Movies - The Oscars postsWednesday February 18, 2009
Nat & Tim & Kris & Karina & Ed & Erik
I recently participated in a three-day symposium about the Oscars over at Nathaniel R’s excellent Film Experience Blog. Make sure you check out the "chatty moviegoer" comments at the end, too. In some ways they're having a livelier discussion than we had in the symposium. Probably because they aren’t saddled with the word “symposium."
Silver on Oscar Gold
One of the sites I turned to regularly, desperately, during the recent presidential campaign was Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com. In the run-up to the election, some friends felt that Silver leaned left too much, but, as it turned out, he didn’t lean left enough. He predicted 338 electoral votes for Obama, who wound up with 365.
Silver started out as a stats-head for one of my loves, baseball, and now he’s entering another: movies. Specifically: the Oscars. New York magazine asked for his predictions on the six major categories and he obliged:
Picture: Slumdog Millionaire (99% chance)
Director: Danny Boyle, SM (99.7%)
Actor: Mickey Rourke (71%)
Actress: Kate Winslet (67.6%)
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger (85.8%)
Supporting Actress: Taraji P. Henson (51%)
For most of these, of course, you don’t exactly need to build statistical software and use logistics regression. But his choice, or his software’s choice, for supporting actress is intriguing. I read deeper but the rationale didn’t make much sense:
Penélope Cruz, who won the BAFTA for her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, would seem the logical default. But computer sez: Benjamin Button’s Taraji P. Henson! Button, which looks like a shutout everywhere else, is the only Best Picture nominee with a Supporting Actress nod, and Best Pic nominees tend to have an edge in the other categories.
Except we’re not talking about the other categories, we’re talking about this category. And in the last 10 years, say, how often has a supporting actress winner been the sole best-pic representative in her category? Once. Ten years ago, when Judi Dench won for “Shakespeare in Love” and none of the others had best-pic cred. And how often has the winner not come from a best-pic nominee when a best-pic representative was available? Five times: Angelina Jolie for “Girl, Interrupted” in 1999, Marcia Gay Harden for “Pollock” in 2000, Rene Zellwegger for “Cold Mountain” in 2003, Rachel Weisz for “The Constant Gardener” in 2005, and Jennifer Hudson for “Dreamgirls” in 2006.
So why is the best pic nomination for “Button” a trump card for Henson? I don’t get it. If anything, this category has always read as the “babe” category:
1999: Angelina Jolie, “Girl, Interrupted”
2000: Marcia Gay Harden, “Pollock”
2001: Jennifer Connelly, “A Beautiful Mind”
2002: Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Chicago”
2003: Renee Zellwegger, “Cold Mountain”
2004: Cate Blanchett, “The Aviator”
2005: Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”
2006: Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls”
2007: Tilda Swinton, “Michael Clayton”
The question for this category isn’t “Who’s in a best picture nominee?” but “Who do the mostly old, mostly male members of the Academy want to fuck this year?” Talent aside, that’s why most of us are guessing Penelope Cruz.
Of course crunching fuckability into an algorithm may even be beyond the scope of the man who predicted such a sure victory for Obama.
The EW Fall Preview Issue: A Look Back
First, “Harry Potter” is on the cover, and of course that film got pushed ahead to a summer release date so no one's even seen it. Then, month to month, here’s the big movies they target and anticipate:
- September: “Miracle at St. Anna”; “Burn After Reading”; “Appaloosa”
- October: “High School Musical 3”; “Body of Lies”; “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”
- November: “Australia”; “The Road”; “The Soloist”
- December: “Revolutionary Road”; “Marley & Me”; “Doubt”
And what of the best picture nominees? “Milk” and “Button” and “Frost” get middling write-ups, while “The Reader” and front-runner “Slumdog” aren’t mentioned at all. It took a second to remember that, oh yes, “Slumdog” had distribution difficulties. From the August 31st New York Times:
“Slumdog Millionaire” was originally a Warner Independent Pictures release, but last May, Warner Brothers closed its two independent divisions, PictureHouse and Warner Independent, in an effort to cut costs. Now the company will work with Fox Searchlight Pictures to distribute Mr. Boyle’s film in North America. ... Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Brothers Pictures Group, said Warner was working with Fox Searchlight to release the film because of the studio’s crowded calendar. “With the recent additions to our slate, it became impossible for us to release ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in this calendar year,” Mr. Robinov said. “Danny very much wanted to get it released this year,” said Peter Rice, president of Fox Searchlight, “and we have a long relationship with him.”It’s easy to forget how quickly a non-entity can become an inevitability. And vice-versa.
And the Award for Least-Seen Best Picture Nominee Goes To...
As I mentioned earlier, only two best picture nominees since 1980 haven’t wound up among the year’s top 100 box-office hits — “The Dresser” in 1983 and “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006 — and yet we have three this year alone. Amazing. The sad part is they’re not even great films. Maybe “Milk” but that’s it. I mean if the Academy is going for quality over popularity, as David Carr suggests, why not choose quality? Instead of a bland mediocrity that pleases neither moviegoers nor critics.
“Milk,” by the way, has the best shot of cracking the top 100. It’s currently at no. 104, only $1 million behind no. 101, “Street Kings,” a dirty-cop movie starring Keanu Reeves that opened in over 2,000 theaters in April. Yes, that sentence is sad in so many ways.
The Lundys: Best Reviews of Best Pics
No science in mine. Not a speck of it. Just reviews that confirmed or articulated what I felt was right or wrong about a movie. Mostly wrong, this year. Many people have said that 2008 was a pretty crappy year for movies, but, to me, it was really only an off-year for the prestige pictures. Overall, it was a great year. Just look at 2007. The big box-office pics were either lame threequels (“Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates 3,” “Shrek the Third”) or noisy remakes (“Transformers”), while 2008 gave us, among the top five box-office hits, “Dark Knight,” “Iron Man” and “WALL-E.” Not bad.
From the winning reviews, you can probably guess which movie I’m rooting for on Oscar night. It has no shot but... Doesn’t mean I’m not rooting.
Apologies, too, to all the critics whose reviews I missed. I’m not much of a surfer. I don’t even have nominees for best reviews of best picture candidates. Only winners. Maybe next year.
OK, on with the countdown.
For best review of Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” the Lundy goes to... Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal! (Applause) Mr. Morgenstern wins the award even though, and this is extremely embarrassing, I haven’t been able to read his entire review. (Thanks for nothing, WSJ.) After scanning the Rotten Tomatoes site, though, Mr. Morgenstern most exactly articulated the biggest problem with both movie and book:
The Reader remains schematic, and ultimately reductive. It really is about literacy, which proves to be a dismayingly small answer to the enormous questions posed by Hanna's dark past.I can talk more about this later, but: Yes. “The Reader” begins as a sexual coming-of-age film, veers into a Holocaust picture, and winds up as an “ABC Afterschool Special”: Hanna Schmitz Learns to Read. With such a trajectory (which is more obvious in the book, since the movie includes Kate Winslet’s great performance), it can’t help but feel small and unworthy. Academy, I'm looking at you.
For best review of Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” the Lundy goes to... David Edelstein of New York Magazine! (Applause) I love in particular Mr. Edelstein’s early slams of Nixon the man. Criticism is not for the impartial, political or otherwise, a fact that many editors at many newspapers — trying to hold onto every loudmouthed conservative subscriber — don't seem to understand. Edelstein also gets to the heart of what’s weak with “F/N”:
Frost/Nixon is unsatisfying even if, like me, you’re a lifelong aficionado of Nixon-bashing. [Screenwriter Peter] Morgan makes him out to be a Great White Whale, but when he sat down with Frost, Nixon was already dead in the water—convicted by his own words in White House transcripts to the point where even his Republican allies had long deserted him. And with selective editing, Morgan makes it seem as if Frost got Nixon to admit more than he actually did. The original Watergate interview is now on DVD, and there are self-exculpatory escape clauses in every interminable, circumlocutory utterance. When Frost read aloud from the White House transcripts, Nixon’s eyes darted around as he searched his brain for linguistic loopholes. In Frost/Nixon, Langella’s heavy features move slowly; he seems to be plumbing the depths of his soul and glimpsing, for an instant, the abyss. Alas, the shit that dribbles from Langella’s mouth is still Tricky Dick’s.For David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Lundy goes to... David Denby of The New Yorker! (Tepid applause. Some hoots.) Mr. Denby actually reviews, or takes apart, all of the Oscar candidates in his piece — save “Milk,” which he roots for — and he’s good on all of them. But particularly “Button”:
As Benjamin makes his way, many people puzzle over the discrepancy between his age and his temperament. But who cares? The movie is given over to an infinitely patient and scrupulous working out of its own bizarre premise, and you come away from its sombre thoroughness with the impression that something profound has been said without having any idea what it could be.For Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Milionaire,” the Lundy goes to... Manohla Dargis of The New York Times! (Hoots. Cries of a New York bias.) Ms. Dargis’ reviewed the film when it was merely a film — one of many coming out that month — as opposed to the Oscar frontrunner for best picture, but, from that early, uncluttered vantage point, she still manages to articulate what is both appealing about the film, and, more importantly, what is false about it:
In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright, cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale). In the past Mr. Boyle has managed to wring giggles out of murder (“Shallow Grave”) and addiction (“Trainspotting”), and invest even the apocalypse with a certain joie de vivre (the excellent zombie flick “28 Days Later”). He’s a blithely glib entertainer who can dazzle you with technique and, on occasion, blindside you with emotion, as he does in his underrated children’s movie, “Millions.” He plucked my heartstrings in “Slumdog Millionaire” with well-practiced dexterity, coaxing laughter and sobs out of each sweet, sour and false note.And finally, the last Lundy of the evening, for best review of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” goes to... Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic! (tepid applause; shrugs; people grabbing their coats and leaving en masse) Mr. Sullivan is the only non-critic in the bunch, but his early take on “Milk,” written from a more personal perspective, articulated something about the film I hadn’t taken in. It opened the film for me. That’s basically what you want from a critic:
Milk was a radical; but he was also a businessman. He had one true love; and yet couldn't integrate it into a successful long-term relationship in his short life-time. He was a man of the streets and yet he also had to become a symbol of establishment power. The scene when he both stokes a rally-cum-riot and then calms it down captured the tension perfectly. He was a man of politics, but he was also only a politician in order to have the chance to be a human.
The movie's brilliance is not that it begins and ends with his death as a reflection on the first and last things; it is that it begins and ends with Milk's love for another human being as well. This reach for intimacy - always vulnerable, always intimate, never safe - endures past movements and rallies and elections. These manifestations of the political are the means to that merely human end.
Which is why, in so many ways, the gay movement, at its very best, is something holy.That’s it, folks. Thanks for coming. And keep reading the critics.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard