Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actress

NOMINEES
Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Judi Dench—Philomena
Meryl Streep—August: Osage County

WILL WIN
Blanchett was supposed to take this in a walkover of "Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables" proportions. But then, Dylan Farrow, whom Woody Allen adopted as his daughter when he was married to Mia Farrow in the 1980s, penned an open letter accusing Allen of sexually assaulting her in 1992, when she was seven years old. Allen responded, flatly denying the allegations.

It's an ugly, nauseating story—people seem capable of agreeing on that, if little else—but what does it have to do with Cate Blanchett's Oscar chances? Well, Allen wrote and directed Blue Jasmine, the star vehicle that showcases arguably the finest performance of Blanchett's distinguished career. It may seem crass to highlight something as serious as sexual molestation accusations in the context of something as insignificant as the Academy Awards, but my goal here is to predict the Oscars, and this story, as unsettling as it may be, is relevant to that objective. (As to the substance of Farrow's allegations, I have too few readers as it is to risk losing any by weighing in on such an inflammatory story. If you're interested in rhetoric regarding the allegations, well, that's what the Internet is for.)

So here's the unpleasant but critical question: Is Blanchett, once considered a lock to walk away with her second Oscar, now vulnerable as a result of Farrow's letter? I tend to doubt it. It would be one thing if Allen himself were eligible for the prize—he happens to be competing for Best Original Screenplay, which I don't expect him to win—but I'm skeptical that voters would take any hypothetical anger out on Blanchett, an enormously well-liked actress who hardly seems culpable for behavior that her director allegedly engaged in 22 years ago. Also, let's not forget that Blanchett's performance has been universally acclaimed, as she hit for the Precursor Triple Crown, winning at the BAFTAs, SAG, and the Golden Globes; since SAG began bestowing awards in 1994, only once has a triple crown winner in any of the four acting categories failed to win the Oscar (Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind). (Admittedly, this year, only the BAFTAs took place after Farrow's letter was publicized, though it's unclear when the actual voting took place.) And her four challengers have developed little momentum, as Adams is the only other nominee I can envision possibly sniffing the podium.

So perhaps I'm being naïve, but I expect substance to triumph over scandal. Cate Blanchett wins her second Oscar. And I do not envy her for having to deliver what undoubtedly will be a very tricky speech.


SHOULD WIN
Meryl Streep has spoiled us. In evaluating this legendary actress, critics are often tempted to judge her against her own past accomplishments, rather than on the merits of the particular performance at hand. This temptation is, without a doubt, unfair, and to yield to it this year is to deny the pleasures of Streep's technically immaculate, fiercely watchable work as a drug-addled matriarch consumed by bitterness and contempt. Yet I confess that, in watching this three-time Oscar winner snarl her way through August: Osage County, I felt rather unfulfilled. Yes, she's very good—she's always very good. But where is the hidden pathos she brought to her putatively villainous roles in Doubt and The Devil Wears Prada? Where is the unquenched yearning of Sophie's Choice, or the immovable decency of The Deer Hunter, or the indefatigable pluck of Julie and Julia? They are all absent, not because of any failure on the actress' part, but because her role in August: Osage County simply does not require them (indeed, it rejects them). Instead, all we have is Meryl Streep hammering a one-note character with spectacular craft and precision. It's better than any mere mortal could do, but surely she can do better than that.

In terms of revered status, Judi Dench is basically Britain's answer to Streep. (They've actually competed against each other at the Oscars once before, when both lost to Helen Mirren in 2006.) Yet while Dench is primarily known for playing imperious, withering women, her role in Philomena functions as a spry and pleasing change of pace. The movie paints its titular hero as a bit of a rube, one who's frequently awestruck by the wonders of the American metropolis, and Dench mines her character's fish-out-of-water status for considerable comic gain. (You will rarely hear a more persuasive pitch to watch Big Momma's House.) Yet she also imbues her provincial retiree with a powerful sense of decency, and a late scene in which this long-suffering mother chooses to forgive her former oppressors is both agonizing and inspiring. "That's hard for me," Philomena says, jaw clenched, after performing that very act of forgiveness. Maybe so, but Dench makes it look easy.

Sandra Bullock may have made things look a little too easy in Gravity, as an undercurrent of criticism has posited that her acting is unfairly propped up by the movie's remarkable special effects. On a literal level, I suppose this is true: Alfonso Cuarón did not actually shoot Bullock into space and force her to dodge a firestorm of celestial debris, so some of what you see is the result of computer-generated manipulation. Yet it's reductive to credit the enormous force of Bullock's performance to the film's binary programmers. It's an intensely personal and physical piece of acting, one that—perhaps ironically, given the movie's title—is all about weight. Mostly operating on her own, Bullock has little to play off of, but she evokes a sense of crushing suffocation, making you feel not only her character's existential torments ("What the hell am I doing up here?") but also her far more tangible dilemmas ("How the hell do I get down from here?"). It's an extraordinarily committed performance, one that properly focuses on small details even when drowning within the horrifying vastness of space.

If Bullock is a one-woman show, Amy Adams is surrounded by clutter in American Hustle. Yet even amidst such glorious chaos, Adams stands out, and not just because of her killer wardrobe. Structurally, it's a performance within a performance, and there's great pleasure in watching Adams adopt a faux British accent and defraud businessmen with the allure of wealth and regality. Yet the real genius is visible when the cracks start to appear, and Adams gradually reveals her character not as a feverishly ambitious swindler but as a lost, lonely soul simply seeking human connection. American Hustle is loaded with terrific acting, but the other performers are all playing sly variations on recognizable types (the sweaty and dignified con man, the crazed housewife, the go-getting cop). Adams' character is wholly distinct, and there's the sense that the actress isn't playing a part so much as conjuring a real person, one with a lifetime of quashed aspirations and broken dreams. It's a breathtaking combination of naturalism and surrealism, and it lends her work an indefinable grace. She understands her role is to be the scorching redhead with the low-cut dress and the no-nonsense strut, but all she knows is that she wants more. All we know is that we hope she gets it.

We don't hope for much of anything from Cate Blanchett's character in Blue Jasmine. She's basically irredeemable, a selfish, spiteful social climber (and then faller) with overpriced clothes and a noxious propensity for self-pity. But she's also mesmerizing, and as vain as Jasmine may be, Blanchett plays her without an ounce of vanity of her own. There is something horribly compelling about watching a character slowly disintegrate before our eyes, and Blanchett is simply merciless in chronicling Jasmine's descent into madness. It's a brilliant performance of gradation, since when we first meet Jasmine, she doesn't seem all that bad—self-centered, certainly, but more taxing than toxic. Yet as Jasmine's grasp on reality begins to gradually slip away, Blanchett communicates every incremental crumble with excruciating clarity. She lashes out with greater frequency, her tone growing more and more acidic, while her eyes begin to take on a faraway glaze. Soon, she's having conversations with people who aren't there, and the heartbreaking component of Blanchett's performance lies in Jasmine's utter inability to recognize her own breakdown; she's gone, and she doesn't even know it. The tragic totem in Blue Jasmine is the ballad "Blue Moon". "You know that song," Jasmine says knowingly—to no one in particular—in the film's final, devastating scene. Having watched Blanchett slowly sacrifice Jasmine to her own demons, we know it all too well.

O.K., so that's a loaded group, but who deserves to win the Oscar? For me, it's a tossup between Adams and Blanchett, and to break the tie, I'll turn to my trusty friend, sabermetrics. Now, the statistic called Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has unfortunately been polarizing the baseball community for over a decade. Don't worry, this isn't a post about the virtues and flaws of WAR. All you really need to know (which is more than most announcers, by the way) is what WAR tries to do: its goal is to measure a player's value by asking what would happen if you replaced said player with a street-level free agent, a scrub you could sign for the league minimum. This is, of course, tremendously complicated to calculate in practice, but conceptually speaking, it's incredibly useful, and it can be applied to a variety of other disciplines. Like movies.

Take Adams and Blanchett, for example. Both are great, but how critical is their respective greatness? In American Hustle, if you replaced Adams with, say, Katherine Heigl, the movie would undeniably suffer, but it would still have Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, a rollicking plot, phenomenal costumes, and a kickass soundtrack. But if you replaced Blanchett in Blue Jasmine with, say, Andie MacDowell, patrons would start clamoring for their money back. Adams is a boon to American Hustle, but Blanchett is everything to Blue Jasmine; without her incredibly nuanced performance, the movie flat-out fails. Through sheer talent, she turns a run-of-the-mill character study into a tour de force of entitlement and insanity. And that's why Cate Blanchett deserves her second Oscar.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Adèle Exarchopoulos—Blue Is the Warmest Color
Greta Gerwig—Frances Ha
Shailene Woodley—The Spectacular Now

Exarchopoulos embodies heartbreak while also demonstrating an unbreakable spirit. Gerwig is defiantly unsympathetic in Frances Ha, which makes our developing sympathy all the more moving. Woodley is so good in her second straight role that she's starting to scare me.

My ideal winner: Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine.




MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Rooney Mara—Side Effects
Saorise Ronan—Byzantium
Sharni Vinson—You're Next
Mia Wasikowska—Stoker

Mara makes for a wonderfully duplicitous foil in Side Effects, all hooded eyes and furtive movements. Ronan, with those alien-blue eyes, is the perfect vessel for conveying vampiric loneliness and isolation. Vinson's willowy frame and flowing locks recall Charlotte Gainsbourg, which makes her reveal as the biggest female badass since Sigourney Weaver in Aliens all the more satisfying. Speaking of satisfying, it's gratifying to see an actress as sensitive and thoughtful as Wasikowska tear into a campy role, which she does with delectable relish.




Also deserving: Amy Acker—Much Ado About Nothing (for her grace, and her delightful lack of it); Felicity Jones—The Invisible Woman (for her quietly hypnotic depiction of a woman haunted by her own past); Andrea Riseborough—Shadow Dancer (for burrowing beneath the surface); Saskia Rosendahl—Lore (for refusing to pander).


Previous Oscar Analysis
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Oscars 2013: The best of the rest (from Animated Feature to Makeup)

The 86th Academy Awards are a week away, and the Manifesto still needs to analyze the big four categories of Best Actor, Actress, Director, and Picture. Before that, however, we need to weed through the remaining races that we've yet to cover. These may not be the sexiest categories, but the winners get a statuette all the same, and the Manifesto prides itself on completeness.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

NOMINEES
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen
The Wind Rises

WILL WIN
Frozen. It's a crowd-pleasing Disney musical that racked up $381 million (and counting) while delighting viewers of all ages. Good luck topping that one.


SHOULD WIN
I've yet to see Ernest & Celestine and The Wind Rises (the latter just received a theatrical release this weekend, though not in a theatre near me). My thoughts on The Croods are here; it's a pleasant enough movie with some nicely choreographed action sequences, but it's ultimately crippled by its pandering themes and its refusal to take chances. It's nevertheless superior to Despicable Me 2, a limp, useless sequel that epitomizes Hollywood's abhorrent franchise laziness. I was by no means a fan of the well-regarded first film, but at least it told a vaguely original story. The sequel barely bothers with a story at all—it's really just an excuse for those dratted yellow minions to spout gibberish as a marketing lead-in to their upcoming spinoff, Minions. That it received an Oscar nomination is a black mark on the Academy.

Thankfully, the voters managed to nominate a legitimately good movie in Frozen. Disney's tale of two princesses isn't quite a classic—it plays things a bit safe, and its strained attempts at humor exhibit neither the anarchic zip of Wreck-It Ralph nor the visual ingenuity of Tangled—but its story of sisterly affection is surprisingly moving, plus it happily topples Disney's gender stereotypes. That it also features the studio's most triumphant song since The Lion King doesn't hurt.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Frozen
Monsters University

Ouch. Animation as a technological medium keeps getting more and more impressive, so why does each year seem to provide fewer high-quality animated movies? (For reference, my ideal ballot last year featured three animated films rather than two.) In any event, for its first two-thirds, Monsters University is a visually stunning disappointment, using a gorgeously realized setting to tell a tired slobs-versus-snobs story. Thankfully, things take a sharply unpredictable turn in the third act, and that hairpin twist salvages the movie from apparent mediocrity. Monsters University may not be as uniformly excellent as Pixar's best work, but there's enough creative genius on display to have continued faith in the studio going forward. (Translation: I'm excited for The Good Dinosaur in 2015.)

My ideal winner: Frozen.


BEST COSTUME DESIGN

NOMINEES
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

WILL WIN
Glitz rules the day here, and there's nothing glitzier than the eye-popping outfits that adorn the sycophants who saunter through Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. It isn't quite a lock—The Invisible Woman is the type of classically mannered period piece that the Oscars tend to favor, while American Hustle rightly turned heads with its brazen evocation of '70s wardrobe—but I can't envision voters denying Gatsby's bravura showmanship.

Carey Mulligan in "The Great Gatsby"


SHOULD WIN
Come on. Did you see Amy Adams' outfits in American Hustle?

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper in "American Hustle"

MY IDEAL BALLOT
American Hustle
The Bling Ring
Blue Jasmine
The Great Gatsby
Oz the Great and Powerful

The common thread (get it?) among these five selections is that they all use costume design to enhance their story. Both The Bling Ring and The Great Gatsby traffic in celebrity-obsessed culture, with the former featuring impostors who do their best to dress like the rich and famous, while the latter delivers the real thing. Blue Jasmine uses non-linear editing to tell its tale of an aristocrat who receives her comeuppance, and the contrast in wardrobe between the two timelines is effectively jarring. Oz the Great and Powerful demonstrates how villainy can be seductive, especially when it takes the form of Rachel Weisz. And American Hustle is all about hucksters who sell an image of class and refinement, so they'd damn well better look the part.

My ideal winner: American Hustle.


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

NOMINEES
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom

WILL WIN
As is always the case, I haven't seen any of these nominees, so I can only base my prediction on their public reception. And the only documentary that received any noticeable publicity this year was The Act of Killing. It's apparently a daring and controversial picture that toys with documentary form, so some voters might prefer a more typical choice (perhaps 20 Feet from Stardom?), but when it comes to the Oscars, any news is good news.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

NOMINEES
The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Missing Picture
Omar

WILL WIN
In an emerging and frustrating trend, I've only seen one of these five nominees, but that's less a matter of personal choice than a consequence of meager distribution. None of these movies was released in a theatre near me, and four of them have yet to be made available via Netflix. The one candidate I did see, The Hunt, is a worthy contender, but its tale of pedophilia and paranoia may unsettle some voters. Of the others, the only nominee with any substantial buzz is The Great Beauty, so what the hell, let's go with that.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Drug War
The Hunt
No

As always, I refuse to tether myself to the Academy's arcane eligibility rules; in my view, if a movie was released within the United States at some point in 2013, it's worthy of consideration. In any event, while my Netflix queue is littered with foreign films that I've yet to see, 2013 appears to have been a somewhat down year for imported cinema, with these four movies towering above the rest. Blue Is the Warmest Color needs no introduction (I'll address it at greater length when I finally get around to my top 10 list). Drug War is a rapidly paced crime saga in which the cops and robbers tend to blur. The Hunt is an eerily persuasive portrait of how groupthink and suspicion can corrode a community and destroy innocent lives. No is a delightful contradiction, a free-wheeling and gleefully entertaining depiction of a sober and troubling period in history.

My ideal winner: Blue Is the Warmest Color.


BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

NOMINEES
Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

As amusing as it would be for a body as haughty as the Academy to hand a trophy to something called Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Dallas Buyers Club should cruise to victory here.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
American Hustle
Prisoners
This Is the End

American Hustle features the greatest combover of all-time. Prisoners take no quarter in depicting the physical punishment afforded to one of its many victims. And I simply cannot resist the demonic makeup applied to Jonah Hill in This Is the End, which is somehow both lo-fi and scarily convincing.

My ideal winner: American Hustle.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Supporting Actress

I typically analyze this category early in my Oscar predictions, but the race is so uncertain this year that I wanted to wait until after the BAFTAs so I had much information as possible. Now, we're nine days away from the telecast, and I'm still clueless. Typical.

NOMINEES
Sally Hawkins—Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o—12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts—August: Osage County
June Squibb—Nebraska

WILL WIN
Forget Hawkins, Roberts, and Squibb—this race is all about Lawrence vs. Nyong'o. Both have won upwards of 10 precursor awards for their respective performances, with Lawrence nabbing trophies at both the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, while Nyong'o scored with the Screen Actors' Guild. Both have also earned a number of wins from prestigious critics' groups (National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle for Lawrence, Los Angeles Film Critics Association for Nyong'o). And both appear in well-regarded Best Picture nominees. In short, this is about as close as you can get to a pure coin flip.

In considering this battle, I'm haunted by the spectre of two prior races whose winners I failed to predict. The first was the Best Actress field in 2011, when I backed Viola Davis (and her SAG win) in The Help over Meryl Streep (and her wins at the Globes and BAFTAs) in The Iron Lady, reasoning that the voters might be suffering from Streep fatigue and would be wary of handing her a third Oscar. (They weren't.) The second was for the same category the following year, when Lawrence herself (in Silver Linings Playbook) defeated Emmanuelle Riva (in Amour), despite the latter's BAFTA nod.

If there's a lesson to be learned from those two catastrophes—other than that I'm less than stellar in forecasting the Best Actress race—it may be that precursor wins are overrated. The Academy is often criticized for being overly mainstream, but it tends to vote its own way, and trying to predict its choices via a quantitative formula is just as likely to yield white noise as a clear signal pattern.

Instead, I'll ask this question: Whom does the Academy like? In 2011, voters reiterated that they really like Meryl Streep, and last year, they established that they really like Jennifer Lawrence. (Don't forget that she also scored a nomination in 2010 for Winter's Bone.) In the Hunger Games franchise, she literally plays "the girl on fire", and that metaphor is only too apt; right now, she's hotter than Steph Curry when he gets into one of those zones. I'm not betting against her until she misses. Jennifer Lawrence takes her second straight Oscar.


SHOULD WIN
If you watched August: Osage County—and for your sake, I hope you didn't—you could be forgiven for failing to remember that Julia Roberts even appears in the film. There's nothing wrong with her acting, but it's a bit blank, and that's a problem given the enormous profile of her surrounding cast. The movie is ardently devoted to extreme swells of feeling, and it practically swallows up Roberts' muted portrayal; she isn't grand enough to evade the long shadow cast by Meryl Streep, but she also isn't understated enough to match the delicate emoting of Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch. It's a small, ill-fitting performance in a film that blindly champions outlandish gestures.

Sally Hawkins also faces the unenviable task of supporting a titan, but her work in Blue Jasmine opposite Cate Blanchett is more effective, in part because it feels less competitive. Hawkins recognizes that this is Blanchett's show, but she nevertheless carves out a small space of her own, imbuing her more pragmatic sister with a quiet dignity that clashes poignantly against Blanchett's flailing desperation. Blue Jasmine will be remembered for Blanchett's fearless performance, but Hawkins more than does her part, providing a sliver of hope amidst the madness.

There's nothing so subtle about June Squibb's unapologetically crotchety performance in Nebraska, but that's what makes it so much fun. Torpedoing the stereotype of the kindly old lady, Squibb plays her octogenarian with an appealing mixture of weary resentment and cackling glee. Yes, she's a bit soft in the center, and she flashes a fierce maternal pride when her family is threatened. But she also isn't above taunting the entombed residents of a graveyard, even flashing the headstone of a former suitor. The satisfaction Squibb's character derives from that lewd display transfers to her audience, as we can take pleasure in a performance that, while hardly bone-deep, is never boring.

Neither is Lupita Nyong'o's in 12 Years a Slave, but hers is far more devastating. Nyong'o serves as the perfect foil for Chiwetel Ejiofor's wounded pride, matching his silent intensity with a resounding agency of her own. Her role requires a good deal of screaming, but through all the wailing, Nyong'o never loses sight of the independence of her soul, even if her body is others' chattel. Yet she's fighting a losing battle, and the ashen look in her eyes when she recognizes she's been defeated is simply devastating. It's a stirring performance from a little-known actress that's hopefully the sign of more great things to come.

One could have said something similar following Jennifer Lawrence's striking turn in 2009's the Burning Plain. Suffice it to say that those hints of greatness have since been realized, because right now, Lawrence is just playing in a different league. Save perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio, no actor in 2013 blazes on screen the way Lawrence does in American Hustle. Whether she's careening along to "Live and Let Die" while wearing dish gloves or patiently explaining to her husband why she's the secret inspiration behind his genius, Lawrence emanates an effervescent energy that's both exhilarating and almost exhausting. Yet there's a scene late in the movie when her character is paralyzed by fear and self-doubt, and Lawrence redirects all of her forcefulness inward so that she's perfectly still, with the notable exception of her eyes, which dance back and forth at a million miles an hour. It's a breathtaking moment, and a reminder of just how incredibly persuasive this 23-year-old can be. Perhaps the only thing more electric than Lawrence's performance in American Hustle is the tantalizing possibility of what she might do next.




(Want to know what's truly frightening about American Hustle? Lawrence is this good, yet she somehow delivers the third-best performance in the movie. Crazy.)


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Scarlett Johansson—Her
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o—12 Years a Slave
Léa Seydoux—Blue Is the Warmest Color
Emma Watson—The Bling Ring

Johansson impossibly creates a fully realized character using only her voice—with every sigh, stutter, and half-breath, her digitized entity becomes incrementally (and heartbreakingly) more human. Seydoux combats Adèle Exarchopoulos' righteous fury with sublime tentativeness and uncertainty. Watson continues to demolish any preconceived notion of her range, embracing celebrity's spotlight with voracious zeal.

My ideal winner: Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle.


MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Meghan Charpentier—Mama
Melissa Leo—Prisoners
Jena Malone—The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Julianne Moore—Don Jon
Andrea Riseborough—Oblivion

Charpentier exhibits extraordinary poise, generating some legitimate pathos within Mama's schlocky ghost story. Leo is her usual masterful self in Prisoners, layering her character with shrewd intelligence and quiet resolve. Malone pops off the screen in Catching Fire. Moore brings some welcome unpredictability to Don Jon, transforming her meager part into the movie's most interesting character. By rights, Riseborough should be 2013's breakout star (she also delivered stellar performances in Disconnect and Shadow Dancer), and in Oblivion, she beautifully conveys unfulfilled desire and sullen self-loathing.


Also deserving: Vera Farmiga—The Conjuring (for making us not only fear for her but also sympathize with her); Emma Watson—This Is the End (for having a blast); Rachel Weisz—Oz the Great and Powerful (ibid).


Previous Oscar Analysis

The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Oscars 2013: Feeling Gravity's Pull

For such a critically and commercially successful film, Gravity has become weirdly polarizing. One camp of viewers seems to have found it technically stunning but narratively lacking, while the other camp was completely seduced by its marriage of jaw-dropping craftsmanship and intimate storytelling. Yet as much discussion as Gravity has generated, few people seem to actively dislike it; those denigrating it tend to frame their feedback as less absolute ("It was a bad movie") than relative ("It was a good movie, but ..."). That's because, ignoring the physicists carping about the film's alleged lack of aeronautical realism, audiences seem to have reached consensus that the technical aspects of Alfonso Cuarón's space thriller are objectively astonishing. People may have quibbled with Gravity's story, but there's no disputing its skill. Or, to cast the debate in the somewhat archaic language of cinematic snobbery: Not everyone necessarily thinks Gravity is a good film, but virtually everyone agrees that it's a good movie.

And this makes its Oscar candidacy absolutely fascinating. The Academy Awards have never been shy about honoring technically superlative features that achieved box-office stardom; Star Wars won six Oscars, while Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Peter Jackson's King Kong, The Matrix, and Inception all won four. Hell, even Avatar and The Bourne Ultimatum—which is about as unpretentious as mainstream movies get—took home three Oscars apiece. But rarely do such smash hits double as high art, and while those seven movies combined for 28 Oscars, exactly zero came in major categories (i.e., Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, or any of the acting fields). So, although the Academy is more than happy to invite fantastical blockbusters to its party, it generally keeps them at the kids' table.

Gravity is different. It's currently neck-and-neck with 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture, and Cuarón is the frontrunner for Best Director. Yet of its 10 nominations, seven pop up in "below-the-line" categories. (Contrast that with American Hustle, which also received 10 nominations but scored seven in major categories.) That means that Gravity—with its unsurpassed and undisputed technical brilliance—is poised to absolutely dominate the 2013 Oscars in a quantitative sense, but it's also prone to being remembered as an also-ran, one of those visually impressive movies that just couldn't compete with the more artful prestige pictures.

Whichever fate you feel Gravity deserves obviously hinges on which of the two aforementioned camps you adhere to. If you're of the "good movie, not good film" school, you'll likely feel comfortable if it scoops up a handful of technical awards and floats off on its way. Yet if you view Gravity as something more than the sum of its interlocking parts—as, say, a spellbinding motion picture that realizes its lofty artistic ambitions through a bravura combination of maximalist craft and minimalist plot—you may well be disappointed if it eventually becomes the big space movie that couldn't.

Regardless, Gravity currently lies in a unique position in Oscar history. Twenty-one movies have won seven or more Oscars, and only one of those (Cabaret) failed to win Best Picture. Yet by my count regardless of its performance in Best Picture, Director, and Actress, Gravity is a serious contender to take home trophies in those seven below-the-line categories in which it's nominated. As such, this post will walk through those seven categories and consider Gravity's relative likelihood of success, as well as challengers to its very strange potential crown. But first, a brief message from the Manifesto's longtime sponsor, R.E.M.:




BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
The Grandmaster—Philippe Le Sourd
Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis—Bruno Delbonnel
Nebraska—Phedon Papamichael
Prisoners—Roger Deakins

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: High. The very notion of cinematography is being continuously redefined in today's digital landscape, and some purists grumble that the Academy should segregate movies that employ technological wizardry into their own category so that voters can concentrate on more classical examples of pictorial beauty. But the Oscars have happily embraced new-age photography, as the past four winners in this category (Avatar, Inception, Hugo, and Life of Pi) all skillfully blended traditional shooting styles with modern innovation.

Potential challengers: The Grandmaster and Nebraska have no shot. Venerable photographer Roger Deakins somehow still hasn't collected a single Oscar in his remarkable career (this is his eleventh nomination), but his work on Prisoners isn't flashy enough to bump off Gravity. Inside Llewyn Davis might have had a chance if the movie had built some overall momentum, but given that it only received two nominations, that just hasn't been the case.

Official prediction: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki.

The Manifesto's personal pick:The Grandmaster showcases some impressive, rain-soaked images, but Le Sourd hardly redefines the look of the martial-arts genre the way Zhang Yimou's earlier films did (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). Nebraska's black-and-white photography satisfactorily conveys the bleak, spartan milieu of its Midwestern setting, but Papamichael's style is pretty much point-and-shoot. More effective in expressing tone is Deakins' work on Prisoners, whose chilly palette and severe compositions evoke helplessness and despair. Delbonnel provides a number of haunting shots in Inside Llewyn Davis—when the title character peers through the snow at a wounded animal, you can almost see the fight leaking out of his soul.

But as beautiful as Inside Llewyn Davis frequently is, it didn't drop my jaw the way Gravity did. Certainly, there's a measure of synergy between Lubezki's photography and the stunning work of the V/X crew, but regardless, the film's 3-D camerawork is simply awe-inspiring, and Lubezki (a six-time nominee who's never won) clearly played a major role. Gravity's camera is practically its own character, as it stoically but earnestly floats through space, tracking the movie's flailing astronauts with both intrepid energy and cool dispassion. It's just a camera pointed at some actors, but it's also a cinematic revolution.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis—Bruno Delbonnel
Only God Forgives—Larry Smith
Spring Breakers—Benoît Debie
12 Years a Slave—Sean Bobbitt

Only God Forgives was among my least favorite films of the year, but Smith's lighting is objectively gorgeous, bathing the proceedings in nightmarish red hues. Debie takes things a step further in Spring Breakers, providing a gauzy, neon-drenched aesthetic that's in perfect keeping with the movie's hedonistic zeal. Bobbitt's disciplined shooting style conforms beautifully with Steve McQueen's rigor, as his camera observes the brutality of 12 Years a Slave with heartbreaking detachment.

My ideal winner: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki.




BEST FILM EDITING

NOMINEES
American Hustle—Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Dallas Buyers Club—John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa
Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
12 Years a Slave—Joe Walker

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Moderate. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Best Picture winner trumps here, but the numbers don't bear that out; in the past 15 years, the same film has scooped both trophies just seven times. So even if you're leaning toward 12 Years a Slave for the top prize, that thinking shouldn't result in a concordant bump here. Furthermore, Gravity runs a tidy and economical 90 minutes, and voters may respond to its impressive self-discipline.

Potential challengers: Captain Phillips won the guild award, so it's possible that the frantic cutting and deepening suspense of Paul Greengrass' film will appeal to the Academy (one of Greengrass' prior efforts, The Bourne Ultimatum, stunned No Country for Old Men in this category in 2007). 12 Years a Slave obviously possesses a classical Best Picture pedigree, though Steve McQueen's mercilessly long takes may not feature enough visible editing for voters to take notice. American Hustle is likely too scattered in its plotting to make an impact here. As for Dallas Buyers Club, after its nomination was announced in this category, it received 30 days to live, and its time is up.

Official prediction: Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger.

The Manifesto's personal pick: I enjoyed American Hustle quite a bit, but it could have benefited from an extra pair of pruning shears, as its boundless energy occasionally threatens to overwhelm its narrative. Dallas Buyers Club's nomination here simply mystifies me; perhaps I would view it more charitably if the editors had simply piped up at the beginning of production, "Hey, should we just cut Jennifer Garner?" 12 Years a Slave flirts with nonlinear storytelling in its early passages, but it quickly settles into an episodic rhythm, and its editing is less extraordinary than effective.

Captain Phillips and Gravity are obviously very different films, but they share a significant similarity in that they're both about a protagonist placed in an impossible situation and facing long odds for survival. Gravity is more operatic in its ambition and execution, but from an editing standpoint, Captain Phillips is more persuasive. It also benefits from a quantitative advantage—whereas Gravity is mostly a one-woman show, Captain Phillips involves multiple settings and characters—and as it skillfully pivots from a pitiful lifeboat to a glowering warship and back, the sudden-but-precise cross-cutting heightens the tension dramatically. Not bad for a movie about a guy sitting on a boat.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Disconnect—Lee Percy, Kevin Tent
Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
Her—Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—Greg Hayden

Disconnect takes a trite everything-is-connected trope and sharpens it through canny editing, lending haunting impact to its title. Her features not a wasted shot. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty adroitly blends mundane reality with souped-up fantasy.

My ideal winner: Disconnect—Lee Percy, Kevin Tent.




BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

NOMINEES
The Book Thief—John Williams
Gravity—Steven Price
Her—William Butler, Owen Pallett (aka Arcade Fire)
Philomena—Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks—Thomas Newman

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Moderate-to-high. Price's score shifts from minimalist to bombastic, and that fluidity should register with voters. Besides ...

Potential challengers: ... It just doesn't face a legitimate threat. The only movie I see pulling off an upset is Her, but even that seems far-fetched, given the tentative nature of Arcade Fire's subtly evocative score.

Official prediction: Gravity—Steven Price.

The Manifesto's personal pick: I do my best every year to watch every motion picture nominated for an Oscar, but one always seems to slip through the cracks—this year, it was The Book Thief, so I abstain regarding the merits of John Williams' score. Otherwise, this is a disappointing field. Gravity is a sonic marvel, but Price's score tends to hover at extreme ends of the spectrum, either bombarding viewers with noise or hushing them with quiet. Desplat earned his seventeenth nomination for Philomena, but he could have composed it on autopilot. Newman's score is a perfect match for Saving Mr. Banks, which is to say it's syrupy, overbearing, and dreadful.

Thankfully, the Academy recognized Arcade Fire's gorgeous work on Her. It isn't particularly showy music, but its delicate piano and mournful strings beautifully capture the movie's spirit of repressed longing. Score one for pop music.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Her—William Butler, Owen Pallett (aka Arcade Fire)
The Invisible Woman—Ilan Eshkeri
Oblivion—M83
Trance—Rick Smith
12 Years a Slave—Hans Zimmer

Eshkeri makes the most of his scoring time on The Invisible Woman, enhancing the title character's loneliness with a tremulous piano that recalls Dario Marianelli's work on Joe Wright's films. Working as M83, Anthony Gonzalez showcases what electronic music can do in the right setting, crafting bold cinematic soundscapes perfectly suited to Oblivion's dystopian universe. Smith performs a similar feat in the contemporary-aged Trance. Zimmer subdues his typical flourishes on 12 Years a Slave but still delivers a powerful series of compositions.

My ideal winner: Oblivion—M83.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

NOMINEES
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years a Slave

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Uncertain. The movie takes place in the vast void of space, so it doesn't exactly lend itself to glitzy sets. That means it's trailing behind ...

Potential challengers: ... The Great Gatsby. Baz Luhrmann's would-be epic is nothing if not lavishly designed. The mansions of West Egg pop with color and architectural boldness, and the restaurants and hotel rooms of New York City are only slightly less dazzling. 12 Years a Slave—with its rustic plantations and brittle farmhouses—can't be discounted either, especially in the wake of last year's surprise win for period-piece Lincoln. But in the end, to paraphrase a pair of famous American authors, movies about rich people are different from you and me: They have more Oscars.

Official prediction: The Great Gatsby.

The Manifesto's personal pick: This award seems to be losing shape for me. Maybe I'm still bitter about Anna Karenina losing last year—scratch that, I'm definitely still bitter—but it seems as though the Academy is just highlighting distinguished period or fantasy films, with little regard as to the actual quality of their production design. American Hustle is a terrific movie, but other than some '70s-specific cars and nightclubs, what's noteworthy about its art direction? Gravity basically has one set, and while its Russian space station is a neat little vessel with some cool buttons, it isn't exactly a jaw-dropper. Even 12 Years a Slave's recreation of the antebellum south is more serviceable than striking.

With that said, I should compliment the Academy on recognizing Her, as its sleek interiors quietly convey a vaguely uncomfortable future in which innovation begets isolation. (Imagine Edward Norton's IKEA-decked apartment from Fight Club, only stretched 50 years into the future.) And The Great Gatsby itself is well deserving of a statuette; watching the movie, you can almost feel the tactile pleasures of its characters' obscene, oppressive wealth. I just wish this award meant more to people.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Great Gatsby
Her
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Oblivion

The Desolation of Smaug conjures a number of remarkable environments, none more astonishing than that mountainous lair of glimmering gold. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is less ostentatious but more sinister, and its landmark arena throbs with hidden danger. Oblivion provides a stunning vision of dystopia, with a suspended-in-air pool that encapsulates its world of gorgeous, not-quite-right elegance.

My ideal winner: Oblivion.




BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: High. The Academy's sound awards basically defy logic, but in the end, the technically superior feature usually wins out.

Potential challengers: Lone Survivor is probably the most feasible upset pick—it's loud and employs an awful lot of gunfire. Don't hold your breath.

Official prediction: Gravity.

The Manifesto's personal pick: It's easy to just grudgingly acknowledge that Gravity is a well-crafted movie and then move on, but its sound design is damn impressive. It's entrancing not just in its noise but in its silence, as lingering stretches of quiet are suddenly punctuated by bursts of cacophonous clatter. Watch that storm of debris shooting toward you in 3-D, and you may find yourself not only shrinking in your seat but also instinctively covering your ears.


BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: High. The same movie has won both sound categories in four of the past six years, so there's no real sense in predicting a split.

Potential challengers: Musicals and war movies tend to fare well here, so both Inside Llewyn Davis and Lone Survivor have a nominal chance. Indeed, Inside Llewyn Davis recorded its musical performances live on set, a technique that resulted in Oscar gold last year with Les Misérables. Of course, Les Misérables also had Anne Hathaway.

Official prediction: Gravity.

The Manifesto's personal pick: I was about to point out that Oscar Isaac has a lovely voice in Inside Llewyn Davis, but that reminded me of Bane saying the same thing before blowing up a football stadium in The Dark Knight Rises. Let's just move on.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

NOMINEES
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Please.

Potential challengers: Nope.

Official prediction: Gravity.

The Manifesto's personal pick: The choice is obvious, but there's something more intriguing going on here. Each of the last four years, one movie has shattered the preexisting ceiling with its visual effects and made us wonder just what else the medium can accomplish. Those four: Avatar, Inception, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which inexcusably lost in this category to Hugo, but never mind), and Gravity. Here's the interesting question: Where does Gravity rank among those four in terms of its impact on cinema going forward? I'm inclined to place it second. Gravity reaffirms that 3-D can be boldly effective when utilized appropriately, and it illustrates how big-budget filmmaking can double as museum-grade art. But Avatar got there first, and absorbing its exhilarating technique—not just the supple 3-D, but also the graceful motion-capture technology—remains the seminal "Wow!" moment of my adult filmgoing life. But what's wonderful about this trend is that every year seems to offer a new breakthrough, a seismic event that makes us think, "This shouldn't be possible, but I'm watching it anyway." It's enough to make me excited about going to the movies.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Oz the Great and Powerful
Pacific Rim
The World's End

It's tempting to think that Smaug is all about Smaug, but while the titular dragon is a fearsome example of CGI's power, a number of other sequences in the film are equally spectacular. Both Oz the Great and Powerful and The World's End function as refreshing reminders that visual effects can do more than simply assault audiences, especially when employed with subtlety and surprise. There's nothing subtle about the effects in Pacific Rim, but those robots and monsters sure do look the part.

My ideal winner: Gravity.

A scene from "Gravity"


So to sum up, I'm predicting six wins for Gravity in these seven categories. Will I be right, and if so, will that be enough to give it a Best Picture bump? We shall see.


Previous Oscar Analysis

Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

Friday, February 7, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Adapted Screenplay

NOMINEES
Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Captain Phillips—Billy Ray
Philomena—Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
12 Years a Slave—John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall Street—Terence Winter

WILL WIN
Bellwether alert: The last four times the eventual Best Picture winner competed in this category (i.e., it wasn't the product of an original screenplay), it scooped up this ancillary prize as well. Variance does happen—Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, and The English Patient all came up short here before winning the pageant—but the surest technique in predicting this category is to just ride the coattails of the frontrunner.

The question is this: Is 12 Years a Slave really a Best Picture frontrunner? We'll know more after the BAFTAs in a few weeks, but at this point, I think Steve McQueen's merciless depiction of human cruelty is running in pole position but is hardly lapping the field. Gravity is right on its tail, and I remain wary of an Anakin-in-the-pod-race surge from American Hustle and its league-leading 10 nominations. Of course, neither of those movies is a threat here (both featured original screenplays), which raises a second question: If 12 Years a Slave is vulnerable, which challenger has the "Villanova in '85" chutzpah to knock it off here?

The most seductive pick is Captain Phillips, which is well-liked and suspenseful, and it just nabbed the award from the Writers' Guild. That victory is somewhat hollow, however, given that the guild deemed 12 Years a Slave to be ineligible; it's as though a group of voters decided to bestow an award for Best Baldwin, then refused to put Alec on the ballot. As for The Wolf of Wall Street, it did win Best Screenplay from the National Board of Review, but I'm guessing it's too long and polarizing to achieve the kind of consensus required to pick up a major Oscar outside of the acting categories. And Philomena has about as much chance of winning as the Broncos did following Percy Harvin's kickoff return.

The only legitimate threat in my mind is Before Midnight, which seems odd, given that it's the lone nominee here that lacks a corresponding Best Picture nod. (For the record, the last movie to win here that lacked a Best Picture nomination was Gods and Monsters in 1998.) But it's already picked up wins from both the LA Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, two prestigious and well-populated circles. More importantly, it's an extremely talky film, and Oscar voters tend to equate writing with dialogue rather than story development. It's enough of a confluence of factors to make 12 Years a Slave nervous.

Nervous, but not helpless. John Ridley's script tells a deeply moving story that anchors the likely Best Picture winner, so as appealing and sexy Before Midnight may look as an upset pick, it just doesn't have the firepower to pick up a win for its lone nomination. 12 Years a Slave takes it.




(Amusing note: The YouTube user who uploaded that clip labeled it, "12 Years a Slave—Brad Pitt Movie." Apparently the uproar over this didn't exactly result in widespread social change.)


SHOULD WIN
Curiously enough, my usual disclaimer—that critics should judge an adapted screenplay not as a piece of standalone writing but in terms of how it actually modified its source material—doesn't really apply this year, or at least not with as much force as usual. That may be because four of the nominees chronicle ostensibly true events. (The only one that doesn't is Before Midnight, which the Academy moronically places in the Adapted category because it's a sequel and is thus based on previously existing characters, even though all of the script's material is new.) As a result, the typical temptation to adhere slavishly to a beloved novel is absent. (Fun fact: This year represents the first time since 1927—also known as the inaugural Oscars—that none of the nominated scripts was based on a novel.) Thus, although Captain Phillips is based on its eponym's memoir, Billy Ray obviously took considerable artistic license, especially in crafting scenes that take place outside Phillips' point of view. 12 Years a Slave is also based on a memoir, but one written in 1853; I've never read it, but I have to believe that John Ridley took similar liberties in writing his own dialogue rather than lifting it from the pages of the book. As for The Wolf of Wall Street, I've heard that Jordan Belfort's book is pompous and self-aggrandizing, and while the movie is undeniably a portrait of excess, it hardly paints Belfort in a favorable light.

The only nominated screenplay that functions as a fairly standard form of adaptation is Philomena, which Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted from Martin Sixsmith's book. But even its based-on-a-true-story narrative feels authentic, possibly because Sixsmith appears as a character and is played by Coogan as a rather superior schmuck. Yet the screenplay also feels somewhat slight, and while it's a delicately observed character study in opposites, it never quite achieves the larger topical resonance you sense it's grasping for, especially in its muted treatment of sectarian abuse.

The remaining three nominees that also sport an accompanying Best Picture nod fare better. I'd argue that The Wolf of Wall Street derives its magnetism more from Martin Scorsese's directing and Leonardo DiCaprio's acting than from Terence Winter's screenplay, but Winter nevertheless does an impressive job streamlining reams of material and packaging it into a cohesive story of inexhaustible lust for money and power. Some of my favorite moments in the film occur when DiCaprio's character breaks the fourth wall and starts explaining the complexities of his various scams to the audience, then catches himself and says something to the effect of, "It doesn't matter how it worked; just trust me that we were all making a fuckload of money." It doubles as Winter's tacit acknowledgement that it's the debauchery—and the obsessive drive for money leading to that debauchery—that matters. The how is never as interesting as the why.

Captain Phillips, in contrast, is more visibly about the how, as Ray's screenplay asks a number of intriguing questions, ranging from logistical (how does a band of malnourished pirates use two small skiffs to board a far more imposing freighter?) to behavioral (how would a civilian respond when trapped in a life-or-death situation?) to geopolitical (how does the U.S. military weigh risk and reward when civilian lives, both American and foreign, are at stake?). But Ray doesn't shy away from probing at the psychological costs of heroism, and his script also keenly observes the global imperative equating work with survival. (In the film's most cutting scene, Barkhad Abdi's pirate gloats to Phillips about how he heisted six million dollars last year, to which Phillips responds with faux inquisitiveness, "Six million, huh? Then what are you doing here?") Captain Phillips is first and foremost a thriller, but it's a thriller about people, and Ray's screenplay never loses sight of the seamen behind the ships.

Considerable nuance aside, Captain Phillips is a fairly blunt actioner in terms of plot, but structurally speaking, 12 Years a Slave is perhaps even more straightforward. It's an episodic narrative that presents its hero with a series of problems, then sits back and watches to see how he responds. The power in John Ridley's screenplay lies not in flash but in pure content. This is a powerful, gripping story of endurance and suffering, and the arc that Ridley sketches for Solomon Northup—who must battle not only the abstract obstacles of bigotry and ignorance but also the far more literal impediments of whips and chains—is furiously, almost sickeningly compelling. It's ultimately a tale of triumph, but its steadfast refusal to sentimentalize its protagonist's journey grants it veracity, and in so doing makes it all the more triumphant.

So those are three good screenplays; none, however, can rival the searing catharsis achieved in the final scenes of Before Midnight. It's perhaps ironic that this screenplay is the only nominee that isn't literally based on truth, given the raw and naked emotional truths that splash across the screen. There is nothing fancy about Julie Delpy's, Ethan Hawke's, and Richard Linklater's screenplay. It simply involves two people who know each other very well, and it examines how they can use that knowledge to inflict pain on one another when trapped. This is a story of stunning intimacy, a deeply affecting drama that examines marriage with honesty and clarity. It is ruthless and unsparing, but those same qualities make it noble and rewarding. It is such a rare treat to spend time at the movies with real people, to bask in their warmth and flaws and messy humanity. We should acknowledge such an opportunity for what it is: a gift.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Blue Is the Warmest Color—Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix
The Spectacular Now—Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
12 Years a Slave—John Ridley
What Maisie Knew—Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright

Blue Is the Warmest Color provides a fully realized coming-of-age portrait, observing a young woman's development with unflinching detachment but also heartbreaking tenderness. The Spectacular Now takes a standard boy-meets-girl setup and infuses it with vividness and texture, shattering our expectations in the process. What Maisie Knew is an uncommonly thoughtful examination of divorce and its consequences on small children, and it gratifyingly rejects the temptation to cast any of its imperfect characters as a villain.

My ideal winner: The Spectacular Now—Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman (plus, my 10 favorite Hoffman performances)

Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday at the age of 46. This is a tragedy. I say this, of course, at something of a distance—I never met the man, and I cannot pretend that the pain I feel at his passing can compare to that experienced by his family and friends, as well as the industry that knew and embraced him as an astonishing talent. Yet I am confident in stating that Hoffman's death is a blow not only to those who knew him but to those who watched him. Thousands of fans in cinema, whether they be mainstream moviegoers or art-house cinephiles, have been deprived of a truly gifted artist, and I mourn Hoffman's death both for the incredible actor he was and for the actor he never grew to be. I am a greedy, selfish movie fan, and it grieves me that I won't be able to witness Hoffman's career as it unfolds into his late period, to see how he adjusts and flourishes with age. I shudder to imagine the dozens of insular, nuanced performances he will never be able to provide. It wasn't supposed to end like this.

But end it has. For the record, I'm not particularly interested in how it ended, and so I'll leave the particulars of Hoffman's death to the police and the gossipmongers. I do hope that the circumstances of his death, however sordid and disturbing they may turn out to be, do not retroactively inform our opinions and analysis of his work. Hoffman specialized in playing troubled characters, but while it's tempting to impute an actor's personal life to his professional temperament—to suggest that his screen persona of soulful weariness and haunted undertones stemmed from real-life torments, rather than mere talent or technique—it is also profoundly dangerous and irresponsible. It may be that Hoffman drew on his own experiences to inform and enrich his portrayals, but insinuating such a causal link discredits the rigor and commitment he brought to his craft. As such, when evaluating Hoffman's work, I look at what I saw on the screen, and what I saw was a very good actor. Now, that very good actor is gone.

But rather than dwelling on what we've lost, I thought I'd focus on what we gained. And so, what follows is one critic's list of the 10 best performances of Hoffman's career. This is something of a fool's errand; Hoffman leaves behind a rich body of extraordinarily versatile work that blurred the line between character actor and movie star, and he brought ample texture and depth to virtually every one of his roles, whether in a big-budget blockbuster or a little-seen indie. To reduce such a distinguished career to a meager 10 credits seems almost cruel. But consider this a simple starting point, a subset worthy of further exploration. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of our greatest actors, and with each performance, he plumbed the depths of his characters, slipping effortlessly into roles of queasy ugliness and locating the defiant humanity buried beneath. Here are my 10 favorites:


10. Phil Parma in Magnolia (1999). Physically, Hoffman was a heavyset man, and he was prone to playing heavies on the screen. But as capable as he was of surrounding his characters with dark storm clouds, he was equally accomplished in conveying gentleness and compassion. Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia is populated by misanthropes and deviants of every sort, but as a nurse caring for a dying man, Hoffman embodies the picture's hidden spirit of optimism and grace. His phone conversation with a confused-but-patient customer service representative is a marvel of old-fashioned empathy, as he makes us hang breathlessly on every mundane word. It's a courageously quiet performance from an actor who never felt the need to call attention to himself.





9. Owen Davian in Mission: Impossible III (2006). I wasn't a huge fan of J.J. Abrams' entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise, but Hoffman's performance as a deliriously nefarious megalomaniac is the film's unquestioned high point. Although he'd previously excelled in sneakily sinister roles, this was Hoffman's first opportunity to play a real villain, and he clearly has fun with the part. But he also imbues Davian with a palpable menace, and in a scene where he's threatening Tom Cruise, there's the unmistakable sense that he isn't kidding around. Proving that he never calibrated his effort relative to the project's level of prestige (speaking of blockbusters, he was subtly effective in last year's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Hoffman illustrates how even the most refined character actors can evoke pure evil when called upon.





8. Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York (2008). For the most part, Hoffman worked in nominally supporting roles, preferring to elevate movies rather than carry them on his own. With Synecdoche, New York, however, Hoffman established his leading-man credentials. Charlie Kaufman's lone directorial effort is flagrantly undisciplined—it has moments of insane brilliance but is mostly just insane—but it would have crumbled completely without Hoffman's resolute presence at its center; his uncanny ability to evoke the Everyman serves as a critical ballast to the sheer lunacy of Kaufman's narrative. Hoffman initially plays Caden Cotard as a nebbishy schlub, but as the movie transforms from ordinary to operatic, so too does Hoffman's performance, as he somehow externalizes the existential traumas and identity crises that plague his anguished hero. The movie doesn't make a lick of sense, but Hoffman's quiet desperation and heartfelt yearning keep you watching.





7. Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Perhaps the quintessential Philip Seymour Hoffman role, Freddie Miles is calculating, callous, and often just plain mean. He is also a ton of fun to be around, and Hoffman's portrayal injects Anthony Minghella's underrated psychological thriller with lively and unpredictable bounce. He quickly recognizes Matt Damon's sycophant for what he is, but Freddie always seems to be operating with his own unspoken (but unquestionably immoral) agenda. The performance also demonstrates Hoffman's masterful technique with line readings; his deliberate delivery of the phrase, "The only thing that looks like Dickie ... is you," sends chills shooting up the audience's collective spine. The Talented Mr. Ripley traffics in the seedy underbelly of crime and noir, and Hoffman is the perfect vessel for such a tone, as his very presence on the screen suggests coiled malevolence and diabolical intrigue.





6. Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (2000). Hoffman has precious little screen time in Cameron Crowe's coming-of-age opus, but he makes his minutes count, crafting perhaps the definitive portrayal of the snobbish critic (John Cusack in High Fidelity might beg to differ) who's both obsessed with and disgusted by the field of entertainment he covers. To young William Miller, Lester Bangs is a journalism god, so it's somewhat alarming when Lester derisively informs him that he's arrived just in time for rock-and-roll's "death rattle". Yet Hoffman exhibits true ardor for music, such as in an early scene where he jubilantly compares The Doors to The Guess Who. (His verdict: Jim Morrison is "a drunken buffoon posing as a poet", whereas The Guess Who "have the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic".) But the real power of Hoffman's performance comes later, when he ruthlessly but compassionately lays out the rules of social comportment between critics and their star subjects. It's a beautiful, stunningly tender moment, and it reminds us that Hoffman could create characters with deep reserves of human empathy. Lester Bangs was proudly uncool, and for a legion of uncool teenagers, Hoffman's performance instilled something that felt an awful lot like pride.





5. Truman Capote in Capote (2005). Hoffman, of course, won his lone Oscar for his transformation into the pint-sized author of In Cold Blood. That transformation can't be undersold, especially vocally; somehow, Hoffman impossibly alters his rumbling, sonorous voice into Capote's elfin squawk. But while Hoffman's imitation is undeniably commendable, it's his immersion that's truly memorable. He disappears into the part, inhabiting not only Capote's intelligence and doggedness, but also his suffocating isolation, his self-absorption, and, on occasion, his withering cruelty. As portrayed by Hoffman, Truman Capote is not a particularly nice man, and Hoffman's steadfast refusal to sentimentalize him makes him an especially compelling protagonist. Initial skepticism of Hoffman's casting may have been warranted, given the sheer difference in size between the two men, but in playing an artist singularly committed to his work, Hoffman easily proved himself to be the logical choice.





4. Joseph Turner White in State and Main (2000). In acting, villainy tends to be easy, but decency can be downright hard. A milquetoast writer floundering in David Mamet's lacerating showbiz satire, Joseph Turner White is unquestionably the nicest character in Hoffman's filmography. Yet Hoffman somehow turns him into a fully realized creation, an eager artist who is resolutely romantic and winningly naïve. It's a deceptively brilliant comedic performance, one in which Hoffman's pained facial expressions and stammering delivery beautifully underplay the absurdity of the proceedings taking place around him. But it's his aw-shucks romance with Rebecca Pidgeon that really charms. The coupling between a gun-for-hire screenwriter and the small-town girl he meets on set could have played as farce, but instead it's completely, marvelously sincere. Being a David Mamet film, State and Main has more than its share of disreputable individuals, but it's Hoffman's bumbling, straitlaced boob who proves to be the unqualified hero.

Rebecca Pidgeon and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "State and Main"


3. Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012). The apotheosis of his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Hoffman's performance in The Master is frighteningly complex, and replete with infinite degrees of shading. As an L. Ron Hubbard clone, Lancaster Dodd is vicious, manipulative, and incomparably vain. He is also charming, benevolent, and heartbreakingly sad. The Master is above all a story of power, and of one man's relentless efforts to bend another to his will. Yet Hoffman plays Dodd as a totalitarian figure who's less deplorable than pitiful, a man who seeks to dominate all people because he doesn't know how to love another person. Dodd possesses both a public and a private face, but that notion of simple duality belies the many layers that comprise such a multi-faceted portrayal. It's a rich tapestry of a performance, one whose final threads are woven in an a cappella rendition of Frank Loesser's "On a Slow Boat to China", which doubles as the most emotionally naked acting of Hoffman's career. Hoffman appeared in five of Anderson's six movies, and while it's devastating to think of what else they could have accomplished together, it's gratifying that they bestowed upon us this small gift.





2. Andy in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). If The Master illustrated Hoffman's gift for articulating suppressed emotion, Sidney Lumet's dark-crime melodrama showcases his instincts for spewing unbridled rage. But while Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is most memorable for its chaotically violent final passages, it begins in a period of relative stasis, when Hoffman plays a somber drug addict who's crippled by both financial failure and emotional impotence. Andy is undeniably pathetic (he isn't even provided with a surname), but he camouflages his helplessness with scorn, and as he slings caustic verbal abuse at his younger brother, Hoffman suggests a man whose anger and lust for power derive from deep-seated insecurity. At times, the performance functions as a remarkable amalgam of his prior work, from the fire-breathing venom of Mission: Impossible III to the grisly self-loathing of Capote to the emotional taunting of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Yet Andy is his own, deeply afflicted creature, and Hoffman makes him mesmerizing as well as terrifying. As his desperation mounts (not without cause), we get the sense that he'll do absolutely anything—and sacrifice absolutely anyone—to save himself. That Hoffman can make such abiding narcissism riveting rather than revolting speaks to just how deeply he commits himself to this wounded, rotted soul.





1. Jacob Elinsky in 25th Hour (2002). When people discuss Spike Lee's 25th Hour, they typically mention two scenes: Edward Norton's hate-filled "Fuck you!" monologue to himself in a bathroom mirror, and the closing fantasy sequence of running away and living the American dream. Those are terrific scenes, but frequently lost in the shuffle is Hoffman's shifty, agonizing portrayal of a high school teacher. At first, Elinsky appears to be a variation on a typical Hoffman type: a sullen but fundamentally decent man who simply yearns to be understood and loved. And indeed, for much of the film, Hoffman instills in Elinsky the same sense of quiet dignity that he brought to Phil Parma in Magnolia. It's this solemn suggestion of that ostensible dignity that makes Hoffman's scene in a nightclub with Anna Paquin—in which he unforgivably succumbs to a flash of temptation—utterly devastating. In the moment, the decision is evil, but Hoffman puts such heft and hesitation in his movements that he somehow reveals that his weakness derives from of a lifetime of derision and confusion; this added texture makes his repulsive decision almost defensible, which, in turn, only makes it more reprehensible. What's more, Hoffman doesn't let himself (or the audience) off easily, and as he glides down the stairs with a stricken look in his eye, we get the sense that this night will haunt him for the rest of his life. It's no more than he deserves, but in watching an actor of such astonishing subtlety and grace, it's more than we ever could have hoped for.





(And just because it broke my heart to leave them off, here are five more iconic performances worth remembering: Scotty J. in Boogie Nights; Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War; Allen in Happiness; Dan Mahowny in Owning Mahowny; and Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love.)


That's my list. There are many more. Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Original Screenplay

Here's a secret: As obsessive as I am about covering the Oscars, for the most part, I don't really care who wins. Sure, I have my preferences in each category, but the Academy's ultimate choices are usually at least defensible, even if they don't align with my own (far more enlightened) opinions. As a case in point, I wouldn't have voted for any of the past three Best Picture winners—The King's Speech, The Artist, and Argo—but I think all three are fine movies, and I don't begrudge them their trophies. (I'm sure they just heaved a collective sigh of relief.)

Occasionally, however, a category crops up where I'm so passionate about one of the nominees that I actually develop a vested interest in the outcome, and this year's Best Original Screenplay race is such a category. This, unfortunately, makes me approach the Academy's announcement with something close to dread. Rooting for your favorite movie to win an Oscar can feel a lot like rooting for your favorite sports team to win a championship. In this case, if my preferred nominee pulls off the victory, I'm going to feel as elated as I did when Allan Houston's floater dropped in to beat the Heat in Game 5 of the first round of the '99 playoffs. On the flip side, if my favored selection loses to a different contender, I'm going to feel as crushed as I did when Jason Williams failed to complete his four-point play against Indiana in the 2002 Sweet 16 (and when, ahem, Carlos Boozer got fouled on the follow). Such is the blessing and the curse of being devoted to a work of art. On to the analysis.

NOMINEES
American Hustle—David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer
Blue Jasmine—Woody Allen
Dallas Buyers Club—Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Her—Spike Jonze
Nebraska—Bob Nelson

WILL WIN
Let's not mess around here. Technically, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, and Nebraska all have a chance; the former is a Woody Allen screenplay (he's the only three-time winner in this category, plus he's the all-time leader with 16 nominations), while the latter two are both Best Picture nominees. But Blue Jasmine is chillier than Allen's typical work (his three wins were for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Midnight in Paris, all nominal comedies), and many voters may find its story of delusion and disintegration to be abrasive. Meanwhile, in a nine-movie Best Picture field, both Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska feel like second-tier contenders for the top prize, so I doubt either film receives much of a trickle-down benefit.

So this is really a race between American Hustle and Her, and the key question is this: Just how much does the Academy like American Hustle? The movie's dance card is full with 10 nominations, but how successful will it be converting those invitations into actual wins? Is it a Silver Linings Playbook, which earned eight nominations but only one win (for Jennifer Lawrence)? Or is it a Slumdog Millionaire, which took home trophies in eight of the nine categories in which it was nominated? My guess is that its fortunes lie somewhere in between, and at this point, I'd liken it more to The Aviator, another period piece loosely based on a true story that earned double-digit nominations (in its case, eleven). The Aviator's Oscar night performance was respectable; it scrabbled together five wins (one more than Best Picture champ Million Dollar Baby), but only one of those victories came in a major category (Best Supporting Actress, for Cate Blanchett). Of course, The Aviator is hardly similar to American Hustle in content, impressive nomination haul notwithstanding; one is a sober, laser-focused biopic, while the other is a scattered, playful romp. As such, The Aviator's loss in the Original Screenplay category admittedly provides questionable predictive value.

What's more relevant is the particular movie it lost to. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind only earned one additional nomination (for Kate Winslet's magnificent performance, or in other words, for Kate Winslet's performance), but voters nevertheless embraced Charlie Kaufman's bold, relentlessly imaginative script, honoring it at the expense of its more classical rival. Her, with its five total nominations, isn't as much of a fringe candidate as Eternal Sunshine, but it's hardly a heavy hitter (three of its five nods are in below-the-line categories). Yet Spike Jonze's screenplay—with its audacious conceit and futuristic setting—features the same level of visible brilliance that landed Kaufman a surprise Oscar nine years ago. And remember that this category, more than any other, functions as an area where the Academy will broaden its reach beyond typical prestige fare. (Past winners include Juno, Talk to Her, The Usual Suspects, and Wall-E. Wait a minute, Wall-E lost to Milk? I refuse to accept this—someone must have altered the Wikipedia page.)

Of course, it's possible that I'm simply underestimating American Hustle, a well-liked, tremendously entertaining movie that keeps raking in money. It's also worth pointing out that, of its 10 nominated categories, Best Original Screenplay is the only one where American Hustle isn't forced to compete against either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, meaning that voters who applaud the film but prefer the two frontrunners might settle on its screenplay as the appropriate place to recognize it. In the end, however, I think Jonze's visionary love story wins out over David O. Russell's manic con game. Her takes an Oscar, and in the process makes my life complete.

[Note: Given the extreme closeness of this race—and given that the Writers' Guild of America has yet to announce its winner in this category (it'll do so this evening)—I reserve the right to change my pick prior to Oscar night. If I do so, I'll be sure to update this post with my revised prediction, thus refraining from shady antics along the lines of "I killed Earl Milford!"]


SHOULD WIN
Dallas Buyers Club is a perfectly enjoyable movie, but I'm struggling to see how Craig Borten's and Melisa Wallack's screenplay distinguishes itself. Their story is a fairly standard redemption arc, and while they do a nice job evoking the noxious atmosphere surrounding AIDS in the 1980s—the overwhelming fear, the medical confusion, the rampant homophobia—they treat their characters more as ciphers than people. The script also loses focus in its second half, as a would-be tale of government corruption and bureaucratic failure feels too half-formed to be truly authentic. (Worse, Borten and Wallack clumsily create a quasi-love interest in the form of Jennifer Garner, whose scenes derail any momentum the movie might have otherwise attained.) In the end, the screenplay is compassionate and big-hearted, but it is not particularly deep or even thought-provoking. It conveys its message—AIDS was (and remains) a terrible illness, and to defeat it we must first overcome our own prejudices—with much conviction, but little nuance.

Bob Nelson's screenplay for Nebraska can feel similarly straightforward, but his story of familial strife and loyalty has more depth of feeling behind it. Occasionally, Nelson's characterization of Midwestern hokiness succumbs to mockery, but for the most part his screenplay exhibits genuine affection for its characters, even when they're behaving badly. Nebraska isn't a complicated movie, but it is a compelling one, and its simple conversations between an emotionally impotent father and his frustrated-but-devoted son ring with suffering and truth.

Truth is antithetical to Blue Jasmine, a movie about deception and denial. Woody Allen's script can feel a little slapdash; portraying working-class Joes has never been his strength, and the stark contrast between Jasmine's aristocratic husband and her sister's rough-and-tumble suitors feels rather forced. Thankfully, those supporting players are appropriately secondary relative to the title character, for in Jasmine, Allen has created his most fascinating and flawed protagonist since Jonathan Rhys Meyers' social climber in Match Point. Part of that, of course, is thanks to Cate Blanchett's fearless, singularly committed performance, but even on the page, Jasmine is a piece of work. Constantly blaming others for her own failings, she fancies herself a paragon of victimhood, one whose struggles stem from cruel whims of fate rather than her own ability to maintain a relationship or a job. Yet Jasmine's utter self-absorption is less monstrous than pathetic, and Allen's script provides her with ample shape and dimension. Blue Jasmine may be scattered and unfulfilling—its jumping chronology is effective but ultimately meaningless—but Jasmine herself is a marvel.

The term "scattered" applies in force to David O. Russell's and Eric Warren Singer's script for American Hustle. The movie chronicles the ABSCAM sting from the 1970s, but it's less interested in reenacting true-crime events than in probing the psyche of its characters. To do so, it takes those characters' ostensible identities and reflects them through a fun-house mirror; in the up-is-down world of American Hustle, it's the two-bit schemers who operate with coded integrity, whereas the enterprising lawmen are vengeful and immoral. It's a hugely ambitious approach, but that it pays off is due more to Russell's extraordinarily deft direction (not to mention the knockout cast) than to his and Singer's screenplay. The writing here is almost gleefully undisciplined, and while American Hustle is a terrific, boundlessly enjoyable movie, it's difficult to commend its screenplay for being so shamelessly unfocused.

And then we have Her. Spike Jonze's fourth feature is a wonder on all accounts—the exquisite acting, the poised and unshowy direction, the subtle production design, even the quietly beautiful music—but if there's one area where it deserves recognition, it's for Jonze's screenplay. The audacity of his concept can't be overstated: Here is a movie, at its core, about love between man and machine. Yet Jonze infuses his misbegotten romance with astonishing tenderness and texture, creating a love story both unique and universal. Her is overtly a piece of science-fiction, but it operates on countless layers: as a prism into the fumbling messiness of relationships, as a searching examination of how technology both isolates and binds us, and as a heartbreakingly intimate portrait of how love can grow, distort, wound, and comfort. (Lest this sound dour and intellectual, the movie is also extremely funny. With any justice, "Choke me with that dead cat!" will become standard issue for all phone-sex conversations going forward.) As a piece of writing, it's a breathtaking mixture of new-age creativity and old-world authenticity. The Oscars can be a lark, but they can also brand particular achievements of movie-making with the justified stamp of immortality. And if there's one nominee on the 2013 slate that's earned the right to be remembered forever, it's this one.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Her—Spike Jonze
Inside Llewyn Davis—Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
The Place Beyond the Pines—Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Prisoners—Aaron Guzikowski
The World's End—Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers provide a touching and melancholic portrait of a struggling artist, and the key is that their titular musician is both sympathetic and highly flawed. The Place Beyond the Pines is a startlingly bold experiment, and if Cianfrance and company don't fully succeed, their sprawling tale of paternal failure is nevertheless a noble effort. Prisoners is a typically suspenseful whodunit, but Guzikowski's script is more noteworthy for its pitiless depiction of how evil can be a vortex, as it chronicles one man's descent into moral oblivion with unblinking detachment. The World's End is far more than what it seems, and Pegg and Wright parcel out their allegory of dehumanizing homogenization with canny precision.

My ideal winner: Her—Spike Jonze.

Also deserving: Disconnect—Andrew Stern (for tethering the everything-is-connected gambit to a specific conceit, namely the crippling power of technological connectivity); Frances Ha—Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig (for locating the beauty and serenity in bumbling callousness); Side Effects—Scott Z. Burns (for consistently keeping us on our toes).