Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 05, 2012

2011 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(The many moods of Billy Crystal. Welcome to the Annual Post-Oscar Film Roundup, a tradition that dates back to the misty age of pre-blog times. It's broken into four parts. To read it all, start here, scroll down and use the "Older Posts" link.)

2011 was an odd year for cinema. Reportedly, it set a record for sequels (28). The good news is that the basement was better than many years. Most of the summer movies based on comic books (and there were many) were above average. However, while films in the above-average-to-good range were plentiful, films in the very-good-to-excellent range were far scarcer. I know some critics strenuously disagree, and thought 2011 was a fantastic year for cinema, but I felt I was being asked to grade films on a curve. While I could recommend many films as "worth seeing" in that rental or spend-an-evening-out category, I was much harder pressed to name any must-see films.

As for the Oscar ceremony itself, as usual, 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.

Billy Crystal might have nothing new, but the ceremony only has so much flexibility, and I have to wonder why the people who always pan it bother watching at all. I found Crystal's face lift and unnaturally taut skin distracting, but got slightly more used to it as the evening progressed. I enjoyed him reviving his best bits: opening with a funny filmed segment spoofing the films, followed by a song and dance number about the nominees. He had a few sharp jokes about the formerly Kodak "Chapter 11" Theater and the absurdity of it all: “Nothing can take the sting out of economic crisis like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.” The celebrity telepathy cam also had a few good gags, notably the Scorsese and Nolte bits, since Crystal said what we were all thinking about poor Nick.

The flying Cary Grants of Cirque du Soleil were sorta cool, but there a few too many montages (although for three years in a row, at least one was brilliantly edited). A filmed segment with the Christopher Guest company playing a Wizard of Oz focus group was hilarious. I liked some of the snippets with actors talking the first film they remembered seeing, most of all Brad Pitt's atypical story about Japanese monster movie War of the Gargantuas. As usual, the Academy was desperate to sell the idea of going to see movies in the theaters, which included candy vendor girls periodically appearing in the aisles, but at least the Academy was less blatant about it this year. (One year it was essentially, 'Stop pirating movies! Please!' It's a valid concern, but it didn't play very well.)

As far as the presenters go, the best were Emma Stone playing adorably off of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. coming out as a self-absorbed star with a reality camera crew in tow, and Chris Rock riffing on how easy animation is to do (for actors, that is), along with the following jab:

I love animation because in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be. If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short, wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.

Angelina Jolie's bold leg jut spawned its own meme, spurred in large part by screenwriting winner Jim Rash aping it (he's better known as an actor on Community). Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis (who mangled his own name as a gag) had some fun with cymbals, and the cast of Bridesmaids did a fun job presenting all three awards for shorts, leading to sexual innuendo and a hilarious and unexpected bit with Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy playing a Scorsese drinking game (which cracked the man himself up).

The best speeches included Octavia Spencer's sincerely tearful one and Christopher Plummer's witty and appreciative speech. It was nice to see Saving Face director Daniel Junge say his thanks quickly and then hurry forward his co-director, Pakistani Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (I hate seeing the second and third winners get cut off). Apparently, the win brought new attention to the reality behind their short doc about reconstructing women's faces that have been disfigured with acid.

Meryl Streep's speech was apparently divisive, with some feeling it lacked humility, and others feeling it exemplified it. I fall more in the latter camp, especially given Streep's emotional shout-out to her husband at the start. (Acknowledging spouses, parents, the other nominees and the rest of the filmmaking team always goes over well. Michael Caine's acceptance speech for The Cider House Rules remains the model of classiness.) Unfortunately, The Iron Lady is a surprisingly subpar film (reviewed in Part 4), but Streep's performance is superb. Because she's consistently excellent, it's easy to take the quality of her work for granted. Earlier in the awards season, Streep herself said it was her friend Viola Davis' year. I would have given the award to Davis, so striking in both The Help and 2008's Doubt, but it is more of a supporting role (Davis probably could have nabbed the Oscar in that slot, but that would have shut out Spencer). However, it's hard to argue that Streep hasn't been worthy pretty much every time she's been nominated.

As far as snubs go, the biggest one was Michael Fassbinder's daring performance in Shame not even earning a nomination, when it should have won. (I'm assuming the sexual nature of the role scared off Academy voters, although for perspective, Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture in 1969 and was rated X at the time.) The Los Angeles Times performed a much-discussed study of Oscar voters, who are overwhelmingly old, white and male. (Actors make up the largest block.) I was also perplexed that the staggeringly good Coriolanus was shut out. I suppose it's possible that it will be submitted as a 2012 film in the U.S., but it had the prerequisite limited LA-NYC release in 2011, and was recognized as a 2011 film in some critics' awards, especially for Jessica Chastain for breakthrough artist. Ralph Fiennes was nominated for "best newcomer" (as a director) at the BAFTAs, and Vanessa Redgrave won Best Supporting Actress at the British Independent Film Awards. As covered in the review below (in Part 2), it's hardly a feel-good film, but it is stunning. Meanwhile, the Academy should just give a special Oscar to Andy Serkis for his consistently superb digital performances (Gollum, King Kong, Caesar the chimp, Captain Haddock). The field currently isn't deep enough to hand out a "digital performance" award every year, and digital and live performances should not compete, but special Oscars are not unprecedented, and Serkis defines "deserving recipient."

The main race was between Hugo and The Artist, and while I'd say Hugo is the better movie overall, I like both films, so I was fine with The Artist's win. Plus, it's sorta cool that a well-made black and white silent released in 2011 could win. Both WALL-E and Up consciously reclaimed the artistry of silent films, and I hope good filmmakers continue to both remember and explore the strengths and versatility of cinema as a medium. I wasn't sure about the Academy expanding Best Picture nominations to up to ten films, but for now I like it – but not all of their choices. Rob Vaux makes a strong case against the Academy's almost unfailing tendency to snub excellent genre films in favor of weak, highly-sentimental pap, especially in the Best Picture category. (It wasn't 'til the third film of the series that The Lord of the Rings managed to break through this bias.)

NPR show The Business hosted a debate on the Best Foreign Language Film nomination process. While flawed, the Academy has made great strides in making the process better, allowing major festival winners to be eligible.

Best song nominees have to receive an average score from voters to be eligible, and this is a fine idea, but the number is currently set too high. Alan Menken's "Star Spangled Man" should have nominated (not that he's hurting for awards). Whether to stage the nominees should really be a game-time decision, because some years they're great, and other years they're dreadful. It was fantastic to see the silly power ballad "Man or Muppet" win, but it would have been awesome to see it performed, even in truncated form. (Oh well, at least the muppets got to introduce a segment.)

The annual Montage of Death was well-done, but it has been for the past few years. The one surprise for me was seeing that Greek director Michael Cacoyannis/Mihalis Kakogiannis had died. I haven't seen many of his films, several of which are based on ancient Greek plays, but his version of Electra, starring Irene Papas, remains powerful and memorable.

Awards season has some odd tropes. Out here in Los Angeles, the trade magazines (and some billboards) go through seasons of "for your consideration" ads, begging for votes. Sometimes the suggestions "for your consideration" are mainly to stroke an actor's ego and unintentionally comic (my all-time favorite suggested a vamping David Haselhoff for an Emmy). The other classic move is to show a film still of a distraught actress, preferably with face contorted and mascara running, supposedly to show that this is a serious role and the "craft" trumps vanity. However, L.A. also runs the TV equivalent of these, and I hope they don't run elsewhere in the country. The ones where actors, directors and writers talk about what a wonderful film it is (and what a great experience it was to work with this visionary director) are perfectly fine. However, there are also TV spots that play part of a climactic scene while critics' praise scrolls past ("the finest work of his career" and so on). These serve as major spoilers, obviously. Perhaps it doesn't matter as much in L.A., where most folks who were going to see the film have done so already, and perhaps they are effective at convincing voters, and thus may help some deserving work. But I can't help but recoil at them, because they feel disrespectful to the work as a complete, structured, crafted piece. Those moments are built up to and earned in the film itself, and it feels wrong to yank them out of context for a 30 second spot. (Alas, I have searched in vain for video examples on the web, but if you live in L.A., the award spots for The Descendants, an admittedly fine film, exemplified this. One featured Alexander Payne and the actors talking up the film, which was fine, but the other showed Clooney's tearful scene with his comatose wife.)

Looking back on 2011, Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Ides of March, and Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Carey Mulligan (Drive and Shame) both had strong years. Both are established actors, but it's encouraging that they're still picking smaller, meaty projects. Meanwhile, it was a breakout year for both Jessica Chastain, who showed impressive range in The Help, The Tree of Life, The Debt and Coriolanus, and for Michael Fassbinder, who's been around for a while but earned widespread notice with Shame, X-Men: First Class and A Dangerous Method. Finally, it was a banner year for veteran screenwriter John Logan, who tackled disparate material in Hugo, Rango, and Coriolanus.

There are two related film conventions I could really do without, prevalent especially in comedies, romantic or otherwise (and films masquerading as them). One is the big public humiliation scene – sometimes it's both necessary and earned, but I find these often become exaggerated and unrealistic, which becomes more of an issue because they're not played for laughs. Instead, they're asked to set up the oh-so serious and seemingly obligatory "hero(ine)'s lowest point leading into act three." (Compare Bridesmaids and Young Adult in this respect; I think one sells it, cringe-worthy though it is, while the other one strains credulity… although I do like both films overall.) The other is the dreaded, supposedly heart-warming public speech (that for some implausible reason no one in charge ever stops). This hinges on the notion that feelings, especially love, are only truly real if declared very emotionally in front of as many people as possible, and that the target(s) of the declaration is always the sort of person that will welcome this, rather than being utterly humiliated. In a few cases these scenes work, but more often they feel emotionally manipulative, and most of all like connect-the-dots, forced sentimentality versus affection truly earned. (I'd argue Little Miss Sunshine, among other good films, sells its big climax with the family dancing on stage, and earns its good will.) Jeez, I thought Hollywood was trying to sell its fare to as many Americans as possible. Don't they understand that such histrionic displays are anathema to Midwesterners?

In any case, on to the films. As usual, I've tried to avoid spoilers or label them as such at the end of a review, so skip over any entry as desired. (My rule is, if you'd know it from watching the trailer or in the first ten minutes, it's not a spoiler.) I've also included links to a number of interviews (mostly audio segments from NPR shows) because they tend to be more lengthy and in depth than those from many other outlets.

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