Elizabeth asked if I would write up something about the Oscars, in preparation for the most exciting event… other than Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and other major film event motion picture snobs and fanatics get all antsy for. But, honestly, the Oscars, while sometimes (often) clinging to the annoyingly conventional –and let’s not forget they didn’t give Best Picture to Citizen Kane!– are still important. Why? Because that little, naked, gold man can spell major film victory for newbies and arthouse films on the market and change filmmaking trends. Or, just continue to perpetrate the popularity of bad sci-fi flicks about blue cat people in an evolutionarily improbable universe of McGuffins*. Whatever works.
So, that being said, I unfortunately didn’t get to see a lot of films in theatres this year, due to college-poverty. But, I’ll try and fill in my gaps of knowledge with what I’ve gleaned from lurking on film blogs religiously. These are just my opinions, so feel free to disagree with me. Also, these are really just reflections on what’s going on right now in film, and not critical reviews.
First thought, the best picture nominations this year are phenomenal. We’re really light on popcorn fare, and leading the charge are very humanly-based films like The King’s Speech, True Grit, The Social Network, and Winter’s Bone. I have nothing against the big, FX-heavy flick, but when the Oscars aren’t being blown away by style, and are giving note to substance, that’s a good sign for me. Maybe the day of Titanic winning practically everything (for no good reason) is finally closing. We can only hope. But, at least this year isn’t threatening to make me as irrationally angry as last year’s snub to Tarantino in favor of films that are conventional in every sense of the word (and lacking in David Bowie scored scenes with Mélanie Laurent).
There are also some surprises this year. I think one film (nominated for Best Animated Feature) that may surprise a lot of people outside of the animation-geek crowd is The Illusionist. A many viewers really hadn’t heard of this film, and honestly the publicity wasn’t very good. It’s by Sylvain Chomet, the director of Oscar-winning animated feature The Triplets of Belleville, which made him a shoe-in for nomination, in my mind. But, Triplets didn’t quite come in with today’s animation craze and went under the radar for most viewers (which is a mixed bag because the film isn’t exactly the masterpiece some critics think it is). The Illusionist, however, seems much more fluid in style and with a stronger sense of story and purpose than Triplets, so I hope people take note of it. While I think it’s obvious the box-office favorite, Toy Story 3 (also a Best Picture nominee), will win Best Animated Feature, it’s nice to see serious, traditional, Western animation get some recognition. Japan isn’t the only country that can make great cartoons.
Another unusual submission is Winter’s Bone, which I haven’t seen, but which has a whole lot of hype and looks like an incredible film. It’s a gritty family/social drama, and has won or been nominated for quite a number of awards, including four Oscars. This is especially interesting considering that Winter’s Bone is really an alternative film, not a big flick, and without the pop-culture icons and flashy FX that usually wins audiences. It’s a small, quiet picture. And, for those interested in filmmaking, it’s good to know that the director is a woman, Debra Granik. Looks like the gender gap in directorial positions may be finally falling, considering last year’s winner was also female helmed, and she won best director, too. Not bad for being formally known as the maker of a vampire western. A comforting change for those of us girls who want to be behind cameras, not in front of them.
Another interesting nomination is Michelle Williams, not so much for her performance alone (not to downplay it), but because it seems like an apology. For those who have lives and therefore don’t follow film buzz that often, Michelle Williams starred in the domestic drama Blue Valentine, which was supposed to be a Best Picture contender. Where is it now? Well, Blue Valentine got saddled, albeit temporarily, with the infamous NC-17 rating. And so, the Oscars won’t touch it, even though the rating was revoked for being… stupid. Really, it was a single scene, between a husband and a wife. We’re allowed to see people fall into pits of hypodermic needles (Saw franchise), slice open the guts of living people to fish out keys (Saw, again), get trapped in razor wire (again, Saw), bite out chunks of skin out of people’s necks and disembowel people on rocks (Valhalla Rising), cannibalize people (Sweeney Todd), and so forth, and all of this is more natural than human relationships –according to Tinsel Town and the rating demons. So, Michelle Williams gets a Best Actress nomination, but Blue Valentine doesn’t get its Best Picture. I doubt she’ll win, though.
Of the favorite selections this year, the outlook is really diverse. We have two flicks from indie-rooted filmmakers, the Coen Brothers and David Fincher, and a whole handful of indie films. Fincher, as you probably know, directed this year’s critical success, The Social Network, but was originally indie darling for his groundbreaking neo-noir serial killer flick, Se7en, and his adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s cult favorite, Fight Club. Both films are stylish, tight, dark and boasting brilliant scripts and performances, so you should really check them out if you haven’t yet. Fincher doesn’t disappoint in his flick this year. The script is streamlined to the point of Hemmingway, with no word wasted. Every performance is raw and achingly believable, with fresh, new talent packing the box office as well as any old hand at the art. The visuals are dark, striking with a sleek, technological color pallet, with stylish cinematography and hip score to match. But, Fincher may have shot himself in the foot with his comments about how it’s really just a movie, not a film, and that his Zodiac flick is superior. This was quickly picked up on by those critics who think the film is conventional. Which, honestly, it is. But, it has a great Old Hollywood feel that pulls it through into something fresh, in my opinion.
The Coens, of course are veritable idols to cinemaphiles. While they’ve had some misses, their distinct style, emphasis on strong storytelling and brilliant writing, and their unconventional approach to complex human dilemmas in entertaining scenarios make them national treasures. But, was True Grit any good in comparison to the original? Now, I grew up on the old True Grit, and it’s been a childhood favorite. However, while the John Wayne version is great, solid, classic fun, this version is an A-list work of art. The performances are incredible, even better than The Social Network, and the film steers away from familiar clichés. It’s a classic western, sure. But it’s like seeing the genre anew. And it looks glorious! No one does the American landscape justice like the Coens! I would suggest this film as a set with No Country for Old Men. In No Country, the western is anti-heroic, a dark, postmodern story of evil in its most pointless, nihilistic sense. True Grit is a story of heroics, classic bravery against evil, in a world where the guns of the past are pointed at outlaws and wild animals, not at innocent people for the sake of a dark vision of chaos. They’re both brilliant films, and you should try to see them together if at all possible.
There were some very surprising snubs this year, as well. Two of the biggest surprises for film fans are the omission of Rabbit Hole, which earned Nicole Kidman a Best Actress Nomination, and the Italian-language film I Am Love, which boast Tilda Swinton channeling Meryl Streep by playing her role entirely in a language she isn’t actually fluent in. Both films were supposed to be runners for the Oscar gold, but were strangely snubbed. I haven’t seen either, but the buzz was terrific enough to make this oversight very puzzling. Tilda didn’t even get a Best Actress nod, which seems unfair, since her role is supposed to be brilliant. And, of course, the Academy seems to be allergic to Nolan for some reason, even though he’s superior to their precious James Cameron in every way. (Cameron…)
One film that is high in the running (as well as the buzz) is Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Now, critics seem pretty divided over Aronofsky. Is he a stylist but a hack director, or is he an unconventional storyteller like early Tim Butron? Now, I’m more of an Aronofsky supporter. I appreciate how he takes difficult, unusual subjects and turns them into entertaining, if dark, films. Requiem for a Dream, for example, is made like a thriller, but is about levels of addiction in society and the disintegration of human relationships for cheap substitutes. If you’ve been following the buzz on Black Swan, you know it was compared to everything from Red Shoes to Dostoyevsky’s The Double. The blend of old-school Hollywood with high-brow concept and arthouse visuals, as well as a tight thriller plot, is immensely entertaining, (although one could argue this mix is better served by Tarantino, and yeah, this is no Kill Bill). Portman does a wonderful job playing the woman-child protagonist, and her fragile beauty transforming into a dark, seductive Black Swan character is truly marvelous. She reminds me of Nell from The Haunting in her childlike exterior and tormented interior, complete with twisted mommy-issues for wonderful, gothic goodness. But, the film does suffer from being… well, derivative? Some of the homage , and I’m all for a good homage (like I said, I’m a big Tarantino fan), feels a bit more like copying. While it’s great that Aronofsky seems to have one foot set in classic horror cinema (lots of The Haunting, Argento, etc…), and a wonderful sign for those of us who think horror cinema is vastly underappreciated, he does lift a bit more than one would like– from all genres. Red Shoes is rather more than nodded to, and some of the scenes are classic Argento in set-up and design. I was waiting for Goblin to burst out in the Suspiria theme at moments. I think Aronofsky’s rather fond of his ‘60s and ‘70s dramas, too, because Black Swan feels pretty Opening Night-esque at parts, as well.
But, aside from the derivative points, the film is actually very entertaining, and it looks gorgeous. I know a lot of dance fans had a cow about how it isn’t, I don’t know, a real ballet, but the thing is: it’s not. It’s a film. And as a film, it does capture all the emotional intensity, artistic passion, and dedication of any determined practitioner of the arts who wants to get ahead in her field. The character interactions are great and twisted in an almost David Lynch fashion (lots of Mulholland Drive spice was added to the mix, I suspect). The visuals, though a very Dario Argento (before he went insane and made that horrible Phantom of the Opera film… with rats), are dark, sleek, and make great use of form and color. The writing is excellent, as well. Do I think it will win? Well, honestly, no. It’s too devoted to its camp/horror roots for the Oscars, too artsy in its approach, too derivative, and too controversial in its gender-issues, sexuality and violence. The Academy will most likely be too skittish to give this one the gold, in my opinion. And, honestly, True Grit and The Social Network are better films.