Friday, February 27, 2009


After a few really good years (The Departed, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men deserved every Oscar they got) I thought the Oscars fell flat on their face this year. I believe Slumdog and Milk deserved to be nominated for everything they were nominated for, as they were both great films, but the competition was embarrassing: Frost/Nixon, Benjamin Button, The Reader? Those were the 3rd or 4th or 5th best films made this year? That's a joke.

So first I set out to create an AlternaOscars, in which I did the nominations and awards myself, and then asked for your thoughts on who did a better job. But then I got a better idea: I'm going to nominate and choose winners for the major Oscar categories - and not use a single film or person in any category there were originally nominated for. And I will, I think, produce a better set of winners and near-winners than the Academy did, even though they had first choice.

Best Picture Nominees:
The Dark Knight
Frozen River
Iron Man
Rachel Getting Married
Winner: The Dark Knight

As Andre O'Hehir wrote in Salon, even though he didn't enjoy The Dark Knight, it not winning Best Picture is one of the great Academy "Huh?s" of all time. The people declared it the best film of the year, the critics declared it one of the best films of the year, and that's supposed to be what the Oscars are all about: finding middle ground between highbrow critical acclaim and mass tastes. With Dark Knight, they didn't have to bridge that ground: the people and the critics did it for them. Then they didn't even nominate it. Of course, the people and critics also loved Wall-E, which came in second in my heart's vote, and it also got no nomination.

Best Director:
Darren Aronofsky - The Wrestler
Jonathan Demme - Rachel Getting Married
Christopher Nolan - Dark Knight
Andrew Stanton - Wall-E
Guillermo del Toro - Hellboy II
Winner: Christopher Nolan

Again, this is kind of a no brainer - this was clearly the Dark Knight's year. But just looking at my list makes me sad - these are 5 brilliant filmmakers who made arguably their greatest films this yeah, and they were pushed aside for Opie and David Fincher in the year he chose to remake Forrest Gump?

Best Actor:
Robert Downey Jr - Iron Man
Werner Herzog - Encounters at the End of the World
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - Synecdoche, New York
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Jason Segel - Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Winner: Heath Ledger

I'm certainly sad to not be able to nominate Rourke, Penn, and Jenkins. But Ledger's performance was not supporting - he was the strongest of Dark Knight's three protagonists, all of whom were leads (in my universe nearly every film has at least 2 leads, and 3 hour films usually have 3+). So he gets the win, and I also get to reward some performances in three kinds of movies that don't get honored for acting awards: superhero, Apatow comedy, and documentary. And Herzog...well, that guy should probably win best actor every year, just for walking around and pretending to be Werner Herzog. Also, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for the wrong film. Damn Academy.

Best Actress:
Catherine Deneuve - A Christmas Tale
Ronit Elkabetz - The Band's Visit
Sally Hawkins - Happy-Go-Lucky
Michelle Williams - Wendy and Lucy
Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road
Winner: Catherine Deneuve

Sorry Kate. I know you don't have an Oscar. Neither does Catherine Deneuve. You've got plenty of time to catch her if I give her one. Again, the academy did better here than they did in picture/director - I wanted to give the award to Melissa Leo but they had to go and actually nominate her. Why nominate her if you weren't even going to think about giving her the award and it ruins my AlternaOscars? Of course, you did nominate Angelina Jolie for wailing "This is not my child, where is my child, etc" for 2 hours, so maybe you misunderstood Leo's performance anyway.

Best Supporting Actor:
Javier Bardem - Vicky Christina Barcelona
The Deranged Penguin - Encounters at the End of the World
Bill Irwin - Rachel Getting Married
James Franco - Milk
Danny McBride - Pinapple Express
Winner: Bill Irwin

I'm tempted to just rename this the Best Supporting Performance by Javier Bardem award and give it to him every year, but I found Irwin's performance as the mourning father of Rachel Getting Married even more compelling than Bardem. Lucky for both of them that Brolin and Downey were nominated for reals, because they would have been hard to pass up. Of course, the deranged penguin is even more moving than Irwin, but he (she?) didn't get much screen time.

Best Supporting Actress:
Maggie Gyllenhahl - The Dark Knight
Samantha Morton - Synecdoche, NY
Debra Winger - Rachel Getting Married
Dianne Wiest - Synecdoche, New York
Evan Rachel Wood - The Wrestler
Winner: Dianne Wiest

Ok, I admit it, I just love, love, love Dianne Wiest. I couldn't really decide who to give this to so I decided to give it to her. Also, I could have nominated pretty much everyone in Synecdoche for this award...some damn impressive acting in that movie.

Best Screenplay:
Thomas McCarthy - The Visitor
Charlie Kaufman - Synecdoche, NY
The Nolan Brothers - The Dark Knight
Jason Segel - Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Robert Siegel - The Wrestler
Winner: Nolan and Nolan

Again, despite the fact that there are four other great candidates here, The Dark Knight just has to win. Say what you want about a crazy 3rd act (and I personally have nothing bad to say about it) that was an utterly inspired script. And I can only imagine the mental gymnastics it took to come up with all of The Joker's various misdeeds - the bomb in a henchmen, the clown-hostages, the domino murders of the first heist - all of those are brilliant all by themselves.

So, interwubs, what do you think? Whose awards are better: mine or the Academy's? What would your own AlternaOscars look like?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Film Ignorance #27: 12 Angry Men

Film: 12 Angry Men
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Sydney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley
Year: 1957
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
"I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anyone will ever really know."

Although 12 Angry Men was made in the 50s, it never feels like a 50s movie. Sure, the star power is there; Henry Fonda had been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood since the 30s. And the look is right; the crisp black and white cinematography and the abundant closeups fit right in with the movies of the age. But this movie, directed by the very young Sydney Lumet, feels if anything even more progressive in its politics than something like In the Heat of the Night. And it's setup is by 50s standards practically avant-garde: the movie plays out in real time, confined almost entirely to one room, as 12 men try to work through the facts of a murder case and overcome their own prejudices to get to the truth. It's the setup for a play or TV movie (both of which it was first) but is filmed and acted so well that it seems experimental, not uncinematic.

The movie takes place during a vicious heat wave, as a Puerto Rican youth is accused of murder and 12 middle-class white men have to decide his fate. 11 of the men are adamant that the young man is guilty, several of them arguing that "you know how they are" and of course one of "them" committed the murder. Only Juror #10, Henry Fonda, has some reasonable doubt. As you probably know by now, the inimitable Mr. Fonda coaxes and wheedles the other 11, breaking down the prosecution's case, noting the defense attorney's indifference, and piece by piece dismantling his colleague's assumptions about the case and their prejudices. Some are receptive to this, some aren't, and violence is threatened more than once.

By emphasizing the notion of "reasonable doubt," this movie becomes more than just an endorsement of the American justice system and a diatribe against racism and closemindedness. 12 Angry Men is also meditation on truth and uncertainty. Fonda reminds the jurors over and over again that none of them know what happened, that all they can do is approximate the truth, and that what matters is not proving guilt or innocence but knowing the limits of truth.

The film thus becomes a fantasy, in which the dangerous prospect of nihilism is harnessed by the American legal system to ensure justice is done. It's hard to know whether the jury's reasoning and their definition of reasonable doubt would allow any murderer to be convicted. But for me at least, it's a worthy fantasy: a reminder that, in a country that retains the death penalty, convicting someone of Murder One is an irrevocable decision that will permanently end a life. No one can, or should, ever be certain enough to take human life, which I think is ultimately the message of this ultimate message picture. It's not about the young man being innocent, or about a nihilistic belief that we'll never be able to ascertain the truth about anything. It's that a justice system that is willing to take a life must do so knowing that the truth is provisional, and that any worthy human being would shy from such a prospect. As such, 12 Angry Men should be what it probably already is: one of the foundational documents of how our modern justice system should and can work.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Film Ignorance #26: In the Heat of the Night

Film: In the Heat of the Night
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Norman Jewison
Stars: Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger
Year: 1967
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

The setup for In the Heat of the Night is so simple as to be almost high concept. A rich white man is killed in a small Southern town, and the local fuckup cops pick up the only stranger they can find, a well-dressed black man waiting for a 4 am train. To the chagrin of the cops, the man they arrested is Virgil Tibbs, Philadelphia's #1 homicide detective. To the chagrin of both Tibbs and Bill Gillespie, the local redneck police chief, Virgil's Philadelphia police chief does more than confirm his identity: he offers Gillespie his top man for the week. The rich man's widow forces Gillispie to keep Virgil, and thus the most racially charged buddy cop movie ever made is born: Tibbs is stuck in a tiny racist town helping people he knows hate him, while Gillespie has to watch a man he believes to be racially inferior to him display a level of intelligence and competence that is far beyond his own.

This is first and foremost an actors movie, and both Poitier and Steiger shine. Poitier, Hollywood's first major black star, walks through this movie radiating an intense contempt for everyone he has to deal with: Gillespie, Gillespie's men, and all the locals. But it was Steiger who won the Academy Award, and he deserved it. Best known for this movie and as Brando's brother in On the Waterfront, Steiger was always a second fiddle. And Gillespie is possibly his finest hour: an overweight, underpaid small town police captain who loathes Tibbs but must play his caddy and protector for political reasons. This is the flashy role, and Steiger delivers; his distaste for Tibbs and his shame at Tibbs' superiority are palpable in every scene. He has many of the movie's best lines, as he browbeats inferiors, screams ineffectually at Tibbs, and occasionally waxes folksy philosophical.

If you know anything about this movie, besides that it became a bad TV show, you probably know the famous line "They call me Mr. Tibbs." It's no good without the setup:
Gillespie, enraged and shamed, says to Virgil: "Virgil, that's a funny name for a nigger from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?" Virgil puts him in his place, distilling all of Poitier's gravitas in a single line to remind Gillespie which one of them does actual police work: "They call me Mr. Tibbs."

Norman Jewison was nominated for best director for this movie, but he didn't win, which makes sense. Although he brought all the elements together for this crackling battle of wills, the strengths here are the performances and the screenplay, and the camera work and editing are both sometimes clumsy. Throw in a slightly overdone score, and this picture is far from perfect. But it succeeds in a lot of ways, as both a whodunit and as a message picture, and Poitier and Steiger have a level of chemistry rarely seen in any movie.

It's also a very compelling portrait of a steamy, racist Mississippi town, which is surprising: the movie was actually shot in Illinois. Although they were making a message movie, the filmmakers weren't about to risk Poitier's life by asking him to spend an extended period of time in 1967 Mississippi. Damn.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Film Ignorance #25: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Film: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Jacques Demy
Stars: Catherin Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
Year: 1964
Reason for Ignorance: Never Heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

In today's Tarantino-driven climate of pastiche, mash-up, homage, and outright theft, it's not often that I get to watch a film from any era that looks and sounds and feels like simply nothing else I've ever seen. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is such a movie. It's a certain kind of musical, one which I suppose I knew was theoretically possible but had never actually witnessed: there is no spoken dialogue, just singing. No musical numbers, no dancing, just 90 minutes of singing and a constant, jazz-influenced score.

But Umbrellas isn't such a revelation merely because it's all singing. It's a candy-colored confection, with every outfit shining brightly and every room wallpapered in some garishly glorious pattern. And, in addition to having colors that would make Powell himself weep, it's a very real and moving story of young love set during the French-Algerian war.

Our principals are Guy, a charming young gas station attendant, and Genevieve, a luminous young woman who represents my first visual experience of Catherine Deneuve (her voice acting role in Persepolis doesn't count). The two are in love, but Genevieve is too young to marry, and the draft looms in Guy's future. Genevieve's mother urges her to give up Guy and marry a rich suitor, especially since their umbrella shop doesn't seem to be doing very well, even though it's constantly raining.

Rather than try to disguise the three-act structure, Demy emphasizes it by telling us when each act begins with a title card. The first is the story of young love, and the charm of the music and the setting is matched only by that of the young lovers. The second act is the story of Guy's absence; the film's story switches to stark realism, which inexplicably works just as well in song in Candyland as it ever did in black-and-white in postwar Italy. And the final act, although the briefest, is the greatest of all: Guy's return is a brightly colored, musically and emotionally deep melodrama that provides all of the powerful sentiment in 20 minutes that The Red Shoes was unable to deliver in a 120.

I'm trying to regulate the giving of "Best. Film. Ever." so I initially rated this one as merely a classic. But it's more than that. Demy's vision gives us a triumph of life, art, love, color, fantasy, and realism, all wrapped together, and all inexplicably congruous. If you've ever enjoyed any musical and you haven't seen this one, give it a whirl. It's cinematic candy and a rich full meal, all in one.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Film Ignorance #24: Shadow of a Doubt

The Magnificent Ambersons has nothing in common with Shadow of a Doubt. It's a good movie.

Film: Shadow of a Doubt
Rating: But...This Movie Sucks!
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Looked Stupid

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Another Hitchcock film, another disappointment. And especially disappointing because on this subject, I know Hitchcock could do more.

This is a movie about a young girl who suspects that her beloved uncle Charlie is actually the merry widow murderer. I was expecting a film like Rear Window and its successors, Disturbia, Manhattan Murder Mystery, et al: a movie in which both the audience and the protagonist suspects someone of murder, but it becomes increasingly clear throughout the movie that either the "murderer" is unbelievably suave and clever or the protagonist is insane. Neither the audience nor the protagonist knows which, so all they can do is follow the story, simultaneously suspecting the killer and doubting themselves.

Non-spoiler alert: Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie is the serial killer. Maybe you would have guessed that from how he runs from detectives in the first scene in the movie. Maybe from how he hides a newspaper article from the family. Maybe from how he angrily snaps at everyone at a moment's notice (how did he get close to those windows if he yells at everyone for no reason?)

Additionally, there are two unintentionally comedic clues that he is the killer: 1. One night at dinner he speechifies about how rich widows are a drain on society and don't deserve their money. This is supposed to be chilling, I think, but I found it hilarious. I know weird uncles say weird things at the dinner table, but this was over the top (They're the scum of society!, etc).

2.Believe it or not, he frequently makes strangling motions with his hands. One time, at a bar booth, he's holding some paper and repeatedly strangling it. Another time, he's alone and looking at a potential victim, and his hands make strangling motions again. This is hilarious. Not chilling. Hilarious.

So, if it's not a mystery about a suave killer, what is it? It's two movies, both stupid:

1.It's about Teresa Wright's character (also named Charlie) discovering the uncle is a murderer but being unwilling to accept her mom by helping the police. This is the psychological dilemma in the movie: My uncle has killed three women, but on the other hand, my mom likes him a lot. What should I do? Stupid.

2.A love story between girl Charlie and one of the detectives. I've said it before about Hitchcock, and I'll say it again: a stupid and nonsensical, poorly fleshed out, tangential love story is the worst way to ruin a movie that might otherwise be good. Girl Charlie and Detective Graham fall in love after about 3 minutes, stupid Hollywood style. The funniest line of the whole movie: Graham tells Charlie that he'll always remember a certain place in town because "it's where I first knew I loved you."

First knew I loved you? That was only 36 hours ago! And you had met her less than 12 hours before! Really?

Sorry H-Cock, I'm not buying any of it. And there's so much more of his garbage on my film ignorance list...

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.