title makes more sense is about the question “what to make of what clearly does happen.” Elsewhere, I’ve essentially defined this as the difference between “good ambiguity” and “bad ambiguity”; what happens needs to be clear, what it means need not. What makes DOUBT a great work about knowledge, judgment and yes, doubt, and yes, Catholicism, is that it isn’t overdetermined. (No, A.O. Scott in the New York Times got DOUBT completely wrong.)
As I said, I was suspicious of the movie going in, partly because I didn’t think the filmmakers would keep the film’s more discomforting (to the Oscar-bait audience) ideas intact. Well, the filmmakers did (Shanley directed and adapted his own play, which probably was key), and I’ll elaborate later.
I think the play much the better work of art, though I’ve never seen it performed. Perhaps reading a play lets you build the performances and nuances in your head, particularly when dealing with a play that’s to a large extent an allegory of ideas. A written play exists as a Platonic Form, in a way a theatrical performance doesn’t, much less a film. Any actual instanciation inevitably corrupts. As Giotto, Pasolini ended THE DECAMERON looking at one of his own frescoes and saying “it’s so much better to dream it.” Hitchcock famously said he didn’t actually like shooting his movies because all his creative work had been done before he walked onto the set, and the only things that could happen during the shoot would be blemish upon the film he had made in his head.
Needless to conclude therefore, I found DOUBT much less successful as cinema on the screen than cinema in my head. But regardless of any understanding of adaptation, there are some severe problems. Meryl Streep, as I feared from the trailer, overdoes the Tyrant Nun act, though Mike D’Angelo is right that this is more true early on. And her finest moments come later — talking about her husband, the whole scene with Viola Davis as the boy’s mother, the final confrontation. Hoffman’s performance has the opposite trajectory — he embodies the role so well with his Easy Every(young)man persona for so long, but then when the confrontations tighten, he starts yelling and he just can only come across as more affected than effective.
As for Shanley’s direction, it is simply weak on every level. J. Robert Parks describes them in a review with which I mostly agree in the details,¹ though I simply like the play so much not to care in the big picture. Tilting the camera at key moments, strategically-placed thunder, the (not in the play) scene involving the cat and the mouse, Streep’s too-on-the-nose John XXIII quote about “who keeps opening my windows” (also not in the play IIRC), the up-and-out shot dissipating the final, shattering line. Virtually every time I felt Shanley’s presence as a film director or adapter, I thought it was a mistake.
Which bring me back to the text of the play, and why DOUBT had held such a fascination over me since I devoured it during a single subway ride. The spoilers commence. You have been warned.