Friday, February 22, 2008

Introduction

Redemption, it turns out, is one elusive motherfucker.

See, last year was supposed to be my big comeback. The year before, at the 2005 Oscars (also known as The Oscars of Ignominy), the infantile Crash won Best Picture, against not only my staunchest (if utterly irrelevant) objections but also my most confident predictions. The Oscars of Ignominy left me in a state of disrepute, physically hobbled, with a tarnished spiritual core. For months I had that look on my face like Mel Gibson in Braveheart after he realized Robert the Bruce betrayed him at Falkirk – I was glassy-eyed, incapable of comprehending the world around me. I was like one of the Pod People from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, merely going through the motions of existence, never feeling, never thinking, never living.

But eventually, I snapped out of it. I’m not sure what it was precisely. It could have been receiving confirmation that Emma Watson was returning for the last two Harry Potter films, or watching old DVDs of “The Office” and learning the true meaning of love from Jim and Pam, or maybe just going to see Borat in the theatre and finding myself sitting next to an Asian supermodel who looked like a cross between Kristy Yamaguchi and Kobe Tai. Whatever it was, whatever restorative I drank, I began to follow the same path as that of Gandalf the Grey in The Two Towers: “It was not the end. I felt life in me again. I’ve been sent back until my task is done.”

Damn right I was back, and when the 2006 Oscar nominations were announced, my task was simple: to prove, for once in my shameful excuse for a life, that I knew what the fuck I was talking about.

It was a shaky proposition. Not only had Crash unhinged me in 2005, but in the Best Picture race the year before I’d backed The Aviator over Million Dollar Baby, even though at the time the Eastwood movie was hotter than Craig Hodges in the ’91 three-point shootout. Even worse, the field was incredibly difficult to handicap; not only was there no clear frontrunner, but there were not two but three legitimate contenders – Babel, The Departed, and Little Miss Sunshine. In the words of Han Solo, I had a bad feeling about this.

But I couldn’t turn back, because honestly, absent the Manifesto, what meaning does my life really possess? So I buckled down. I geared up. I weighed options, concocted scenarios, performed statistical analyses, prayed to various deities, and employed very expensive and possibly even illegal techniques to peer into the mind of the average voter of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. And then I scrapped everything and went with my gut, even though, to quote John Cusack in High Fidelity, my guts have shit for brains. I picked The Departed, not because I was convinced it would win but because I knew it should win; it was the best of the nominees, and they call the category Best Fucking Picture, do they not? So, calculating though I may often be, in an impulse of self-righteous fury I had pinned the hopes for my salvation on an emotional whim, a calling of the heart, a desperate plea for cinematic justice.

And then I waited. For my vindication or my disgrace, I did not know, but I waited. Like those poor saps in Casablanca looking for exit visas, I waited.

And oh, how the Academy taunted me, yes it did. You see, during the Oscars of Ignominy, it was Jack Nicholson who announced Crash as the Best Picture winner, Jack who cruelly ripped my life to shreds, Jack who spoke the fateful words and then just stood there smiling that demented smile and thinking to himself, “I am going to crush some of the young talent in here tonight,” unaware of the pain and humiliation he had just dispensed. So last year, to close the ceremony that would either revalidate my existence or forever incinerate my soul, the Academy had Jack make the announcement again, even though he was a lead in one of the movies in contention. This was the equivalent of the last scene in A Few Good Men, only if they’d let Nicholson announce the verdict.

I was watching with my parents, both of whom were a little freaked out because I was in a cold sweat long before Jack opened the envelope. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t turn away from the screen – it was like that scene in A Clockwork Orange where they pin Malcolm McDowell’s eyes open, drug him, then force him to watch videos of gangbangers while blaring Beethoven’s Ninth at 150 decibels as he gets sick. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Of the most suspenseful moments of my life, Jack Nicholson’s announcement of the 2006 Best Picture winner ranked up there with Jason Williams’ free throw against Indiana (which ended badly), Derek Lowe’s duel with Terrence Long (which ended sublimely), and the last 400 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which essentially ended my life).

And then… they got it right! The Departed won! I was saved. My life had meaning once more. I commanded my mother to bring me the finest meats and cheeses in all of the house, then just closed my eyes and absorbed the glory of my victory. This was my great comeback, my triumphant return to form, my Willis Reed game. At long last, redemption was mine.

There was only one problem: Nobody cared.

My cell phone didn’t even quiver. My email account might as well have been canceled. The only person who even acknowledged anything had just happened was my Dad, who had himself been terrified that Little Miss Sunshine (which, grumpy old man that he is, he sort of despised) was going to win – he took a deep breath, offered me a muffled congratulations, then lumbered downstairs to watch a three-day-old Indiana Pacers game on DVR. That was it. That was my recognition.

Now, ordinarily the overwhelming apathy of my readership wouldn’t bother me, if such deafening silence hadn’t been so glaringly asymmetrical to the response of the previous year. But after Trash won, my cell phone rang four times in about 30 seconds. The heckling ranged from the juvenile (“Haha you suck”) to the snarky (“At least you have Duke’s first-round loss in the tournament to look forward to”) to the profound (“You just wrote 50 pages about a ceremony no one cares about and the whole thing was wrong, no wonder you’re single”). But after The Departed heralded my glorious return to prognostication prominence, the only sound was my mother’s iron unwrinkling my seventh pair of birch-colored khakis. This was far from the raucous reception of which I had dreamed.

So I’ve learned my lesson. I no longer suffer from any delusions. I am entirely aware that I am not going to impress anyone. At this point, I’m convinced the Manifesto could correctly predict every single category, plus write a formula to solve global warming and accurately decipher the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and no one would notice.

But you know what? That’s O.K. with me. Because the Manifesto has never been about recognition, at least not in terms of the success or failure of my predictions. For me, it isn’t a tally of rights and wrongs on the scoreboard. It’s more about the opportunity for me to lavish praise on some of my favorite films of the year and excoriate the Academy for some of its Isiah Thomas-level screwups. And it’s the chance to provide quirky asides, shaky sports analogies, obscure movie references, and creepy commentary on the curvature of Emma Watson that invariably results in people thinking, “I know he’s most likely kidding, but I should probably report him to the authorities anyway, just to be safe”. Like a good road trip movie, the Manifesto isn’t about reaching the destination – it’s about the fun stuff along the way. I’m like Tom Sizemore’s character in Heat: For me, the action is the juice.

(For the record, lest any of my exaggerated complaining about lack of recognition be confused with self-pity, please understand this: In all honesty, I do not request any sort of congratulatory feedback, because in all honesty, I’m quite capable of giving myself all the congratulations I need. Writing the Manifesto has always primarily been a self-indulgent exercise; in addition to being the main avenue through which I can document my thoughts on the year’s movies, it also gives me the chance to chuckle at my own perverse wit. (Quite frankly, even if no one else finds me funny, I think I’m fucking hilarious.) As for the rest of my audience, I simply hope that those who do read it will find some measure of enjoyment within its pages. I was touched that a surprisingly high number of last year’s recipients seemed not only to read the majority of the Manifesto but also to appreciate and even retain parts of it (and by “high” I mean more than three, but hey, I’ll take it). Of course, my immediate reaction upon learning this was, “Fuck, now I have all this pressure on me to do better next year”. But I’ll give it a shot.)

(Also, if anyone wants to help boost my circulation out of the kindness of their heart, by all means do so. I vigorously encourage forwarding to friends, preferably accompanied with a byline, “Can you believe what this dork I know does every year?”. Also, apparently there are these websites out there where you can just post stuff online. My reaction when I heard about this was roughly that of Carl Everett when he heard about the existence of dinosaurs – I think it’s farfetched, and you can’t convince me otherwise. But if someone does launch the Manifesto into cyberspace, I shall be eternally grateful. By which I mean I’ll buy you some M&M’s. When they’re on sale.)

Before we dig into the fun stuff, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t take a brief moment to address the recently ended writers’ strike. And when I say “brief”, I mean it the way Polonius meant it. (Speaking of which, am I the only person who, when hearing Polonius, thinks not of Hamlet but of Clueless? “Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.” Anyway.)

As far as the strike itself went, when it was going on, I didn’t really give a shit. My only stipulation was this: that it not affect the filming of the last Harry Potter movie. There’s a fairly strong chance the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the most monumental movie screening of my entire lifetime (past, future, whatever), so I’d really rather it not have been ruined by some snot-nosed union negotiators squabbling over residual payments from Internet revenue streams. As for television, “The Wire” had finished filming, so the rest of TV could rot for all I cared – I have plenty of magnificent Blu-ray discs to keep me company.

(Speaking of Blu-ray, wait, can you hear that? That plaintive wail of agony? It’s the sound of HD-DVD dying. What a beautiful sound.)

Of more interest to me was the possibility that the strike could somehow result in a diminished staging of the Oscars themselves. Now, I wasn’t particularly concerned about this eventuality in and of itself; I won’t deny that part of me enjoys watching Hollywood’s A-list talent strut around in chic costumes (I mean, did you see Emily Blunt’s dress at last year’s show?), but for me the display of glitz and glamour will always be secondary to the actual awards themselves. No, what’s interesting was that the mere possibility of an abbreviated Oscar telecast elicited the perception that the entire ceremony – not just the pomp and circumstance, but the dispensation of the hardware – is in fact inconsequential. In discussing the matter with others, I’ve heard various people offer some variation on the line, “Who gives a shit, the Oscars don’t matter anyway”.

Ah, but here’s the thing: They do matter. They matter far more than most people realize. I’ll agree that the majority of awards shows are relatively frivolous exercises with little lasting impact; hell, last month the strike reduced the Golden Globes to a hapless, insignificant news conference that wasn’t forgotten by the public so much as completely ignored. But the Oscars are different. They mean something. An Academy Award carries with it an indelible cachet – that trophy isn’t just a plaque, it’s a bronzed testament of verifiable success. Winning an Oscar results in an immediate elevation of status, and that status translates to business. We are all consumers of popular entertainment to one degree or another, but we don’t make the rules – we just play the game, and we can only watch what the studios put out.

And the Oscars have tremendous influence over future production. Angelina Jolie was always sexy, but she became far more marketable as a serious actress when trailers could bill her as “Academy Award Winner Angelina Jolie”. Studios care about that kind of thing. Would Jennifer Connelly have obtained a key role in Blood Diamond if she hadn’t won a statuette for A Beautiful Mind? How else does Halle Berry still land major dramatic roles, even if she hasn’t been good in a movie since, well, ever? It may not always be fair or sensible, but in the movie industry, a victory come Oscar time can dramatically reshape the rest of an artist’s career.

(It can also, in certain sad cases, ruin those careers. Poor Kevin Costner spent a decade trying to recreate his success of Dances with Wolves, with pathetic results. Kevin Spacey can’t say no to sap-infested rubbish like Pay It Forward since winning for American Beauty eight years ago. And Robin Williams’ win for Good Will Hunting set him on a string of savior-doctor roles that turned him into a punch line. But all of these people won an Oscar at some point, and they all keep getting hired.)

So trust me: Even if their impact isn’t immediately visible, the Oscars matter. And that’s the other main reason I write this wretched thing every year – because I sincerely care what happens. That’s why I turned into one of the zombies from Dawn of the Dead when Crash won in 2005, and that’s why I issued an exultant scream like Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine when The Departed won last year, even if no one else heard me. My life may be irrelevant, but the Oscars will always be relevant, and as long as they’re around, the Manifesto will be right there with them.

Alright, let’s get to the good stuff. For the uninitiated, the process is highly unpretentious (unlike the majority of my writing). I’ll break down each of the 21 major categories (yes, I’m ignoring the meaningless short subjects, sue me) into three parts: which nominee I expect will win (where I prove how smart I am), which nominee I believe should win (where I show how stupid the Academy often is), and which candidates I felt were deserving of a nomination but were unfortunately overlooked (where I often get very, very angry and occasionally injure myself). And that’s it. Simple really. Someday I’ll figure out why it takes so long.

Enough foreplay. In the words of a highly insecure chef from one of this year’s most breezily enjoyable movies, let’s do this thing.

(Nominees listed in alphabetical order; * = I haven’t seen the movie yet)