Sunday, January 31, 2010

2009 Oscar Nomination Predictions

In the words of See-Threepio, here we go again.

The nominations for the eighty-second annual Academy Awards will be released this Tuesday morning (by Anne Hathaway!), meaning Oscar season is officially upon us. As Hubie Brown might ask, what does that mean? Well, in theory, it means that the Manifesto will kick into high gear over the next month and generate detailed, category-specific posts, each laden with cogent analysis, prescient predictions, and my trademark "Oh great, he just made another fucking Harry Potter reference" witticisms. In practice, it's entirely possible that my brain will short-circuit while trying to balance my blogging responsibilities with my academic duties, and my family will stage an intervention and fit me with an electronic collar that zaps me with 500 volts whenever I even think about the Oscars. We'll see what happens – it's really 50-50.

Alright, before I get to my nomination predictions, I feel obliged to address one of the ballsiest decisions the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has ever made, and no, I'm not talking about selecting Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin to co-host the show (terrific move, by the way). Earlier this year, the Academy announced that it was expanding the Best Picture category from the usual five nominees to a more hospitable 10. In historical terms, this was akin to FDR deciding, "Screw it, just because the first 31 presidents respected the unwritten rule of two term limits doesn't mean I'm leaving the White House". For anyone who follows the movie industry, this was, to say the least, a big deal. But the question is, was it a good decision?

The answer: No. But not for the reason you might think.

The most obvious rationale for the Academy's audacious move is that it wanted to ensure that high-profile, crowd-pleasing entertainments could find their way into a field generally dominated by small-scale, little-seen art-house pictures. The specific impetus was almost certainly the exclusion of The Dark Knight from the 2008 Best Picture class, a snub that created a clamor among critics and consumers alike. The resulting expansion wasn't really an artistic decision but an economic one; the Academy postulated that the Oscar broadcast would receive higher ratings if it featured movies that people had actually seen. (To wit, three of the 2008 Best Picture nominees – Frost/Nixon, Milk, and The Reader – combined for $84.6 million at the box office, a mere 16% of The Dark Knight's $533 million gross.)

Self-serving motive aside, it's a perfectly valid line of reasoning. The gulf between critical and mainstream opinion has never been wider, and there's something to be said for making a concerted effort to bridge that gap. Of course, I'm not suggesting that voters should now consider nominating a movie simply because it made boatloads of money (something tells me Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn't grabbing one of those 10 slots). But the Oscars have drifted away from the demographic to which they claim to appeal – namely, people who go to the movies – and it's possible that this expansion will counteract that trend.

The prevailing counterargument to the Academy's decision is that it dilutes the significance of a Best Picture nomination. I'm unconvinced. How many movies are available for public consumption each year? Five hundred? More? With that many films duking it out for recognition, gaining entrance into a decathlon of the year's best pictures seems pretty damn impressive.

So I'm O.K. with the expansion in terms of the nominations themselves. But the real problem with the Academy's decision is far more insidious: It may very well produce a Best Picture winner that doesn't deserve to win. I don't mean to imply that the winner will be artistically inferior to an alternate contender (hell, that happens all the time). I mean that the winner might literally not have been what the members voted for in the first place.

I'll explain. The issue is that, in addition to expanding the Best Picture field to 10 nominees, the Academy has also revamped the balloting system. In the past – and with the remaining five-nominee categories this year – the voting corresponded to a standard winner-take-all system; you picked the movie you thought should win, the inscrutable accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers tallied the votes, and that was that.

Under the new system, however, things are infinitely more complicated. The Academy fears that, if it retains the standard one-ballot, one-vote system, the winner could receive an abnormally low percentage of votes (theoretically as low as 11% if the votes were split almost equally across all contenders). To counteract this (dubious) hypothetical, the Academy is requiring its members to rank all 10 of the nominees. It will then tabulate the #1 choices and, if no film has achieved greater than 50% of the votes for #1, it will readjust the ballots. How? By eliminating the contender with the lowest number of first-place votes, and then adding the second-place votes on those ballots to the counts for their respective films.

For example, let's suppose only one Academy member ranks An Education #1 (with all other nominees receiving multiple first-place votes) and The Hurt Locker #2. In that case, An Education gets eliminated from contention, The Hurt Locker gains an additional first-place vote, and the accountants re-tabulate. The procedure repeats until one nominee crosses the 50% threshold. (For those desiring a more detailed breakdown of the new system and its potential pitfalls, Steve Pond has a nice write-up at The Wrap).

So ... is anyone else really fucking confused? To say this new system is rife with complications is like calling Polonius long-winded. My biggest concern is that it seems to be biased against polarizing pictures (like, ahem, this one). Since second- and third-place votes now merit significant importance, love-them-or-hate-them films appear to be at a serious disadvantage, even if they initially receive more first-place votes than their less divisive counterparts. You could argue that such polarizing movies don't deserve to win Best Picture in the first place because it's really an award of consensus, but I disapprove of the notion that earning votes as a runner-up can translate into status as a champion.

But such is life. The Gods of the Academy have spoken, and we must accept their divine ruling. (Or we can espouse monotheism and blow up a train full of innocent civilians in protest. Whoops, sorry, I've been watching too much "Caprica".)

O.K., please forgive the lengthy preamble, let's get to the picks. Remember, my goal here is an 80% success rate, which is about as plausible as LeBron James signing with the Knicks this summer (last year I hit 68% or 72%, depending on how you count the Kate Winslet thing). Also, as usual, I'm only predicting the top eight categories – after that people get bored. Here we go with the Manifesto's official predictions for the 2009 Academy Award Nominations:

Crazy Heart
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Comments: We can bisect this field into five locks and five also-rans (I suppose that alone could merit an argument against the move to 10, but I think it's pure coincidence this year). Here are the locks: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. If any of those five films fails to receive a Best Picture nomination, I will forever cease predicting the Oscars. (Not really, but it sounds more impressive when I'm bold.)

The others are less certain, but I'm reasonably confident in An Education and Up (soon to be Pixar's first Best Picture nominee). Invictus hasn't received much in the way of adoration, but it's a prestige picture by a beloved filmmaker, so it should find its way. A Serious Man was a critical smash that's failed to gain traction on the awards circuit, but I think its pedigree gives it a sufficient boost here.

My shakiest pick is Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart, a pseudo-upset that I'm backing over the trendier District 9. The latter earned a nomination from the venerated Producers' Guild, but it premiered all the way back in August. Crazy Heart is more fresh in voters' minds and offers a more heartwarming story. It's really a tossup, but I'll go with the country singer over the persecuted aliens.

Potential upsets: In addition to District 9, Rob Marshall's Nine has a legitimate chance; it was reviled by critics, but the Academy always appreciates a musical (well, unless that musical is Dreamgirls). The other big player here is Star Trek, which is the kind of booming, big-budget, fanboy-supported picture that the move to 10 was designed to embrace. Interestingly enough, if Crazy Heart holds off District 9 and Star Trek, then the Academy's expansion will essentially have failed to serve its purpose, since no populist pieces will have gained admission (Avatar and Inglourious Basterds would have made the field even without the switch to 10).

Longshots: The Blind Side (massive hit with audiences, but it just isn't good enough); The Hangover (claimed victory at the Golden Globes, but that's meaningless at the high-brow Oscars); Broken Embraces or The White Ribbon (voters usually don't go foreign, and neither received much exposure); Fantastic Mr. Fox (has its champions, but I think one animated film is the max); Julie & Julia (pleasant enough but came out too long ago); The Road (too unsettling); A Single Man (it's an acting vehicle, not a Best Picture contender).


Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Lee Daniels – Precious
Jason Reitman – Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds

Comments: One of the most significant offshoots of doubling the number of Best Picture nominees is that the Best Director category suddenly transitions from meaningless to momentous. In the past, it was virtually guaranteed that four of the five directing nominees corresponded with the Best Picture field (last year featured a rare five-for-five match). Now, the Best Director category represents an opportunity to bifurcate the Best Picture nominees into contenders and pretenders. If I had to pick a likely nominee whose footing is somewhat less firm, I'd go with Daniels or Reitman, as both Precious and Up in the Air have lost a bit of steam. That said, I'm reasonably confident that the five Best Picture "locks" will find their makers recognized in this category, especially since they all earned nods from the Directors' Guild.

Potential upset: Never count out Clint Eastwood. Sure, Invictus was more of a Space Cowboys than it was a Mystic River, but the man is a legend. Now get off his lawn.

Longshots: The Coen Brothers for A Serious Man (it's predictably immaculate, and perhaps the residual rancor following their indifferent acceptance speech for No Country for Old Men has faded); Rob Marshall for Nine (only if voters are in a musical mood); Lone Scherfig for An Education (2009 is allegedly the "year of the woman", but I think Academy members will be content with Bigelow's inclusion in their mostly-male fraternity).


Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
George Clooney – Up in the Air
Colin Firth – A Single Man
Morgan Freeman – Invictus
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker

Comments: Yawn. I would say this field is completely set, but the Academy will occasionally sneak a surprise lead in here. If anyone's getting booted, it's either Freeman or Renner, but neither of them has much to worry about.

Potential upsets: None. The rest are all major longshots.

Longshots: Viggo Mortensen for The Road (will try to duplicate his surprise success for Eastern Promises); Johnny Depp for Public Enemies (he's universally adored); Robert Downey, Jr. for Sherlock Holmes (ibid); Ben Foster for The Messenger (an up-and-comer who still hasn't achieved mainstream recognition); Matt Damon for The Informant! (looked like a shoo-in five months ago, but the buzz vanished); Tobey Maguire for Brothers (if Damon's buzz vanished, Maguire's got locked in a Vanishing Cabinet); Sharlto Copley for District 9 (maybe if anyone had ever heard of him); Sam Rockwell for Moon (too little-seen); Daniel Day-Lewis for Nine (the "greatest actor alive" is always a threat).


Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
Helen Mirren – The Last Station
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Gabourey Sidibe – Precious
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia

Comments: Bullock, Sidibe, and Streep are all safe. Back in October, Mulligan was the alleged favorite for the award, but it's possible she could find herself in the same fate as Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky last year. Mirren is a bit of a mystery, but her name plus her nod from the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) should give her the edge.

Potential upsets: It's likely wishful thinking on my part, but if voters were feeling particularly courageous they could highlight Tilda Swinton for her phenomenal performance in Julia; sadly, a minuscule box-office take makes such a proposition unlikely. A more plausible nominee would be Emily Blunt for her regal portrayal in The Young Victoria, since the Academy always lauds British period pieces. I also can't discount Mélanie Laurent for Inglourious Basterds, but category confusion could work against her (discussed in the Best Supporting Actress category below).

Longshots: Abbie Cornish for Bright Star (looked like a sure thing post-Toronto, but her buzz died); Meryl Streep for It's Complicated (if anyone can pull off the double-nominee, it's Meryl); Saorise Ronan for The Lovely Bones (frisky, but too risky).


Matt Damon – Invictus
Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
Christopher Plummer – The Last Station
Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
Cristoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Comments: Yikes. On the plus side, the nominations here don't really matter, since Cristoph Waltz is the biggest lock in the history of this category (or at least since Heath Ledger last year). Anyway, I'm confident in Woody Harrelson, but after that things get shaky. The Last Station is one of those movies where it's difficult to gauge its momentum, since it hasn't played in most cities yet, but Plummer's SAG nod is enough for me. The Lovely Bones sadly never got off the ground, but Tucci's performance is creepy enough that he probably still has enough pull, though he could split his own vote with his work in Julie & Julia. Matt Damon is my weakest pick, but he drilled an impossible accent, and besides, he's Matt Damon.

Potential upsets: Me and Orson Welles fell victim to inadequate distribution (that's what happens when your movie is distributed by some hack company called Freestyle Releasing – not that I'm bitter), but Christian McKay earned rave reviews for his portrayal of the iconic director. As a protective father in An Education, Alfred Molina has the added benefit of appearing in a Best Picture nominee, but I don't think his performance is showy enough. In the Loop barely played in American theatres, but voters might be seduced by Peter Capaldi's merciless, hilarious incarnation of a government minister.

Longshots: Stanley Tucci for Julie & Julia (he's getting more play for The Lovely Bones); Anthony Mackie for The Hurt Locker (whatever praise Bigelow isn't earning, Renner is snapping up); Stephen Lang for Avatar (if any actor receives recognition for Cameron's picture, it's Lang); Fred Melamed for A Serious Man (call this one an ultra-longshot).


Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal – Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mo'Nique – Precious
Julianne Moore – A Single Man

Comments: The fifth slot of this category has given me nightmares. Alright, Mo'Nique is solid, as are the two lovely ladies from Up in the Air. I'm also reasonably sold on Julianne Moore. But that fifth slot could go in a variety of directions, and part of the confusion involves the usual category campaigning from the studios. For Inglourious Basterds, The Weinstein Company is pushing for Mélanie Laurent for lead actress and plugging Diane Kruger for supporting, a maneuver which led to Kruger's surprising SAG nomination. Meanwhile, for Crazy Heart, Fox Searchlight was initially promoting Maggie Gyllenhaal for lead but then switched to supporting. The problem is that voters aren't required to conform to the studios' suggestions and can nominate the actresses in whichever category they choose.

So how will it play out? I honestly have no idea, but I'm betting that Harvey Weinstein has shot himself in the foot by being too greedy. It's always dangerous to bet against Weinstein (see: The Reader), but I think he could have secured a nomination for Laurent if he'd simply advertised her as a supporting actress from the beginning. Instead he's gunning for nominations for both Laurent and Kruger, and I'm guessing both get shut out as a result (Laurent because she splits her votes across the two categories, Kruger because she isn't that good). Of course, it's possible that Gyllenhaal could split her own vote as well thanks to Fox Searchlight's schizophrenia, but I think Jeff Bridges is such a dominant figure in Crazy Heart that Academy members will be more willing to accept Gyllenhaal's transition to supporting actress. But, as I said, I really have no idea.

Potential upsets: In addition to Laurent and Kruger, Penélope Cruz is a major player here for her performance in Nine. Frankly it isn't much of a role, but Cruz is an Academy darling, and she also earned an SAG nomination, so she's just as plausible for that elusive fifth slot.

Longshots: Marion Cotillard for Public Enemies (could compete against herself with Nine); Samantha Morton for The Messenger (Harrelson seems to be the sole Oscar magnet there).


Avatar – James Cameron
The Hurt Locker – Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino
A Serious Man – Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Up – Bob Peterson and Pete Docter

Comments: This is really a make-or-break category for Avatar. If Cameron earns recognition for his script, then his movie still has a legitimate chance at winning Best Picture. If it gets ignored here, then The Hurt Locker only further fortifies its frontrunner status. Anyway, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds are safe here, and I think Up can feel comfortable as well, especially after Wall-E's nomination last year. The other big question mark is A Serious Man, but I think the Coens' spiky originality gives them the edge here.

Potential upset: The looming contender here is (500) Days of Summer by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Not only did it earn a Writers' Guild nomination, but it exhibits the kind of spunky, time-twisting storytelling technique that the Academy often rewards in this category. I'm leaving it out because I honestly believe that Avatar is too hefty a contender to lose out on a screenplay nomination, but if (500) Days of Summer shows up instead, I won't be remotely surprised.

Longshots: The Hangover (preposterously earned a nod from the Writers' Guild); Broken Embraces (Almodóvar has shown up here before); Moon (if the Academy is in a sci-fi mood, which is possible given the growing support for District 9).


District 9 – Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
An Education – Nick Hornby
Invictus – Anthony Peckham
Precious – Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Comments: Last year, this was the one category where I correctly predicted all five nominees. I can assure you that I will not be delivering a repeat performance this year. With the exception of Up in the Air, all of the remaining slots are, ahem, up in the air. That said, I think the Best Picture credentials of An Education and Precious should give them sway here. The same argument necessarily extends to Invictus, though I'm considerably less confident with that one (and if it fails to snag a Best Picture nod, it doesn't stand a chance here), but it does at least tell an inspirational story.

For the fifth slot, I'm hedging my bets on my Best Picture prognostication and going with District 9 over Crazy Heart (my other nine screenplay predictions double as my picks for the big prize). My logic is that Crazy Heart is primarily performance-driven, whereas District 9 is more plot-centric, making its screenplay more critical to its success. It also tells a unique, original story, whereas Crazy Heart's redemption narrative is plain and generic. I recognize that the category is called best adapted screenplay, meaning originality shouldn't really play a role, but I nevertheless think that voters will set store by the freshness of the material.

Potential upset: Crazy Heart (by Scott Cooper). Just to make me second-guess myself, it earned a nomination from the Writers' Guild, while District 9 was nowhere to be found. Nor was Invictus for that matter. Hmm ...

Longshots: In the Loop (its skewering of modern-day politics could give it some traction); Julie & Julia and Star Trek (both earned nods from the Writers' Guild, though I can't say I understand why); The Informant! (would be a great sleeper pick if it had any buzz whatsoever); Fantastic Mr. Fox (doesn't operate within Up's shadow here); Where the Wild Things Are (took a 37-page children's book and transformed it into a full-length film).

And that's that. Tuesday morning's announcement will set us straight, and I'll be back after that with a report on my failure. Er, accuracy. Till then.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Best Films of the 2000s (Part I)

Well, that was grueling.

Alright, in case you missed it, my Best Performances of the 2000s post articulated my attitude toward lists, namely that they're inherently absurd but also compulsively readable. That list was also incredibly difficult to make, but compared to my next task, it was easier than playing Seeker while high on Felix Felicis. A top 10 list of the best movies of the entire decade? Now that's intense. In terms of the most nerve-wracking, pressurized, "I feel like Ron Burgundy reading the news without a teleprompter" moments in my life, creating a list of the decade's 10 best films fell somewhere between "Taking the LSAT" and "Shooting two free throws with my team down two and no time left on the clock".

And I failed. Miserably.

I'm sorry, I just couldn't do it. I can't precisely quantify how many movies I've seen over the past 10 years, but I'm guessing the tally is around 800. Do you honestly think I can coherently assemble a compendium representing the best 1.25% of those films? It would be like being tasked with choosing the 10 best baseball players of all-time, or the 10 best Emma Watson moments in film history. You can't possibly do it without omitting contenders that merit a mention. It would be a moral violation of all things just and true.

But rather than yield to the impossibility of the task before me, I instead decided to, well, cheat. As such, rather than making a list of the top 10 movies of the decade, I went with a top 25. And trust me, it wasn't much easier. I'm still suffering over the exclusion of a handful of films that, perhaps if I had compiled the list at a different time, would have slid into the final field. Where's The Dark Knight? No Slumdog Millionaire or A Beautiful Mind? What about The Aviator, or The Bourne Identity, or Shattered Glass, or Revenge of the Sith? I exiled those and many more deserving candidates to the purgatory of the also-ran, and I did so with a heavy heart.

But thus was my duty. My readership demanded a list of the best movies of the decade – O.K., no you didn't, but hey, I can pretend – and I am required to deliver. Heavy lies the crown. Or something.

Alright, let's get to it. I'm splitting this into two posts: This one will detail slots 11-25, while the next will present the final 10. And that's that – here we go with the Manifesto's Best Films of the 2000s:

25. The Departed (2006). I'll wager that my placement of The Departed at #25 will instill some furor among my readers – not for having included it, but for having the temerity to place 24 films ahead of it. One of those exceedingly rare pictures that won both critical acclaim (including a Best Picture Oscar) and widespread approval from audiences, Martin Scorsese's gangster opus for the new millennium is kinetic, suspenseful, and tremendously funny. It is also, I've come to conclude over repeated viewings, deeply flawed. The editing is sloppy, the screenplay lurches rather than glides, and Jack Nicholson's mugging teeters on the edge of parody. But it's still a bravura masterpiece, a hyper-violent saga that exposes the ugliness of the mob while retaining a stylized, artistic sheen. Most of all there is Leonardo DiCaprio's performance – his magnetic, frenzied portrayal of a desperate undercover cop in over his head will be immortalized in the annals of cinema.

24. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
. Hey, look, I watch foreign-language movies too! Ang Lee's martial-arts epic has a curiously detached feel, almost as though it takes place in a different universe (which, in a way, it does). But that soft, reverential tone buttresses the movie's large-scale ambitions, while the restrained acting and sturdy plot prevent it from drowning in grandiloquence. Made 10 years ago, the fight sequences remain as electrifying as ever, and the characters are fully developed rather than mere action ciphers. Bonus points for heralding the arrival of Zhang Ziyi, the delicate beauty who has enchanted audiences throughout the decade.

23. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
. I almost went with Anchorman here, partly because it's the most quotable movie since Ghostbusters, partly because the scene with Jack Black on the bridge still represents the loudest and longest I've ever laughed in a movie theatre. But The 40-Year-Old Virgin is undoubtedly the decade's defining comedy. Anchored by a deceptively deep performance from Steve Carell, Judd Apatow's debut film mixes outlandish, dialogue-driven humor with likable, winsome characters, and the result is both hilarious and moving. Apatow's distinctive brand has come under predictable fire recently (see especially the backlash surrounding his strained but absorbing Funny People), but he's a filmmaker who instinctively grasps that comedy is most effective when it revolves around people we care about.

22. Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)
. While The 40-Year-Old Virgin patented a blueprint upon which future comedies would build, Kissing Jessica Stein is a comedy noteworthy for its refreshing originality. On the surface the story of a neurotic, unhappy woman tentatively exploring a same-sex relationship (make that very tentatively), it doubles as a tender but pointed inquiry into the meaningfulness of sex as an element of human connection. That may sound a bit academic, but (Brown alum!) Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's winning film is far from a sociological inquest. It's firmly localized to its intelligent, three-dimensional characters, and it's leavened with sharp humor from the script by Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen. Adapting their own play, those women double as the leads in the film and create a dynamic that is somehow both bracingly realistic and effortlessly charming. Kind of like the movie.

21. Avatar (2009)
. Swiftly claiming its place as the highest-grossing film in world history, James Cameron's spectacular sci-fi adventure may well turn out to be the most influential film of the next decade. Logic would suggest that studio heads everywhere will desperately strive to fashion blockbuster entertainments by piggybacking on Avatar's revolutionary filmmaking technology (though they may balk at the associated budget). But they may find that Cameron's prowess cannot be so easily imitated. That's in part due to his unparalleled mastery of all things tech, but it's also due to his canny ability to deftly graft that technology into the larger sphere of his narrative. Depending on your personal taste for Cameron's bombast, the story in Avatar is either shamelessly derivative or soothingly familiar. But the film is a magnificent achievement either way, and it's further proof that movies as a medium retain the possibility to astound us.

20. Almost Famous (2000)
. I don't profess to be a scholar of rock-and-roll; hell, I'd never even heard of The Who until they lent "The Seeker" to American Beauty. But you don't need to be a music enthusiast to appreciate – make that adore – Cameron Crowe's cheerful, nostalgic look at a hapless group of misfit rockers scrabbling for the big-time. (Or, as Philip Seymour Hoffman mocks: "It's a think-piece about a mid-level band struggling to cope with its own limitations in the harsh face of stardom". Amen.) That's because Almost Famous is really about a family and the way fraternal bonds can fray in the midst of uncertainty. If that sounds depressing, have no fear, as this is one of the most purely enjoyable movies I've ever seen. In addition to a richly funny behind-the-scenes peek at a band's life on the road, it's also a tender coming-of-age tale (based on Crowe's own life), a gentle love story (featuring a knockout performance from Kate Hudson), and a heartfelt valentine to one art form in the guise of another. (And for what it's worth, it includes some pretty kickass music too.)

19. Up in the Air (2009)
. It's been weirdly gratifying for me to observe Jason Reitman's progress as a filmmaker, almost like he's my Canadian cousin or something. Thank You for Smoking, if ultimately lacking in substance, flashed undeniable promise, and Juno – artificial elements aside – leveraged that promise into an earnest character study of pluck and wit. But it's with his third film that Reitman truly ascends. Up in the Air is perfectly modulated picture, skillfully balancing humor (both warm and acerbic) and pathos, all shrouded in a haunting cloud of topicality. But while it's easy to admire Reitman's film for its strikingly direct depiction of life in (or out of) the American workforce today, it's the intimacy of the character interactions that marks it for greatness. The splendid acting helps too: George Clooney can play quick-witted, authoritative men in his sleep, but he adds depth and nuance to his cool exterior without going overboard, while Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are right in step with him. The title may evoke uncertainty, but Reitman's self-assured character study is anything but tentative.

18. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
. "Does it ever stop?" That was my buddy Johnny's reaction after experiencing the first 30 minutes of the whirling dervish that is Baz Luhrmann's musical tour de force. It is not, I concede a work of subtlety. After all, restraint tends to go out the window when you stage a production of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" inside a turn-of-the-century burlesque. But despite his extreme flamboyance (did I mention Jim Broadbent sashays his way through Madonna's "Like a Virgin"?), Luhrmann's command over his colorful entourage is so complete that his movie attains a startling coherence matching its extravagance. The narrative drives forward purposefully and maintains keen focus on the lead characters, elevating their unabashed love-conquers-all romance to a majestic tragedy (if perhaps the most giddy tragedy ever filmed). Anchored by two fearless, go-for-broke performances from Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, with musical sequences so transcendent that you feel compelled to jump up and applaud, Moulin Rouge! illustrates that movies can be bold and vivacious and still steal our hearts.

17. Pride & Prejudice (2005)
. Everything about this film is beautiful. Austen loyalists will likely grouse that the 1995 version starring Colin Firth is superior, but that workmanlike BBC production appears downright staid compared to the gorgeous sublimity of Joe Wright's debut. Deborah Moggach's screenplay skillfully condenses Austen's classic into manageable length without sacrificing any of its emotional power, and Wright and a superbly talented cast do the rest. Though set in the early nineteenth century, Pride & Prejudice evades the sense of torpor that ensnares so many period pieces; nothing about it feels dated or tedious. The filmmaking is fresh and lively, the pace is equally brisk, and the dialogue sparkles with Austen's trademark wit and verve. And of course, there is the breathtaking performance of Keira Knightley, essaying one of literature's classic characters with her own brand of fiery independence, shrewd intelligence, and quiet longing. And beauty – that too.

16. The Fountain (2006)
. Whoops, sorry, I got my Darren Aronofsky movies confused. This one's on my list of the worst of the decade, as opposed to ...

16. Requiem for a Dream (2000). Sorry, I couldn't resist. But Aronofsky is nothing if not uncompromising, and while that obstinacy may have made The Fountain utterly unwatchable, it lends dramatic heft and potency to Requiem for a Dream, one of the few truly disturbing pictures of the past decade. A searing portrait of four drug-addled people who don't so much succumb to the allure of drugs as fall victim to their ruthlessly destructive power, the movie is brutally frank in depicting the ugliness of addiction and its consequences. It is also highly gimmicky – most notably in its repeated employment of high-speed montage and split-screen – but somehow those showy devices magnify the omnipresent dangers lurking in the characters' lives. Jared Leto's heartbreaking portrayal of a man caught in a self-constructed vortex is haunting; he's just doing what he can to survive, but it's futile to fight in a world devoid of hope.

15. High Fidelity (2000)
. It's easy to admire Stephen Frears' iconic adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel for its comedic brilliance – especially when it features phenomenal moments like this – while simultaneously overlooking its trenchant insights into modern romance. Aided by a sharp, persistently hilarious script, Frears playfully pokes fun at the banality of post-adolescent love, happily humiliating his hero with one failure after the next. Yet he also pays homage to the undeniable appeal of romantic connection, and he acknowledges its value. The scene in which John Cusack (in a performance of resplendent self-loathing) contrasts his fantasy girlfriend with his real one is one of the sweetest, most genuinely touching speeches about love I've ever seen; that it includes a detailed analogy involving dirty lingerie only reinforces its timelessness.

14. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
. It's tempting to characterize Gore Verbinski's first installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as pure entertainment because, well, it is pure entertainment. And in no way is that a bad thing. Bubbling over with infectious enthusiasm, the movie generously serves up healthy doses of action, humor, and low-key special effects ingenuity, along with a welcome helping of eccentricity. The Curse of the Black Pearl may be an action blockbuster in the classical sense that it aims to entertain, but it's also wholly original, led most of all by the wobbly movements and wily tongue of its inimitable anti-hero. Alternately swaggering and staggering, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is a character for the ages, a larger-than-life pirate who's also a marvelous dolt. But while Depp's magnificently madcap performance is the movie's most memorable element, it is not the only one. The script is laden with wry, twisty dialogue, the supporting cast (led by a scene-munching Geoffrey Rush) hams it up gleefully, and the swordplay is both vigorous and elegantly restrained. In the words of Captain Jack, savvy.

13. Match Point (2005)
. Woody Allen spent the nineties becoming irrelevant, so his return to filmmaking excellence with this London-set picture was a shock in itself, but the real story is the way he does it. The pithy, neurotic style upon which Allen founded his career is entirely absent; instead he gives us a taut, alarmingly perceptive psychological thriller steeped in old money and older themes of jealousy, infidelity, and moral deprivation. Propelled by Jonathan Rhys Meyers' canny, masterfully nuanced performance, Allen delivers an austere look at the dynamics of family and marriage while also probing the dark corners of the human mind. The film's final third is achingly suspenseful, but Match Point is far more than a mere thriller with a twist. It's about the beats of silence in conversation, the things we think but do not say, and the consequences of indulging in temptation.

12. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
. Many will advocate the introductory chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring, as the superior title, but the particular installment is essentially irrelevant. Peter Jackson's mammoth trilogy remains a cinematic landmark, an epic saga that's home to grand, mythic set pieces while still finding room to shade in its characters. Jackson possesses an appropriate reverence for J.R.R. Tolkien's immense novels, but that reverence doesn't encroach into worship. He retains the gigantic scope of Tolkien's work but breathes new life into it, scratching out lengthy passages and subplots while bulking up key action sequences. As a result, Return of the King isn't a limp, rote transliteration of its source material but a vibrant, energetic, and thoroughly original work.

11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
. Perhaps no screenwriter possesses as distinctive an imprint as Charlie Kaufman, the man behind such offbeat, patently unusual works as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Those are both quality movies, but paired with director Michel Gondry (a bit of an eccentric himself), Kaufman's idiosyncratic sensibilities take full flight with this quirky, surreal, and devastatingly sincere story of two lovers who erase each other's memory. The usual Kaufman zaniness is on full display – at one point the protagonists find themselves bathing in a sink in the form of overgrown babies – but the reason Eternal Sunshine ascends to true greatness is that its outlandishness links directly into its characters. Writers with the vastness of Kaufman's imagination tend to let their ideas overrun their human creations, but here Gondry and Kaufman keep us firmly grounded in the starkness of their characters' predicament even as their world turns into a funhouse. It helps that Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet deliver two heartbreakingly realistic performances. As Joel and Clementine, they're thrown into the midst of Kaufman's mind-bending machinery, yet that isn't the film's focal point. It's more closely attuned to their humanity, and both of them are unmistakably human, full of passion and pain, longing and regret. In other words, they're just like us.

That's it for now – check back soon for part II.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The best performances of the 2000s

Lists are idiotic. I love them.

O.K., so I know that's one of those glib contradictions that invariably results in eye-rolling, but it really does represent my paradoxical attitude toward lists, at least when it comes to ranking works of art. In a sense, lists are an extension of star ratings because they provide a hard-and-fast method of numerical comparison; movie #7 is ranked higher than movie #8, so therefore, movie #7 is better by definition. And this notion, taken in its purest form, is simply farcical. The reason I'm so staunchly opposed to grading movies with star ratings (for the record, I hereby solemnly vow that you will never see a star rating at the Manifesto) is that I firmly believe that the notion of assigning a quantitative value to a work of art is profoundly stupid. I recognize that one of the primary functions of a critic is distillation – we're supposed to condense our thoughts on a two-hour movie into a reasonably short, readable piece that concisely and clearly represents our overall opinion – but there's a line between summing things up in a handful of paragraphs and just picking a number that mystically functions as a conclusive evaluation. Adherents of the mechanism will stress that star ratings supplement the text of their review instead of merely substituting for lucid writing, but how many readers, when given the option, choose to skip the words and glance at the number? It's the easy way out.

(Websites such as Metacritic are particularly loathsome. The proprietors aren't just randomly assigning a number from 1-100 to represent how they felt about a movie; they're reading someone else's review and assigning that number based on how they think the critic felt. This kind of baseless speculation warrants criminal punishment.)

Lists are less offensive than star ratings because they function solely on a comparative basis, rather than levying individual grades on each item. But the larger problem with list-making is that it imposes a concrete finality that clashes with the fluid, amorphous nature of our opinions. Our thoughts on a movie are not fixed in time, invariant; they're subject to change, perhaps upon time for reflection, perhaps upon subsequent viewings. I speak from personal experience: I've been making top-10 lists of movies every year since 2003, and I'm convinced that if I went back to each year and created a new set of rankings, each list would be significantly different the second time around. For example, in 2005, I ranked Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice #9. I've grown to love the movie more and more with each viewing, and now it would certainly rank in my top five for that year. The film itself may remain constant, but the viewing experience is far from static.

But here's the thing: Who doesn't love reading lists? They're easy and breezy, they inspire debate (perhaps in the Bizarro universe, one of my posts will set off a firestorm of controversy amidst my readership), and they're an effective means of encapsulating all of my far-flung thoughts that inevitably accumulate over the period of a year.

Or in this case, a decade. As the first 10-year span of the new millennium comes to a close (well, technically the new millennium didn't begin until 2001, but never mind), commentators from all corners of the blogosphere are compiling decade-long compendiums, and far be it from me to miss out on the fun. Sure, I'm being completely hypocritical, but hey, what my readers want, my readers get. (That none of my readers has made any such demand is a fact I choose to ignore.)

I'll unveil my list of the best movies of the decade in the near future, but I figured I'd ease in with something a bit more modest (though only slightly). Therefore, what follows is the Manifesto's list of the top 10 performances of the 2000s. I decided to restrict myself to lead performances, mainly because I wanted to focus on actors who clearly carried their movies. So, much as I adore the work of, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman in 25th Hour and Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, they'll have to settle for my silent admiration for now. It also breaks my heart that I couldn't find room for many of my favorite actors (Tom Cruise and Tobey Maguire, to name just two), but 10 is a cruelly small number.

So it goes. Speaking of truly heart-wrenching decisions, the following performances constitute my honorable mention – an eleven-way tie for eleventh place. In alphabetical order: Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village, Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!, Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice, Jared Leto in Requiem for a Dream, Campbell Scott in Roger Dodger, Denzel Washington in Training Day, and Kate Winslet in Little Children.

On to the decathletes. For those with an Oscar bent, only three of the following 10 performances received nominations from the Academy, with only one actor taking home a statuette (I'm feeling pessimistic and assuming that my one selection from 2009 will fail to garner a nomination). But as I've always said, fuck the Oscars. (Actually, I've never said that. I love the Oscars – they're the reason this blog exists. No matter.) Here are the Manifesto's top 10 acting performances of the 2000s:

10. Jonathan Rhys Meyers – Match Point (2005). Acting is easier when the performer has something to do – a facial tic, an accent, a big speech, anything showy. As the exceedingly polite, disturbingly handsome tennis pro in Woody Allen's Match Point, Rhys Meyers has no such luxuries. As a result, he's forced to convey his character's gradual descent into moral oblivion almost entirely through silence (thankfully, Allen refuses to give him a voiceover as a crux), and he does it beautifully. He speaks mostly with his eyes; watch the way they flit nervously around a room even as he's coolly standing still, the way he sizes up a situation. The turning point in the movie is actually one of inaction, when Rhys Meyers decides – with exquisite hesitation – not to answer a phone call. It's a marvelously controlled performance, and it gives us complete access to an individual who is, at least to all others around him, inaccessible.

9. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Brick (2006). Most critics will point to 2005's Mysterious Skin as Gordon-Levitt's coming-out party, and they wouldn't be wrong. But he takes things to a whole new level in Brick, simply disappearing into the potentially ludicrous role of a teenage Bogart scrambling to uncover the whereabouts of his ex-girlfriend. Brick essentially takes place in an alternate reality, where characters speak in the mannered beats of the noir dialect. ("Do you trust me now?" "Less than when I didn't trust you before.") It's a bold, risky move from first-time director Rian Johnson, but Gordon-Levitt, who appears in every scene in the film, sells it completely. With hunched, introverted body language that seemingly contradicts his aggressive, rapid-fire style of speech, he's completely convincing as a hardboiled super-sleuth. Listen to him talk tough to a gang of local heavies: "I got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you." Watching Gordon-Levitt, we aren't looking at a scrawny high-schooler playing hooky; we're watching a man possessed.

8. Jennifer Westfeldt – Kissing Jessica Stein (2002). The character of the neurotic New York Jew has been a bit of a cliché ever since Annie Hall, but there isn't a hint of artifice in Westfeldt's free-wheeling portrayal. An obsessive, hyperactive, totally gorgeous woman yearning for romance, her quest is doomed because she's incapable of finding anything but fault in her potential partners (well, male partners anyway). The movie's premise, involving a straight woman tentatively exploring a same-sex relationship, is one rife with laughs, but it could have come off as implausible were it not for the extraordinary nuance Westfeldt brings to her role. Her timidity regarding her decision is palpable, but it's matched by her sheer desperation. "Sometimes I feel like I'm going to be alone forever," she says in a devastating moment of emotional fragility, and that fear catalyzes her into action. By turns poignant and hilarious, brilliant and discombobulated, this New York Jew is in no way a stereotype.

7. John Cusack – High Fidelity (2000). Cusack has taken some deserved flak throughout his career for essentially essaying over and over again the character that first made him famous. That would of course be Lloyd Dobbler in Say Anything, a youth so gentle and heartwarming that it's hard to blame Cusack for going back to the well a few times. But his incarnation of Rob Gordon in High Fidelity is another beast entirely. Bitter, broken, and seething with self-righteous anger, Rob is just as compelling as Lloyd but nowhere near as perfect. But his imperfections are what make him interesting, and Cusack shrewdly emphasizes Rob's pathetic tendencies along with his sharp intelligence and quick wit. One of the greatest talk-to-the-camera performances ever, it is also one of absolute honesty. Watch Cusack's face when he tells us that he cheated on his girlfriend, the way the shame mingles with the resentment. There's real emotion there, but Cusack isn't begging for our sympathy – he's just reminiscing about his ex, the way we all do. That frankness, along with some effortlessly natural (and very funny) humor, makes Rob fascinating. At one point, Rob wonders openly why someone as average as himself has "become the number one lover-man in his particular postal district". The answer lies in Cusack's performance; he may not be a great guy, but he's great fun to be around.

6. Jenna Jameson – Dreamquest (2000). Just kidding. Although you could make the argument that ... never mind.

6. Tilda Swinton – Julia (2009). If you've never heard of this movie, you aren't alone – it made just $64,000 at the box office before disappearing from U.S. screens forever. And that's a terrible shame, because Swinton's performance as a supremely reckless alcoholic is absolutely riveting. There's a wonderful sense of improvisation about her acting, as though she's inventing the character as she goes along. Yet as is the case with many great British actors (she's playing American here, just to up the ante), her work is also fastidiously controlled, full of subtle beats and precise movements. There's a terrific moment halfway through the film when Swinton's title character realizes that she's made a crucial mistake, and recognition splashes across her face like a glass of ice-water. But seconds later, after a seemingly physical effort to regain control, her face again assumes a mask of indifferent passivity – the ice-queen reclaiming her throne. I might never see Julia again (its release on Blu-ray seems ill-fated at this point), but Swinton's performance has forever seared itself into my memory.

5. Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). There are unconventional action heroes, and then there's Captain Jack Sparrow. Armed with a rapier wit to go with his actual rapier, he'd rather swashbuckle his way out of danger than gallantly save the day. "Will you be saving her, then?" he asks a pair of bumbling sailors as a damsel plunges to her distress, before reluctantly doing the deed himself. But buried beneath the drunken lurches and spouts of verbiage ("nigh uncatchable!"), there's a quiet sense of nobility to Captain Jack. He may be a no-good bloody pirate, but at least he believes in something. That lends a certain dignity to a performance that is otherwise gleefully undignified. Simultaneously the smartest man on the ship and the looniest, Captain Jack is a spectacular condemnation of the classical action hero, and with his limp-wristed movements and sardonic delivery, Depp invents an entirely new archetype. In an era in which studios are routinely criticized for distributing derivative entertainment, we can feel confident knowing we've never seen anything like Captain Jack.

4. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood (2007). There's a great moment in "The Office" where Steve Carell says, "It takes a big man to admit his mistakes. And I am that big man". Well, I am also that big man, because two years ago, while discussing There Will Be Blood, I suggested that Day-Lewis' crowning achievement was his work as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. I maintain that his earlier effort is a seminal piece of screen acting (it did make my honorable mention, after all), but after viewing Paul Thomas Anderson's epic a second time, I'm forced to concede that Day-Lewis' work as Daniel Plainview is the superior performance. Whereas the Butcher is openly toxic and hateful, Plainview conceals his disgust of people with a veneer of politeness. He despises humanity – at one point, he confesses as much to a confidant (whom he soon kills, but no matter) – but the political nature of his occupation ("When I say I am an oil man, you will agree") requires that he treat lesser beings with courtesy and respect. Yet every so often his rage boils over, and the monster who emerges is truly terrible to behold. Plainview is cordial, efficient, and ruthless; he is also lustful, vengeful, and beyond redemption. Day-Lewis somehow makes him all these things and does so cohesively, so that Plainview's disparate qualities are but many warring parts of a single, rotted soul.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Departed (2006). Was this the Decade of DiCaprio? Perhaps if Shutter Island (get psyched) and Inception (get very psyched) had come out a year earlier, but even so, the man has been on a historic run the past seven years, ever since his breakout performance in Catch Me If You Can. But his role as Billy Costigan in The Departed is his true masterwork, an enthralling portrayal of violence, charisma, and fear. As an undercover cop nestling his way into the inner circle of the mob, Billy is both smart and capable. He's also scared shitless, not just of being discovered but of losing himself in the darkness he's been charged to bring down. DiCaprio plays Billy as a wounded animal, frenzied and frightened but also lethal when cornered. He also exudes a furious intensity – one always gets the sense he's a hair's breadth away from exploding into violence – yet he combines that ferocity with genuine vulnerability and confusion. It's a magnetic performance from a singularly talented actor at the peak of his art form.

2. Keira Knightley – Atonement (2007). This should really be #1, but I decided that she didn't possess quite enough screen time to earn the top slot on my list. But her penultimate ranking does nothing to diminish this unassailable fact: This is the most emotionally devastating performance I have ever seen. I discussed it in extensive detail here, so I won't get carried away a second time. Suffice it to say that acting is all about feeling – the great actors make us feel what they're feeling, be it through body language, intonation, eye movements, anything. And everything Keira Knightley does in her portrayal of Cecilia Tallis makes me feel exactly what she's feeling. Pain, passion, hesitancy, desperation, fury, longing, hope, and most of all despair – it's all there. I often half-jokingly (emphasis on "half") complain about how actresses refuse to show their bodies on camera, but in Atonement, Keira Knightley does something far more challenging and rewarding: She shows us her soul.

1. George Clooney – Michael Clayton (2007). Strangely, this could probably double as the "most underrated" performance of the decade. Audiences seemed to forget about Clooney, perhaps because he found himself competing against the behemoth that was Daniel Day-Lewis in the 2007 Oscar race. More likely it's that viewers prescribed to the gross misconception that he was merely playing himself. Wrong. So very wrong. Clooney is an undeniably hypnotic presence, both on-screen and off; perhaps the most charismatic figure in Hollywood, he simply oozes cool and self-confidence, and that's often the case in many of his film roles (see the Ocean's movies). But not in Michael Clayton. Here, he's a broken man, financially scrambling, spiritually crumbling. Sure, Michael works as a fixer at a powerhouse law firm, but what does he really have? No job security, no close friends, no marriage, no direction – he's a man without a country. I wrote about the performance at length here, so let me simply recall the scene in which Clooney meets the morning sunrise alone. It's a stunning moment of nonverbal acting – technically brilliant but also incredibly potent – and it reminds us what movie stars can do. They can show us people not unlike ourselves, bring us into their lives, and in doing so, just maybe enrich our own.