Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 18, 2013

2012 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(Welcome to the Annual Post-Oscar Film Roundup, a tradition that dates back to the misty age of pre-blog times. (It was delayed more than I'd like.) It's broken into four parts. To read it all, start here, scroll down, and use the "Older Posts" link if necessary.)

2012 saw a number of strong films, from quieter and more intimate movies to several very good summer blockbusters. I didn't absolutely love many films this year, but I enjoyed (or appreciated) quite a few.

As far as the Oscars ceremony goes, I'll say again that cinephiles watch to see good work (and careers) recognized, to howl at the injustices, and to marvel at those talented but sometimes clueless people who provide the glorious excess and astounding bad taste that Hollywood excels at.

Host Seth MacFarlane didn't win much love. His brand of humor is often crass and tries to be transgressive, but the show producers knew that; they picked him because his show Family Guy has a devoted following that skews younger than the average Oscar audience. MacFarlane used a framing device of Captain Kirk (William Shatner) beaming back to the future via a TV screen to warn MacFarlane of the trainwreck reviews he was going to receive the next day. Kirk would show video of an offending number (the first was a song-and-dance number called "We Saw Your Boobs"), and then in the "present," MacFarlane and a few stars would stage some classier song-and/or-dance number. MacFarlane would then ask Kirk if that 'erased' the bad reviews, which would then get marginally less scathing. The whole concept seemed to be MacFarlane poking the Academy – you say you want a younger audience, but you also want a classy show – assuming those two conflict, which do you really want?

Of course, the framing device doesn't truly get you off the hook for a bad number. The whole bit was "meta" and perhaps self-involved, but the truth is, in Hollywood and the rest of the country, everybody the next day is talking about how the host did, and judgment standards tend to be harsh. The show's always bashed for being too long and padded, and generally, that's deserved. By MacFarlane's standards, he cleaned up his act considerably for ABC, but it was still too much 'smirking male adolescent' for many critics. I thought some of his jokes were aimed at the industry more than women themselves, but I have to agree that some of his material was sexist or crossed the line (for instance, mentioning Jodie Foster's "boobs" in The Accused, especially considering it's a rape scene). A Jewish joke or two is almost obligatory, but the bit with MacFarlane's CG character, the crass teddy bear Ted, went on a bit too long and started to get a bit creepy (the Jews run Hollywood, the after-party orgy is at Jack Nicholson's house, etc.).

I've never been a big fan of MacFarlane, despite his talents as a voice actor and singer. Family Guy and his other shows have always had a meanness to them, and we don't really care about their characters, in contrast with The Simpsons, where, for example, Homer Simpson is selfish, impulsive and dim-witted, but does actually love his wife and children and will sacrifice for them. It's a more mature, wiser show, and asks us to laugh at ourselves at least occasionally and not just at others (its decline is another conversation). That said, Family Guy is actually funny and successful if taken on its own 'smirking male adolescent' terms. There are many flavors of comedy, and plenty of them do have a mean streak, if not as insistent.

The joke I most enjoyed (I've been waiting for someone to do this) was MacFarlane saying, "The next presenter needs no introduction"… and then actually leaving, without giving any further introduction (well-played, given that it was Meryl Streep). The gag riffing on The Sound of Music was also pretty good. When MacFarlane told a joke off of Django Unchained ("A lot of controversy over the multiple uses of 'the n-word'. I am told the screenplay is loosely based on Mel Gibson's voice mails.") the audience booed, and MacFarlane with some justification jabbed back, "Oh, you're on his side."

As Washington Post TV critic Lisa de Moraes notes, Oscar hosts are either insiders and outsiders, and outsiders such as McFarlane tend to take a scorched earth approach, planning that they’ll never host the Oscars again. Meanwhile, the Oscar producers and the Academy were quite pleased with McFarlane because the broadcast nabbed 40.3 million viewers:

…making it the most watched entertainment program on TV in nearly three years.

Even more important to broadcaster ABC: Sunday’s Oscarcast scored a nearly three-year record among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, who are the currency of TV ad sales.

In particular, the network boasted the show’s 34 percent year-to-year ratings spike among 18- to 34-year-old men, who are the elusive unicorns of the ad world.

Ratings trump concerns over taste for the Academy. (The factor that's often ignored in Oscar ratings is that the selection of films nominated make a significant difference. If one or more of the major contenders has a large following, they'll tune in, regardless of the host.)

The quality of his jokes aside, MacFarlane actually hit his marks and kept the show moving much better than most of the other performers on stage. Presenter banter is often awkward and goes on too long, but it was noticeably worse than usual this year, with decent timing and smooth delivery a rarity. (Perhaps everyone and not just a select few got blitzed beforehand?) Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy are usually funny, but the gags just weren't good and their timing was surprising lousy. The Avengers cast also tripped all over each others' lines.

The James Bond montage was surprisingly weak, especially compared to some of the excellent Oscar montages the past several years. That said, the best moment of the night was Shirley Bassey, 76 years old (!!!), nailing "Goldfinger" and receiving a well-deserved standing ovation. I could have done without all the other song and dance numbers, including those for all of… three musicals? Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Misérables, but no mention of Moulin Rouge, Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Sweeney Todd, Across the Universe or dozens of less-prominent musicals? Three films in 10 years constitutes a revival of the genre? (Perhaps there were rights issues, but I'd be shocked if the owners would turn down the free advertising. It turns out that the producers of this year's Oscars show also produced Chicago, so the stench of self-promotion hangs heavy here.) Adele was good (she was initially nervous but settled down), although it was rather unfair to feature only two of the five nominated songs. I could have done without Jennifer Hudson and Barbra Streisand, but both sung well. (Streisand sung after the "Montage of Death" had concluded. For the past few years, someone has sung during the actual montage, but has only been shown intermittently, primarily at the beginning and end. Our viewing party theorized that Streisand demanded otherwise.)

I wasn't crazy about Michelle Obama presenting an award. (Apparently, this was the idea of Harvey Weinstein's daughter Lily.) Given that past presidents and first ladies have been involved with the Super Bowl, Oscars and other awards shows, the general concept was hardly unprecedented, even if the level of involvement was greater. (I instantly thought of Ronald Reagan doing the coin toss for the Super Bowl.) Media Matters lists some other examples (Laura Bush participated in a taped Oscar segment in the past), and Steve M has a great roundup of similar stuff, including President Reagan's coin toss and participation in other Hollywood ceremonies. That's not to mention Nancy Reagan appearing with Mr. T and on Different Strokes, or Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh-In. (Oh, and remember George W. Bush appearing on Deal or No Deal? At least it was to honor a vet, but it was still bizarre.) I guess that, besides any image burnishing, it's all in the name of promoting American commerce and pop culture. I'm all for promoting the arts (even the more commercial ones), but I still wasn't wild about the segment. That said, it's silly to blow a gasket over Michelle Obama's appearance if you never objected to the other stuff. It's not as if the conservative outrage machine needs any rational reason to flame away or was going to like Hollywood otherwise, since they attack it constantly (see Roy Edroso's archives, among others); in a sense, this was the most thoughtful gift Hollywood could bestow.

The main value of the ceremony is in seeing worthy recipients honored (and/or trainwreck voyeurism), since the actual speeches tend to be underwhelming. Several years back, the Academy wisely added a "thank you cam" back stage for winners to go through their list, but alas, some winning speeches are still little more than the list. The welcome exceptions included Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave a sweet, humble and deadpan funny speech, as when he suggested that originally he was slotted to play Margaret Thatcher instead of Meryl Streep and she was pegged to play Lincoln.

One tip for next year for the ladies: Kiss your husbands or boyfriends after they give their speeches. Day-Lewis and another winner both had distracting, visible lipstick on them. (At the party I attended, we wondered for the first incident if it was a rash or sore before finally deciding it was lipstick.)

The worst injustice was probably giving Best Animated Feature to Brave over Wreck-It Ralph. Brave was decent, but a subpar effort from Pixar, while Wreck-It Ralph was entertaining, inventive and touching to boot. The Argo script was good, but I would have given Best Adapted Screenplay to Tony Kushner for Lincoln. (Looper should have had an original script nomination.) I also would have given Best Supporting Actor to Tommy Lee Jones or Robert DeNiro over Christoph Waltz, but since all five nominees already had an Oscar, it was hard to be too upset. It was nice to see Life of Pi win some four awards. (But how much of that cinematography was visual effects work? And how should that affect the award?) Ang Lee always gets good performances, but had to juggle significant technical challenges as well, and was a worthy recipient for Best Director. I think Spielberg and Lincoln got hurt by backlash over Ben Affleck not getting nominated for Best Director, and while I was fine with Argo winning, I do think voters took Spielberg's accomplishments a bit for granted this year. Decent biopics aren't rare, but great ones are; Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis and the rest of the team made Lincoln look easy to make; it wasn't. (It's not a standard biopic, either, but it was no less challenging for that.)

Hathaway and Day-Lewis strongly deserved their wins. I would have respected Emmanuelle Riva winning Best Actress. (Although her co-star Trintignant actually had the harder role, and playing disabled can be easier than voters realize, Day-Lewis in My Left Foot being a possible exception.) Jessica Chastain has done better work than in Zero Dark Thirty, and while she makes a fairly convincing tough gal, her character didn't really have much depth. Given the field, I was happy to see Jennifer Lawrence win for a genuinely excellent performance that was funny, dramatic, biting and touching. (Extra points to Hugh Jackman for bounding to help her when she fell on the stairs.) On the kid performance front, Quvenzhané Wallis justly earned praise for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I think Pierce Gagnon as Cid in Looper also delivered a striking, memorable performance (although he didn't have to carry the whole movie the way Wallis did).

Playing speakers who went on too long with the Jaws theme was a great touch, but one of the victims was the Visual Effects winners for Life of Pi. That's unfortunate, because one of the major developments in the industry is the financial woes of American visual effects houses, and Rhythm & Hues, the lead VFX studio behind Life of Pi, has filed for bankruptcy. KCRW's show The Business covers the story here and more briefly here, and The Hollywood Reporter also has a piece on it (in a nice gesture, the Animation Guild bought lunch for overtime workers at Rhythm & Hues). Given that so many hugely profitable movies are effects-driven, it makes little sense that the people doing essential work are going out of business. (Disclosure: I have a few friends in VFX.)

Finally, Entertainment Weekly put together a very good primer on cinema sound design and the sound awards.

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I try to label spoilers (my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). I didn't see as many foreign films and indies as I would have liked, but I saw slightly fewer movies overall in 2012.

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