Sounding Smart About The Oscars

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The Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture came out last Thursday, and I’m sure you’ve already had to fake your way through at least one conversation about how surprisingly good Hugh Jackman’s singing was in Les Mis. For your benefit, I’ve spent a lot of time in the theater, read a lot of Wikipedia articles, and used two film classes worth of knowledge to bring you semi-smart things to say when the office cinephile tries to claim that Django Unchained’s nomination is a joke considering The Master was robbed (which it may have been). Feel free to pass off anything you read here as your own idea. Also. if you are the office cinephile, feel free to hurl insults at me and my opinions in the comments.

LINCOLN
I expected that Lincoln would get no love at the Golden Globes, but I figured it was pretty much a lock to win the Oscar. This makes sense: the Academy is a group of people who mostly make movies, and Lincoln has immersive set design, fun costumes, wide shots of body-filled battlefields, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis — everything people who make movies really get off on. Alternatively, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (who pick the Golden Globe winners) are writers and journalists, less prone to going double rainbow guy over the film’s “beautiful dustiness” and more likely to chastise Spielberg for his corny Hollywood ending. (After it is announced that the president is dead, the camera turns to a close up of a flickering candle flame which inevitably dissolves into Lincoln’s face delivering a speech. As my girlfriend yelled afterwards, “FUCK YOU SPIELBERG, YOU KNOW BETTER.”) Then the Hollywood Foreign Press blew that theory to pieces by giving the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) to Argo, a movie that also goes full Hollywood, to the point that Hollywood is the hero that saves American lives. That kind of Academy move by the HFPA makes me less confident in my Lincoln pick for the Oscar. Throw in Spielberg’s 1-for-9 history with Best Picture noms, and I’m retreating my Lincoln-wins probability from ninety to fifty percent.

 It’s a beautiful reenactment of the events surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which means it’s the most fun you can have during a history lesson.

If Lincoln did bring home the Oscar, it would be deserved, but with a few reservations. A friend of mine described Lincoln best: “It is not really something that becomes your new favorite movie so much as it is something you just appreciate as great.” It’s a beautiful reenactment of the events surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which means it’s about the most fun you can have during a history lesson (SPOILER ALERT: the fun ceiling for history lessons is low). So unless you’re somebody who cried when Vertigo knocked Citizen Kane off it’s “Greatest Movie Ever” perch in 2012,  or you are a history buff with a particular adoration for Honest Abe, you probably weren’t overflowing with praise for Lincoln leaving the theater.

Nevertheless, Lincoln is an achievement. The performances are universally strong, with a preposterously long list of accomplished actors in the cast. And at this point the Academy should probably just sculpt the Best Actor award to look like Daniel Day-Lewis’ face. I can only imagine that Abraham Lincoln’s presence dominated every room he walked into (even more than the average President), and likewise Day-Lewis overpowers every scene he’s in, even when he’s just off screen. While his voice may be a bit weaker than you might have imagined one of the nation’s most famous speechmakers to have, Day-Lewis’ uncanny physical resemblance, deliberate pace, and varied performance make the sixteenth President a complex and impossibly large character. However, I was disappointed that Spielberg opted not to show flashbacks of a young Abraham’s vampire killing days, and that he decided Bill O’Reilly killing Lincoln should happen off screen. I suppose he was just leaving the door open for L2NCOLN: Undead Nightmare.

ZERO DARK THIRTY
New ads for Zero Dark Thirty are calling it “a film to define a decade” (quoting a Forbes review). Although that bold claim has the distinct ring of meaningless bullshit (and should have been what they said about Kathryn Bigelow’s first movie, Point Break), it may be onto something. ZDT is the definitive movie (so far) on the War on Terror, which is easily the most pervasive and ever-present storyline of the last dozen years in America. The movie starts where the War on Terror began: the opening scene is a powerful mix of actual 9/11 emergency call recordings over a completely black screen. As the tragic audio plays for a long, tense minute, you can’t help but feel anxious about the images to come. It’s eerie, somber, and unsettling; Kathryn Bigelow’s way of saying, “you’re mine now.”

Bigelow deploys a refreshing kind of manipulation of the audience, far more subtle than the typical Hollywood tricks to create tension or invoke emotion. There is no dissonant string score to let us know disaster is about to strike, and there is no blazing rock song to high-five to after the “we got him” climax. There are no explanations of what happens between scenes, no contrived situations to superficially develop characters, no preachy dialogue to tell us how we should feel about torture, the war, and terrorism. There are simply sounds and images Bigelow trusts to speak for themselves, knowing the audience is capable enough to interpret them in the context of recent history everybody knows.

I mean, it’s almost as good as Point Break.

The blunt, (mostly) unfiltered realism with which Bigelow handles everything from the gun-toting action to the quiet development of Maya (a remarkably awesome Jessica Chastain) is what sets this movie apart and what makes it a decent snapshot of the War on Terror. Bigelow proved in 2010 with The Hurt Locker that she could make a movie about the war with Oscar clout, wiping the floor with her ex-husband (the colossal blowhard that is James Cameron) in maybe my favorite moment in Oscars history. There’s no alien Pocahontas movie to knock down a notch this year, but I still wouldn’t mind seeing Zero Dark Thirty take home the hardware. I mean, it’s almost as good as Point Break. But controversy over the torture scenes kept Kathryn Bigelow from a Best Director nom, and will probably leave her clapping in the audience when the Best Picture envelope is read. 

LES MISÉRABLES
The Les Mis story is a classic, especially if you’re really into 19th century French history. Which must apply to a lot of people or something, since this is the umpteenth film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. 2012’s film adapts the (supposedly) beloved stage musical that debuted in 1980 (and has been running ever since) into a big-screen epic with a formidable cast, including Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Borat. Then again, the cast was equally impressive in the 1998 non-musical version — Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, a young Cry Face — which nobody saw. That film grossed about a tenth of what Tom Hooper’s 2012 effort has made in three weeks. The new one also just won a bunch of Golden Globes, including Best Picture. So why all the hoopla?

The actors not only sang their own parts, but they sang them live. This is enormously impressive, and as far as I know, totally unprecedented. Normally musical numbers are recorded months before scenes are shot (sometimes by people other than the actors) and then the stars simply lip sync to the playback, but Tom Hooper opted for the road less travelled. The actors sang the songs however they wanted to, with a pianist playing in their ear at whatever tempo the actors set themselves. You can see how logistically difficult this would be, and the potential need for a thousand takes before the singing and acting are BOTH perfect.

helena-bonham-carter-sacha-baron-cohen-les-miserables-photo Anne Hathaway told Jon Stewart that they shot the “I Dreamed a Dream” sequence for over eight hours, and then used the fourth take. I don’t really know what that says about this movie, but I imagine that it takes a special kind of mental fortitude to spend an entire day listening to Hathaway sing the same song only to find out it could have been stopped a half hour in. I wonder how many “at least she’s more attractive than Susan Boyle” jokes were made. I digress.

The singing is mostly good (not Russell Crowe’s forté), and the movie is pretty to look at. The story is the same as it’s ever been: a semi-compelling look at crime, justice, and poverty through the story of one reformed convict and one relentless lawman.

AMOUR
Michael Haneke is an Austrian director that critics really, really love. His most recent movie is about an elderly couple of retired music teachers tragically coming to grips with the end of their lives while playing Bach for each other on a piano. The wife has a series of strokes, and the husband struggles to take care of her as she becomes increasingly confused about what’s happening. So essentially Haneke made an arthouse version of The Notebook, except way more sad. And in French. And without the flashbacks to when they looked like Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

DJANGO UNCHAINED
It may be a revenge fantasy set in a revisionist history similar to Inglourious Basterds, it may have the trademark quirks (hugely varied and often anachronistic music, gaudy title cards, exaggerated violence), and it may have the typically memorable, profanity-laden dialogue, but Django Unchained is a different movie than Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Generally, QT makes movies that are fun — as long as you’re totally desensitized to over-the-top violence. Django is definitely fun, but it’s also a more serious movie, largely because Django’s violence serves a different purpose than in any of Tarantino’s previous work. Sure, there are plenty of shootouts with comically large amounts of blood flying around. But there is also the kind of violence that isn’t goofy or aestheticized at all, that is horrific and sad (like, how violence should be). This is violence that unflinchingly looks at a very dark period of American history and says, “deal with it.”

Similarly, the humor in Django Unchained is forcing us to deal with the American present: the “Django Moment” (when somebody — maybe even you — laughs at something that may not be appropriate to laugh at for race reasons) shows us we are not really sure how comfortable we are with each other as a diverse nation. Which is a good thing (the showing, not the discomfort), because a movie can hardly have more cultural significance than when it’s responsible for starting a conversation about something as meaningful as how we talk about race in 2013.

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 This is, unmistakably, a Tarantino movie. There’s an impossibly bloody shootout with a 2Pac song blazing.

Like the violence in Django, the humor also has its silly moments. Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western tribute is more “laugh here” funny than his typical project — Jonah Hill even makes an appearance for a scene where some would-be KKK founders struggle to see out of their masks. Samuel L. (looking incredible) also has a number of deliberately funny lines as an ornery but loyal house slave, and his character is crucial to making the film as powerful and problematic as it is.

The movie follows just one pair of characters throughout, without a lot of flashback, which makes Django easily the most linear film QT has ever made. It’s a surprisingly welcome departure from the non-linear form he made famous with Pulp Fiction and continued throughout most of his work, maybe proving he doesn’t need narrative gimmicks to tell a good story.

Still, this is, unmistakably, a Tarantino movie. There’s an impossibly bloody shootout set to 2Pac. There’s Tarantino himself playing an Australian miner. There’s a lot of actors comfortably throwing around n-words and f-bombs. There’s also Christoph Waltz, who plays essentially the Dr. Jekyll of his Inglourious Basterds’ well-spoken Hyde. This is absolutely fine with me. If Waltz is cast as some version of that character in every movie made for the next decade, I won’t complain. Jamie Foxx smolders impressively for most of the film, and Leo’s much-anticipated turn doesn’t disappoint, despite loathing his own character so much his co-stars had to talk him down from playing the character less heinously.

Additionally, Rocky Roberts and Ricky Rozay have songs used in the same movie. Definitely a first.

LIFE OF PI
Ang Lee directs Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” book (which, by the way, was apparently ripped off) about an Indian boy whose father is moving the family zoo to Canada when the ship sinks, leaving the boy trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger. You probably spent (or will spend) a lot of the movie in a mental argument with yourself about whether or not the tiger is real (“it doesn’t LOOK like CGI… but logistically there’s no way they filmed that scene with a real tiger… unless… maybe that was some ex-circus tiger with some serious training and shit?”) probably because its a mix of real tigers and CGI. It’s an undeniably beautiful film (to look at), although it’s cursed with a perplexingly anticlimactic conclusion (read: “dumb ending”). It will never win Best Pic, but it will still probably win a handful of its eleven nominations. Enjoy that award for Best Sound Mixing, Ang. Someone you hired earned it.

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SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
David O. Russell has made some quirky gems before without any academy recognition (I Heart Huckabees), but none so good as this. Romantic comedies are very, very rarely Oscar bait (mostly because they’re terrible), but then again everybody is such a hot mess in Silver Linings Playbook it takes awhile before you realize that’s what you’re watching. (“Wait, they’re practicing for a partners dance competition now?… Fuck, this is a rom-com, isn’t it?”) It’s often heavy, but just as often funny, because the characters are such psychological shitshows that it just seems like a matter of time before they explode and destroy everything around them. Somehow, it seems the more crazies you throw in a room together the more normal they all become. That’s the moral of this story: SLPs relationships are the most functional when they are the most honest and exposed, allowing everyone to see they aren’t the only case of damaged goods.

Bradley Cooper as the struggling Pat Jr.  looks nothing like the somewhere-on-the-douche-spectrum bro he played in Wedding Crashers and the Hangover movies. As pitiable as Pat’s dogged optimism is considering his doomed goal is to get his wife back (after she lifts the restraining order), Cooper somehow manages a real, respectable person, more than just a sympathetic, handle-with-gloves victim with a head like a bag of cats. It’s an impressive feat to be sure, but not even Cooper at his very best can contain the impressive and enthralling performance of Jennifer Lawrence. Most of the script’s best lines seem to go to her, as her “married-to-a-dead-guy slut” spends scene after scene surprising characters and audience alike: sneaking up on Pat’s runs in the street, randomly revealing parts of her tragic history, and spouting off every recent Philadelphia sports score to Pat’s father, a superstitious gambler. Robert De Niro is inspired as Pat Sr., with a performance so believable and nuanced it makes you wonder if he had been sending in a secret twin brother to play all the paternal parts in lame comedies he’s done over the last decade.

The performances are undoubtedly what makes the movie great, but this is also a well-written, well-directed film with a variety interesting thematic ideas at play. It’s a movie about Philly, about mental illness, and about warm fuzzy feelings. It’s probably fair to say it’s an unorthodox nominee for Best Picture, but a deserved one nonetheless. A dark horse to take home the hardware.

ARGO
If you thought Bradley Cooper’s career turned a corner this year, then wait until you hear about Ben Affleck. Ben Affleck somehow escaped a decade’s worth of Gigli jokes from people who never even saw Gigli and stumbled into a world where Ben Affleck directs himself in a starring role and it’s a Best Picture contender. This is a film in which Director Ben Affleck has Actor Ben Affleck take his shirt off, just to make sure people know Ben Affleck’s still got it. Ben Affleck also makes the turning point of his movie a longish scene of Ben Affleck sitting alone in a hotel room with a bottle of whiskey, making distressed Ben Affleck faces. Again, the Academy nominated this movie for Best Picture. It just won the Golden Globe for Best Picture AND Ben Affleck won for Best Director. What happened to Jersey Girl? We’re forgiving him?

Don’t get me wrong, Argo is really good. It’s a nice bit of homage to 70’s cinema, with grainy filters, the old Warner Bros. logo, and old footage of actual news coverage of the Iran Hostage Crisis. It’s a very funny movie too, with legitimately hilarious turns by John Goodman and Alan Arkin (up for Best Supporting Actor) as Hollywood veterans. The most memorable line in 2012 cinema was the running joke “Argo fuck yourself.” If that weren’t enough, there’s the story, which sells itself: six Americans are holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s house in Iran after the American Embassy is overrun, and the CIA sends an agent (Ben Affleck) in to extract them by pretending to be a film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi flick. The information was declassified by President Clinton in 1997, and I have no idea why it took fifteen years for Hollywood to decide to make a movie out of this (had Ben Affleck made this in 2000, maybe we would have never had to see him as Daredevil).

The Argo story was declassified by President Clinton in 1997, and I have no idea why it took fifteen years for Hollywood to decide to make a movie out of it.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that Ben Affleck milks a lot of tension out of what appear to be very manufactured circumstances: if there’s a conceivable roadblock that could heighten the stress levels of the characters (and the audience), it’s in this movie and it’s avoided by the narrowest of margins. It’s not an implausibility issue so much as it just feels manipulative, like the audience is being told, “wince for the next hour during the seventeen increasingly-tense opportunities for the Iranians to figure out they’re being duped.” Maybe its another layer of homage to seventies cinema, but for me it was really grating. The Academy will probably see it as an homage to themselves, which is why I think Argo is the only movie with a legitimate chance to swoop the Oscar from Lincoln. 

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
This movie came out of nowhere. The story of how it is made is kind of crazy and rather long (you can read about somewhere else, like here), but essentially a dude (Benh Zeitlin, nominated for Best Director) used some grassroots fundraising, untrained actors, and a lot of ingenuity to make a fantastical picture that’s sort of about Katrina victims in New Orleans and sort of about creatures called Auruchs who may or may not be metaphors for climate change.

Regarding the story, SlackPost’s own Ike Wilson had this to say:

“I didn’t get it.”

The big story here is Quvenzhané Wallis, who at nine years old is the youngest person ever to be up for Best Actress. Because of all the Oscar buzz, it actually returned to theaters yesterday for a second run (the first being a short and limited release over the summer). So maybe I’ll go see it.

(SEMI) FULL DISCLOSURE:
I didn’t watch Beasts of the Southern Wild. I actually didn’t watch three of these films (guess the other two?!). I just tried to read enough about them and watch enough clips to hopefully be informative. I apologize if you feel lied to. But now you too can pretend that you, you well-groomed, cultured son-of-a-bitch you, saw all of these films.

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