Cinema Chatter - Belated Recognition

When Jeff Bridges won his Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart, there was little debate to if he would win. After decades of nominations, starting with his excellent work in The Last Picture Show, Bridges had established himself as a true Hollywood actor. He had earned his spot. He had paid his dues. He deserved recognition. Excuse the actual content of the performance (which, I must say, was very good); he could go no longer without winning an Oscar. Martin Scorsese’s quest for an Oscar was perhaps even more tragic. How this man could have gone without being nominated for his direction in Taxi Driver is beyond me. But he chugged along and produced his greatest directorial effort in Raging Bull. He failed to get the gold. This was then followed by subsequent nominations for Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator. No such luck there either. It always struck me as a cruel joke that Scorsese would be victorious for his direction in The Departed – his most stylistically flawed and directorially muted outing yet.

This is often the case – talented auteurs who have a life work of exceptional performances and/or films find themselves getting recognized for efforts less than the trail behind them. It’s a flawed system, but it is part of the appeal of the whole awards season – there are narratives to mined and extracted. When Colin Firth won for his performance in The King’s Speech, there was a sense of entitlement to the award. After all, the year prior, he gave an arguably better performance in A Single Man. But that was the year that Jeff Bridges had rolled out and annihilated any competition. It was Colin’s turn. And as part of a greater narrative, The King’s Speech ended up dominating the conversation over David Fincher’s critically lauded The Social Network. It's yet another rebuff for Fincher on behalf of the Academy, Fincher must be feeling a little anxious about when it will indeed be his turn for the award. Because when you direct something as technically proficient and stellar as The Social Network, well, I have to wonder when my turn would be too.

At this point in the conversation, there seems to be one concrete nominee that Oscar prognosticators can generally agree upon – it’s that Christopher Plummer’s performance in Beginners is virtually set. With a career that began in the 50s, Plummer astoundingly only has one Oscar nomination (The Last Station). From his performances in The Sound of Music to The Insider, Plummer stands as an actor who tends to get overlooked by voting bodies. While someone like Peter O’Toole, who has been nominated on 8 separate occasions (with 8 losses), at least he is in the conversation. With Plummer, there seems to be a need to recognize the unrecognized; the mere fact that he has been working as long as he has with only one nomination is enough to work a narrative around his Oscar bid.

Plummer’s bid took an unexpected hit yesterday though when the trailer for Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dropped. The trailer hints at a performance from another actor who has seen constant slights throughout his career – Max von Sydow is now in contention.  With such a storied career, he too, has only had one Oscar nomination for the film Pelle the Conqueror. I’m a bit more familiar with Sydow’s career, and found him to give excellent performances in both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Hannah and Her Sisters. Both performances went unrecognized.

There’s a narrative to be mined out of these two. Both Plummer and Sydow are of the same age and have contributed their part in the language of films. They have starred in landmark features and have worked their way through smaller independent works. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close largely remains a question mark at this point, but the credentials are there. Plummer may hold a slight edge now, but we’re still very early into the Oscar season for there to be a clear cut winner, and frankly, I sense that the conversation could shift to Sydow’s favor by December.

Speaking of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I have to wonder if there’s any director with the sort of track record that Stephen Daldry has. He has made three films, Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader. All three films have snagged Daldry the coveted Best Director nomination. None have secured him the win. It’s interesting, in so much that there, again, can be a narrative mined out of Daldry’s shortcomings. I’m hedging my bets that Daldry’s film will not be nominated for Best Picture, but is it feasible for Daldry to get nominated for direction? Given the nature in which the Best Picture landscape has changed in the past year, and the general disagreeable tone I got out of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s trailer, I’m sensing that the film won’t be much of a play and will ruin Daldry’s streak. It’s all speculation at this point, but that’s the nature of the game.

If there’s one director that certainly deserves recognition, it’s Terrence Malick. Having perhaps reluctantly accepted the role of cinephiles' new director of worship following the death of Stanley Kubrick, it’s not hard to understand the following that Malick has. Of course, this is coming from someone who worships at the altar of Malick; so again, I have to put my feelings aside on these sort of things. But there certainly seems to be a group of people out there who are going to vote in his masterwork The Tree of Life into the Best Picture category, and with that, I find it difficult that anyone could neglect that craftsmanship that is employed in creating the film. Malick is the film, and the very specific and methodical way it is constructed leads me to believe that he will get recognized for his direction. It would mark only the second time he will receive notice for his stellar directorial work in a career that has spanned four decades.

At the center of Malick’s film is a performance from Brad Pitt that has shown a different side of the actor. Well, I shouldn’t say that entirely, as Pitt has, for the past few years, made some incredibly interesting character decisions that certainly adds credibility to his legacy. Perhaps taking himself more seriously, the actor has worked with an array of talented directors such as Joel & Ethan Coen, Andrew Dominik, and David Fincher to develop and hone his craft. With Fox Searchlight pushing Pitt for supporting in The Tree of Life, I sense that he will be the year’s only double nominee, as his lead performance in Moneyball has garnered him praise as his best performance to date. In a year where the Best Actor field is as crowded as it is, a nomination is a reward in itself. But there’s a certain novelty to the possibility of getting nominated in two separate acting categories, and given what Pitt has done for Hollywood in general, a win might be the self-congratulatory pat on the back for his good work.

Pitt would have his hands full to take a potential win from possible nominees in Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. And the Best Actor field is no guarantee either, particularly when you’re dealing with one of an overdue actor like Gary Oldman. Having had a career resurgence with his work in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, Oldman seems to be in line for his first nomination. Having often been considered a snub for performances in Sid & Nancy and The Contender, Oldman stands as an actor whose time may have finally come. With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the actor is receiving some of his best buzz yet, and has been amongst the key figures in the Best Actor race to get a nomination. Given Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s December release date and growing buzz for Oldman, I’d say it looks like he’ll finally score that nomination, perhaps on track to securing that win.

As you can see, the site is still in construction, so excuse the clutter. Check out the Contenders section for my most up-to-date predictions. Check out next Monday for another addition of Cinema Chatter. Until then, check out upcoming reviews for The Hustler, Branded to Kill, and In Cold Blood!

Where We Stand – The Best of 2011 So Far.

I really couldn’t help myself. As the movie season shifts focus from typical summer-fare to Oscar-hopefuls, my excitement has reached borderline hysteria. With the Venice Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival in the books, and with the Toronto International Film Festival underway, I decided to reflect on the best films of 2011 so far.  If anything, I hope to highlight films that will be lost (or perhaps rediscovered) once we’re in the thick of the awards season.

10.     Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)

An example of guerrilla filmmaking, seasoned German director Werner Herzog muses over the images found in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave. His film sports the most impressive use of 3D that I’ve seen thus far, wherein the images of the cave are brought to the forefront. With Herzog’s unconventional narration and wry humor, Cave of Forgotten Dreams stands as one of the many fantastic documentaries to be released this year.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. Despite being lauded by the critics, the film has been lost in the conversation. Not even within the documentary branch does the film seem to be garnering much attention. It has had a relatively impressive box office run though, so it’s not entirely out of the race for Best Documentary. But with fellow German director, Wim Wenders garnering buzz for his 3D dance documentary, Pina, it may simply be too late in the game to make a play.

9.     Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)

A wonderfully atmospheric adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Cary Fukanaga’s Jane Eyre resonates as the sort of film anchored by a strong sense of directorial prowess and strong performances. Starring fresh faces in Michael Fassbender and Mia Washikowska, Jane Eyre is elevated outside of overwrought melodrama and into a film of attuned emotional longing.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. The Adapted Screenplay field is a bit too crowded this year for Jane Eyre to make a play. While Michael Fassbender’s stock is quickly rising, his performances in Shame and A Dangerous Method will be fresher in the Academy’s mind. And given the subtlety of his work in Jane Eyre, it’s doubtful that he’ll get any recognition for the role. The quietness of the whole picture will pose problems for Mia Washikowska too. Its best play will be in Costume Design, but even that’s doubtful.

 8.     Beginners (Mike Mills)

What Mills achieves with Beginners is bringing forth a sense of cosmic unity between past and present, wherein the actions of our parents affect the way we view relationships. I was a bit resistant to the idea, perhaps as a result of watching The Tree of Life prior (which deals with similar content). But as I reflect on the film, I gather that Mills really did want to contain the film to the specific people that we saw, and brought forth this sense of cosmic unity as a way to bridge a gap between this biographical sketch of his life and the audience.

Awards Prospects: Moderate. Christopher Plummer is a frontrunner for Best Supporting-Actor and deservingly so. His role as an aging father relishing in his sexual reawakening had a mark of poignancy that certainly deserves recognition. I could potentially see Beginners getting some notice in the writing branch, particularly if Focus Features doesn’t intend to put all its eggs in one basket with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Unfortunately, strong lead performances from both Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent will go unrewarded.

 7.     Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

It still befuddles me to think of how much I enjoyed this piece of summer fluff. While acknowledging Super 8 as such may seem a tad dismissive, it really shouldn’t be read as derogatory – J.J. Abrams successfully blended what has become typical summer-fare with impeccable direction and a tendency to actually focus on characters over CGI-carnage. That focus on character makes all the difference, as Super 8 feels less like something of the now and more like something of the then – a yearning for a bygone era when summer films had a heart.

Awards Prospects: Moderate. Well, it will likely get nominated in the sound categories. I’m convinced that Michael Giacchino will be in play for Original Score as well, particularly given that John Williams will be splitting votes for his work in War Horse and The Adventures of Tin Tin. But amongst the major awards, it really doesn’t seem like the film will get a whole lot of play. There’s not a whole lot of buzz for it at the moment, as it seems to have fallen out of favor amongst the summer films as Harry Potter and Rise of the Planet of the Apes stole some of its thunder.

 6.     Rango (Gore Verbinski)

In a mish-mash of genres, Rango provided one of the most genuinely bizarre and engrossing blends of genre as of late. Here we see a chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) trek through a path of self-discovery. Forced to forge a new identity in a small town, the chameleon takes the role of sheriff and hero, despite his neurotic tendencies. Rango’s strengths rest in its appreciation for Western iconography and films like Chinatown and McCabe & Mrs. Miller – a combination that lends itself to a wholly unique experience.

Awards Prospects: High. Given that 2011 is the year that Pixar gave us Cars 2, the Best Animated Film category is truly Rango’s for the taking. And rightfully so – after benchmark years in animation, both Pixar and Dreamworks dropped the ball with their dreadful rehashes. I suspect Rango could enter the field with surprise nominations in Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, and even both Sound categories

 5.     Senna (Asif Kapadia)

Composed of archival footage, Senna tells the story of Formula-1 race car driver Ayrton Senna. Knowledge of his career and significance aren’t prerequisites to appreciating the film – in fact, you might be better off not knowing anything about him. This largely stems from the approach Asif Kapadia takes in constructing his film – he details Senna’s life from his inception as a driver to his eventual death. But there’s an intimacy to it all. As you leave the track, you see footage of Aryton as he muses over his life – the film has a voyeuristic quality to it that can be incredibly engrossing.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. The film might not even be eligible for awards contention given its reliance on archival footage. So right there it enters a field of problems. I highly doubt the film will get a nod as a result. It also deviates from traditional notions of documentary filmmaking, despite being a very linear and emotionally driven construct. In a perfect world, Senna would get some recognition for editing, as thousands of hours of footage had to be shaped into constructing this beautiful film. It won’t happen.

 4.     The Interrupters (Steve James)

The Interrupters is a film that touches closes to home; or rather a film that serves to deconstruct my home. Living on the northside of Chicago, the problems of the southside are often topics of discussion when detailing the perverse and dangerous. What Steve James has successfully done in this documentary is place the audience in the reality of the southside, James burrows deep into the psyche of those in the midst of the violence while maintaining whatever semblance of humanity one can have in such a situation.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. Its only category will be Best Documentary, and it’s an uphill climb for a film of this type. But there aren’t really any guarantees just yet in the field, outside perhaps Errol Morris’ Tabloid (which just missed my ten). The subject matter unfortunately feels too specific to a landscape – it might isolate other viewers from really appreciating the magnitude of what James achieves. And given that Hoop Dreams didn’t even get a nomination back in 1994, James’ prospects don’t look all too good.

3.     Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)

 

In Soderbergh’s best film since Solaris (2002), he immerses the audience in absolute fear. We start with Day2 and the sound of a cough. With the utmost precision and intellect, Soderbergh proceeds in spectacular fashion as the world is engulfed in disease and misinformation. Beyond simple genre definitions of horror or thriller, Contagion exceeds as an exercise in meticulousness filmmaking from director at his very best.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. While critically admired, Contagion certainly hasn’t gotten uniform raves. The performances in the film are a bit too subtle to really register with voters. Soderbergh’s direction and visual sense aren’t showy enough to garner attention. If the film manages to have legs, then perhaps it can remain in the conversation. After all, that’s all it took for The Town to maintain its buzz. But then again, when it came down to it The Town didn’t make it to the end of the race.

 2.     The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Elegant and ethereal, Malick manages to redirect and negotiate the very language of film. Very much a stream of consciousness, The Tree of Life operates under the idea of fragmented memories. But before all that, we see the grander scope of the film, where we see sequences of creation, dinosaurs, life, and death. The sheer scope and magnitude of The Tree of Life makes for an experience unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Awards Prospects: Moderate.  Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is a lock for a nomination and is our likely winner. From there it gets tricky. The new Academy voting rules makes me believe that the film will indeed get nominated for Best Picture – there are likely enough voters out there to secure 5% of top votes. But that leaves to question – what about Terrence Malick? It’s hard to figure that the film will be rewarded but not the craftsman behind it. And given that many consider him to be the premier auteur working today (and still un-awarded by the Academy); I’m thinking he just might be able to get into the select five directors as well.

The recent word is that Fox Searchlight is going to be pushing Brad Pitt for Supporting Actor. It’s a wise choice, and honestly, of all the actors to potentially double-dip, I can see Pitt getting nominations for Lead Actor in Moneyball  and Supporting Actor in The Tree of Life.

While it seems like the film may be a major player, it all depends on a lot of ifs. More so than any other film on this list, The Tree of Life is the sort of polarizing film that makes prognosticating its awards prospects difficult.

 1.     Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

While The Tree of Life may be more ambitious in scope, and Contagion more viscerally palpable, there’s just something to be said about the absolute wonder that Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris achieves. There’s truly a magic to the film – wherein the audience is not so much transported through time and space, but transported by emotions and yearning. There’s such a nostalgic resonance to so much of Midnight in Paris, that it’s hard not to appreciate the film on its most basic level – as a film of pure and simple pleasures.

Awards Prospects: High. With A Dangerous Method and The Skin I Live In drawing only reserved praise, Sony Pictures Classic has already campaigned heavily in favor for Midnight in Paris. It does help that the film has been consistently making a million dollars for well over 15 weeks – it has become the highest grossing Woody Allen film to date. At this point, I’d wager the film is a lock for Best Picture. Best Director is still in the cards, but given that Allen has not been nominated in the category for well over a decade, it may be time to once again embrace one of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors.

Original Screenplay is a lock for a nomination as well, and depending on how well The Artist is received by both the public and critics, I sense that Midnight in Paris will take the category as well. From there it really depends on how much of the film the Academy is willing to embrace – lead actor for Owen Wilson seems a bit too farfetched at this, particularly given that we have not seen a lot of heavily rumored performances yet (Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar for example). Its genre type will be Midnight in Paris’ biggest obstacle – it certainly has the tools to become a nominated film, but to take it all the way to victory is another story.

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010)

Mike Mills begins his second feature by noting the sense of cosmic repetition that perpetuates before and after our existence – Here’s a family in the 30s, here’s a family in the now, these are sunspots, this is a happy family, etc. He juxtaposes these images with Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) traumatic experiences as a boy, as an adult, and after the death of his father. It’s interesting in theory and somewhat successful in execution to bridge the central plot with a narrative that is largely absent of form and wildly overarching in terms of relatability. In point, Mills attempts to bridge our own small existence by noting how little things change through our interactions with people. But it’s one of many points that Mills attempts to get across, and for its ambition, it’s similar to The Tree of Life – attempting to reconcile our own demons by viewing our lives as a product of our parents - though not wholly successful.

As Oliver contends with the loss of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), we gather how Oliver’s past relationships have been shaped by his interactions with his parents. Mills moves around the time of the narrative, leaping from periods of Oliver’s adolescence, to when he sees his mother and father interact, to the time that Hal reveals his sexuality, and to the time after Hal’s death. This narrative device to leap around time is executed quite well, as Mills uses Oliver’s flourishing relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) to mark how he’s able to work his way through a relationship, and how he can sabotage them.

The central three characters are absolutely wonderful, wherein the slightest glance exchanged between them brings about a flood of emotional strength. Unlike say, (500) Days of Summer, Mills rarely succumbs to cheesiness in his attempts to be cute. And there are plenty of cute moments throughout the film, from Oliver and Anna’s courtship to how Oliver interacts with his father’s dog. Part of what makes the film so special is its rich visual style – rarely taking place during the day, Beginners cinematography Kasper Tuxsen shoots in dimly lit hotel lobbies and streets. There’s something really poignant of such rich visual imagery being matched with such a cute, flourishing relationship between Anna and Oliver.

There are some half-hearted attempts at ramping up the drama, particularly as the film enters its final act. Such moments hinder the pacing and growth of such a sporadic narrative, but are necessary in getting Mill’s message across – so I’m torn on how I feel about it. Mill’s attempts at bringing cosmic gravity comes across as a bit overdone especially as the characters become so much more individualistic. Most of what Mills attempts to achieve with his overarching cosmic relatability would probably have worked better if it were all unsaid, merely left to the audience to derive such universal meaning from his film. It doesn’t do much to hurt the momentum that the film builds, but it sort of spells things out a bit too clearly.

Rating: 7/10