Sunday, February 27, 2011

Academy Awards Predictions

This is really coming in under the wire, but my week has been surprisingly busy since last Tuesday and time budgeting cuts had to be made. As a result, my yearly awards will not be debuting alongside my predictions, as the graphics (and even some viewing) are still in progress. But I wouldn't miss these predictions for the world, so with only a few hours to go, which I need to spend tabulating ballots for a mock-awards ceremony and concocting a Winter's Bone inspired dish, I've found time to consult my magic 8 ball on the plausible outcomes of tonight.

Two important points:
1. I've seen the majority of the nominees, but not nearly all. However, I've seen everything in the big 8 categories save Javier Bardem's performance in Biutiful and all the animated films, but I've only seen two of the docs (Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop) and one foreign nominee (Dogtooth, and there's a greater chance of the show ending on time than this going anywhere). Some notable films I'm missing include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Inside Job, Incendies and In a Better World.

2. To avoid the allure of hopedicting (ie. the inclination to elevate the chances of personal favorites), I'm also including my thoughts on what deserves to win, unlikely as that may be.

And the winners are...

Best Picture
The King's Speech

It was The Social Network's to lose for the longest time until The King's Speech proved that the academy members don't give a hoot what the critics are saying. It has dominated the late season awards, the ones which prove a pretty accurate litmus test for the big award on Oscar night just because of overlapping voters.

Should win: Black Swan

Best Director
David Fincher, The Social Network

Here's an actual race, though I bet in retrospect we won't think of it as such. Yes, Hooper's film is going to win the big prize, but he's a relatively unknown director and Fincher has found mainstream acceptance over the past few years. I think we're looking at our first Picture/Director split since Crash/Ang Lee and it's certainly one I can live with.

Still, my personal pick would be: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Best Actor
Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Because it just makes since. Eisenberg is too young and his film couldn't pull any other acting love. Bridges just won last year. Franco is definitely in right now, but I don't think many will be checking off the name of the host on their ballots. Bardem has some ardent support, but I just don't think that can stop the guy with the stutter. Plus, Firth still has some carry over love from A Single Man. He takes it.

Should win: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Best Actress
Natalie Portman, Black Swan

So no shit, Portman is poised to win and I don't buy Bening's odds for a minute. But instead let's take a moment to reflect on this best actress lineup, easily the strongest the Academy has pulled together since 1996 (McDormand/Watson/Scott-Thomas/Blethyn/Keaton). Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Williams are particularly great choices, and even if Bening is my least favorite, she's a pretty darn good fifth favorite.

Should win: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter

The supporting categories are where I need my hopedicting guard on, because I'm still refusing to believe that the trashiness of The Fighter can translate into any golden statues. Geoffrey Rush is definitely in the game, and if The King's Speech is really on fire, he may very well prevent this imminent disaster, but I won't bet on it. Starting tomorrow you'll have to call him Oscar winner, Christian Bale.

Should win: John Hawkes, Winter's Bone

Best Supporting Actress
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech

The toughest category in the big 8, and the one where I'm going to buck the general consensus. Melissa Leo has the edge here, but she's done a lot to sabotage her own campaign lately, not to mention she couldn't even get in at the BAFTAs, which surely hurts more than anything. Suince my favorite (Jacki Weaver) has little to no chance, it's down to the category fraudulent Steinfeld and the respected Brit in the BP favorite. I'm going with Helena.

Should win: Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Adapted Screenplay
The Social Network

There really was never any question of this whatsoever.

Should win: 127 Hours

Original Screenplay
The King's Speech

Damn shame that the screenplay categories are so boring this year.

Should win: Another Year

Animated Film
Toy Story 3

Should win: The Illusionist

Foreign Language Film

Should win: Haven't seen the others, but Jesus Christ not Dogtooth

Documentary (Feature)
Inside Job

Should win: I've only seen Exit Through the Gift Shop and Restropo, but I overwhelmingly prefer the later.

Art Direction
The King's Speech

Should win: Uh, none preferably. Actually, I'll say True Grit.

True Grit

Should win: Black Swan

Costume Design
I Am Love

Honestly, weird shit happens in this category all the time. I think this is between I Am Love and The Tempest.

Should win: Honestly, I didn't like I Am Love at all, but I could support a win in costumes.

Barney's Version

Should win: I've not seen any of these, so, yeah.

Original Score
The King's Speech

Should win: 127 Hours

Original Song
"We Belong Together" - Toy Story 3

Should win: "If I Rise" or "I See the Light" are both solid choices

The Social Network

Should win: Black Swan

Sound Editing

Should win: Inception

Sound Mixing

Should win: why not, The King's Speech

Visual Effects

Should win: Inception

Animated Short
The Gruffalo

Should win: I've seen 3 of the 5 and The Gruffalo was my favorite as well, but I could certainly imagine liking one of the others better.

Documentary Short
Killing in the Name

Live Action Short
God of Love

That's all, folks. I'll assess my accuracy either late tonight or tomorrow, and hopefully get my own awards up next weekend.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Watching the Best Picture nominees - All 485 of them

I need to get this post out of my system now, because come February 28th, we'll be back to cursing the relevance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the way we always do. And let's not kid ourselves, the way we love to.

It's always been a love/hate relationship. Those with limited movie experience look in from the outside with sneers about how they've "not even heard of most of those films!" Egads! Pretension must be afoot! But it's the very same group that lends a surprising amount of credence to the winners, simply by virtue of caring so damn much what does and doesn't win or even get nominated. I mean, who care that The Dark Knight didn't get a Best Picture nomination. It's hardly in bad company. Far greater works of cinema have missed the cut as well, many of which never even had a fighting chance (ie, a rigorous studio campaign) to begin with.

Cinephiles, jaded curmudgeons that they are, care about the Oscars too. Most will deny this, and for a few this may be a genuine sentiment, but deep down, most hold out some hope that every once in a while the Academy will get something right. It's a rare and welcome opportunity to gloat, but more importantly, it means that some deserving film will go down in the record books, maybe even get a bump in renown. It could be a mere Best Costume Design win, but hell, us curmudgeons will take what we can get.

In the spirit of being generous though - because, after all, 'tis Oscar season - I think it's worth appreciating all the things they have gotten right. Forget whether a film is the 'best' of a year, or what else should have been nominated/won, the Academy has managed to preserve, through the time-honored format of the checklist, many many films that I'm better off for having seen, plenty of which I may never have come across without these accolades from ages past. On a smaller scale, that of the Best Picture winners, this was instrumental in my indoctrination to the world of movies. There's a real rush when you're first checking off Casablanca, On the Waterfront and Lawrence of Arabia from your to-see list.

With this in mind, I'm declaring the start of a new mission, the viewing of every last film nominated for the Best Picture award. Technically, it's a goal I've been working toward for years, and we even do regular yearly BP lineup rankings at Culturish, but over the last month I've found a surprising amount of resolve to actually do this. I've watched at least 20 nominees during the last month and what I found was that despite a few total duds, there was a handful of amazing mixed in. Yeah, I had to sit through The Robe (a contender for the bottom 10, to be sure) but I also got to see criminally overlooked films like Fanny, Decision Before Dawn, A Touch of Class and A Room at the Top. Those four alone have honestly made whatever mediocrities I've had to indulge more than worth it.

485 films are currently in the esteemed ranks of Best Picture nominees. This means that assuming the Academy holds onto its current 10 nominee stunt for just one more year, come nomination morning in 2013, we will hit (possibly surpass, again depending on the nominee count) the 500 milestone. Therefore, I declare my intent to have viewed every single film nominated for Best Picture by that very morning, date of which as yet to be determined. And I have every intent of finishing far sooner than that. There is one insurmountable hurdle in the way, the 1928 Ernst Lubitsch film, The Patriot, is considered lost. Barring that though, I'll be ready for a complete top to bottom ranking of the nominees come 2013.

So where do I stand now? To be honest, I haven't counted, and that's a number that I don't really want to see. I'd be intimidated, especially by the significant number I still have to see from the pre-1944 years where the nomination total was 10, and on two occasions as many as 12 nominees. I do know that there are many years where I have seen all nominees, probably close to 30, so my task ahead is far from impossible. There's yet to be a decade that I've seen everything from, but I'm down to three from the 2000s (Ray, Letters From Iwo Jima, and The Blindside), six from the 80s, and seven each from the 70s and 90s. Put in that perspective, I should breeze through this. But again, the 30s are starring me down, and I'm kinda petrified.

Funny enough, after all the viewing over the years to get as far as I have, I've still not seen all the Best Picture winners. The Broadway Melody, Cimarron, and The Great Ziegfeld are the final three winners I've not caught up with, the only films separating me from finishing the original list I set out to complete. I'm in no rush though. I've got nearly two years.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Leopard: An Appreciation of the Theatrical Experience

"Something will have to change, for everything to stay the same," or so the rough translation goes. It's a thought repeated twice throughout Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, and the second time it's uttered, here by Burt Lancaster's majestic Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, it's with a whimper of dignified resignation. He has come to understand that the life of decadence his class has been privileged must end and make way for a new order, even if the new will ultimately resemble the old. Indeed, by the end of the film, we meet the new boss, who is born in a lavish ballroom wedding that doubles as the funeral party for the old aristocracy. Fabrizio has time to come to terms with his fate, but that doesn't make his heartbreak any less palpable. Once more, he is a good man, a great man even, and it's devastating to watch Garibaldi's revolution make him a kind of sacrificial lamb. Yet as breeding and birthright compel him, he weathers it with grace. That is what the regal leopard does.

Lancaster is the princely model of physical strength, yet fraught with fragile emotion that will from time to time bubble to the surface. His presence in a foreign production (even of this caliber) is atypical for an American actor of the time, though soon to become a bona-fide trend, one that he, along with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders a decade earlier, helped pave the way for. But his talents truly show here, and his interpretation of the proud and wounded Fabrizio stands as one of the ten best performances ever put to film (dubbing be damned, proof this can still be the universal medium). And it's not as if he's the only one pulling his weight. There's Claudia Cardinale, who heaves and quivers more convincingly than any actress I've ever seen, and is treated, as are we, to the greatest entrance among the cast. Romolo Valli's Father Pirrone racks up one hysterical moment after another, Rina Morelli's aging Princess conveys with volume the fears the Fabrizio so carefully restrains, and Lucilla Morlacchi successfully carries the burden of justifying, to both the audience and her father, exactly why it's time to put the old aristocracy to rest. Lastly, there's Alain Delon, displaced like Lancaster and at the top of his game, though the difference here is that the dashing Frenchman makes it all look easy. Adorned in the most opulent costumes ever captured on film, the cast comes together in a cinematic epic for the ages. Visconti was never better, and you'd be mad to think anyone could be.

Ah, time for context. Not that I'm not allowed to extol the virtues of any film I damn well please from this little pulpit I built for myself in this largely unexplored swatch of the internet jungle, but it's not been that long since I covered Visconti's masterpiece as part of my Top 100 Films countdown. But this was the occasion, a newly restored print of The Leopard screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to see one of my favorite films on 35 mm (An opportunity that was unheard of while I was in Michigan, but I'm going to have to get used to now. The Siskel is also showing Repulsion, Cache, and Eyes Without a Face, and that's just this month!). In short, nothing could have kept me away from the theater tonight, and I'm immeasurably glad that I went. To all film lovers out there, never pass up a chance to see a favorite (or perhaps a classic you've never caught up with) on the big screen, especially if we're talking celluloid. If you think some time that you could never love a film more, then just wait till you see it projected in a black box, surrounded by dozens of other lifelong students of cinema.

I sound like I'm romanticizing the experience, but there's a genuine rush from the communion of viewers, not just in this theater, but across every theater showing the film (in this case, The Leopard) stretching all the way back to its premier (in this case, in 1963). Put less arduously, tonight I watched The Leopard as if for the first time, regardless of the fact is was my third. The colors and costumes exploded like they never had before (credit to the marvelous restoration for that) and the panoramic Italian vistas were never more breathtaking. And here I found proof that some films just haven't been seen until they've been beheld at the cinema. From my 17 inch computer monitor, I could recognize the brilliance of The Leopard, and even fall hard and fast for its scope and performances, but tonight I felt the electricity of one of the great films of all time, and that's something only a handful of my favorites can boast. If you'll pardon the ridiculously obvious (groan-inducing, even) comparison, it was the difference between seeing a leopard caged up at a zoo and observing one free in the wild. The moral of the story: let's never forget that the place to see movies is the theater, because that will be the day that cinema drops dead.