Monthly Archives: February 2009

Best Film, 2008

One of my friends read my post from yesterday on the Oscars and noted that I hadn’t written my post on my favorite films from last year.  It had slipped my mind for the most part, as I had been focused on the hellish nightmare that has been grad school and the less painful experiences of Vagina Monologues and other work I have done at the Women’s Center.  Since I hadn’t been able to get to it, and I was specifically asked to write this, why not repeat the same concept from last year?  This list isn’t ranked (it’s only three films, for Christ’s sake) and I will mention other movies that I loved, but these are my top films of last year.

Unlike last year, only one of my favorites from last year were nominees for Best Picture.  The first I saw did not have the distinction of being recognized by the Academy, which is rather disheartening, to say the least.  Rachel Getting Married was a stupendous motion picture, with a stellar ensemble and a great premise.  Kym, played by Anne Hathaway in an Oscar-nominated performance, is a former model in rehab who gets a leave granted to attend her older sister’s wedding at home in Connecticut.  The emphasis here is really on the group as whole; yet the relationship between Kym and her sister, the eponymous Rachel, portrayed wonderfully by Rosemarie DeWitt, is arguably the center of the plot.  As Kym returns to her family’s home, tensions rise from her presence, and her role in the raw and intense pain suffered by her family is slowly revealed.  The unflinchingly real screenplay is enacted dutifully by the players, and the documentary style of the film lends it a more naturalistic feel.  Not only did I feel like I was part of this wedding and this family, but I was legitimately moved by the experience.  If it were only based on how the film was shot and written, it would simply be a touching glimpse into contemporary families.  The actors’ performances push it to an entirely new level, though, and the end result is a true triumph.  The spectrum of joy and pain experienced by all humans with a heart or soul or any real emotion is something that definitely stays with you far beyond the end titles.

I am Shiva the destroyer, your harbinger of doom this evening.

"I am Shiva the destroyer, your harbinger of doom this evening. "

After Rachel, I saw several films over the course of winter break but anxiously awaited the release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  It certainly didn’t disappoint.   As I noted in the Oscar post yesterday, the feeling was one of Forrest Gump, but, and this is only for me, infinitely more entertaining.  There was a darker edge to this film, with a more biting sense of humor and more vivid characters.  As I’m sure most of you have either seen it or heard extensively about it, the film is based off of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about an abandoned baby who is born as an old man and ages in reverse.  The effects throughout the film are stunning, but perhaps even more enjoyable are the interactions between the characters and the adventures that Benjamin encounters through his incredible life.  Landscapes, buildings, and sets are all outstanding, and the costume slash set designers had their work cut out for them as they sketched for decades of story line.  If, for some God forsaken reason, you still haven’t seen it, I would recommend finding your way to the nearest theater soon.  Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and especially Taraji P. Henson are all extraordinary in their roles.

Your life is defined by its opportunities...even the ones you miss.

"Your life is defined by its opportunities...even the ones you miss."

The final film I saw in the group was Doubt, which was another one for which I had been excited for months.  Starring some of my favorites actors – Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams – and with a stirring trailer, I was a lock for buying a ticket to this film set in 1964 Brooklyn.  The story focuses on Meryl’s character Sister Aloysius, a dragon of a woman, sharp and strict in her iron fist-like reign of a parochial school.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn is the new priest for the parish, and his theories on changing the Church have rubbed Sister Aloysius the wrong way.  When Sister James, played perfectly by Amy Adams, considers that a meeting between Father Flynn and the sole African-American student may have had more sinister undertones, Sister Aloysius is convinced beyond a doubt that Father Flynn must be stopped.  The entire movie is acted flawlessly, with Viola Davis adding to the absolutely remarkable pedigree of work.  While Shanley’s play doesn’t necessarily translate from the stage seamlessly, with some metaphors needing considerable amounts of subtlety, and the speech too rigid in parts, the actors transcend these transgressions.  Their collective feat of exceptional acting was proved when nominations were announced – all four roles were nominated, an achievement unheard of in Hollywood.

You should understand that, or you will mistake me.

"You should understand that, or you will mistake me."

These were my three favorites, but they definitely weren’t the only films I loved from last year.  Other films that would come highly recommended from me include Revolutionary Road, Happy-Go-Lucky, Frozen River, Wendy and Lucy, and Waltz With Bashir.  I don’t have time to explain all of their strengths, but trust me when I say they are all phenomenal achievements in cinema.

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Worst Oscars Ever?

Alright, I’ll admit it.  I like to watch the Oscars.  Fuck it, I love to watch the Oscars.  As I’ve said a million times before, I am a huge snob, and it reflects through my taste – music, film, literature, what have you.  Add that to my inherent compulsion for competition, and the Academy Awards becomes one of my favorite things to look forward to every year.  However, I have to admit that last night was possibly the worst Oscars I have ever seen.  Granted, I loathe musical theater, Hugh Jackman, and stacked competition, but that’s just me.  One of the more hurtful concepts I have come to understand from growing up is that the Oscar doesn’t always go to the best performance of the year.  Sometimes the Academy feels the need to send a political message, and other times they feel obligated to award a lifetime of work to someone who has somehow never taken home the glory.  My own obsession with fairness and recognizing the best makes it hard for me to stomach when someone who was mediocre at best gets to stand on stage and join the group of past winners.  In that vein, here is my list of who won slash who should have won.  Keep in mind this is based solely on my own bitter opinions on movies I spend far too much time considering.  Also, it should be noted that I saw every film that was nominated this year, save for a few of the Foreign Language nominees and all of the documentaries. I saw only one short – “Presto” – but I don’t think anyone really sees the shorts.

We all know now that Penelope Cruz won for Best Supporting Actress, and she is obviously delightful.  She is a gorgeous talent with an uncanny ability to combine passion and sympathy on screen, and I love her for it.  But to be honest, I think Viola Davis should have won the statue.  I’m surprising myself here, because I rarely go for the role that has little screen time, but Viola showed so much emotion and turmoil in her time on screen that she truly deserved that win last night.  The restraint of her performance, as she did what she thought best for her young son in Doubt, was inspiring.  Unfortunately, the Academy rarely rewards subtle performances, preferring to praise the emotional, ostentatious, and over the top roles.  In a perfect world, Rosemarie De Witt would have won for Rachel Getting Married; since she wasn’t even nominated, I will stick with Viola Davis.

God love ya, Penny.

God love ya, Penny.

Heath Ledger has been a lock for the Oscar for months at this point, and I can’t really argue.  His portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight was so nuanced, so ingenious, so iconic that it would have been shocking if someone else had won.  While I find it hard to disagree with the Academy on this one, I do want to emphasize the phenomenal jobs that were done by both Michael Shannon and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  They continue to amaze me with every role they bring to the screen.

Best Original Screenplay went to Dustin Lance Black for Milk, and his speech was touching, to say the least.  In addition, I have to give him credit where credit is due – his script was meticulously researched.  I think any of the films in this category could have won, but I would have to tip my favor to Happy-Go-Lucky and Mike LeighWALL-E was fascinating, and the wonders that were presented, especially without speech, have hopefully transformed the future of screenplays.  That said, while I believe that anyone can write a tragic film or period piece, as was the case with the other three nominees, it takes true talent to create a character with endearing optimism and cheerfulness without overdosing on saccharine.  Mike Leigh accomplished that with Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky and I was pleasantly surprised.

Slumdog Millionaire was a juggernaut last night, and Best Adapted Screenplay was one of many Oscars that it won, with this specific trophy going to Simon Beaufoy.  My pick would have been Eric Roth & Robin Swicord for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; while it was a short story that was turned into a two hour and forty eight minute film (which people never cease to joke about, as if it were somehow funny), the film was still astonishingly well done.  The story and the dialog were wonderful, and while a few pieces could have been cut, I loved the entire film.  Doubt, another extraordinary film, fumbled a little in its translation from the stage to the screen, as some of its metaphors were rather heavy handed, and the speech almost too rigid in places.  Frost/Nixon was simply a catastrophe.  Button, though, was heart-warming and enjoyable without being insufferable, as Slumdog quickly became.

I was truly shocked, as was everyone else who knew their shit, when Departures won for Best Foreign Language Film.  The Class from France was infinitely better done – acting, writing, and filming were all leaps and bounds above Departures.  Yet I would still award the Oscar to Waltz With Bashir.  The animation was outstanding and the story equally so; eventually, I hope the Academy begins to recognize the beauty that can be utilized through animation, much as was done last year with Persepolis.  Until then, we will have to stomach more mediocrity.

Best Director was Danny Boyle‘s to lose last night.  To be honest, I can’t say I am that angry.  I probably would have preferred David Fincher to win for Button, but Boyle is so infectiously charming and so obviously talented, that I can’t really argue with the Academy on this one.  Slumdog is quite an adventure, a dizzying rush of flashbacks, with several narratives deftly tied into one cohesive thread by Boyle’s vision.  I do think that this award, though, was more of a man getting his due for a career of great work rather than one stunning film.

I will see anything Kate Winslet does, hands down.  I think she and Meryl Streep are the two most talented performers out there, male or female.  Which is why it’s so difficult for me to be disappointed in her win for last night; it was so long coming, and she was certainly being rewarded for a career of sensational roles.  If she had won for Revolutionary Road, I would have been able to handle her win better, but since she won for The Reader, I will hang on to my claim that Anne Hathaway should have won last night.  Her portrayal of Kym in Rachel Getting Married was simultaneously breath-taking and star-making.  Kym was a hurricane in the movie, breaking the audience’s heart and infuriating them at the same time.  I don’t even like her that much, personally, because I always detected a level of smugness from her that unsettled me.  However, I will steadfastly believe that Kym was a better role than Hannah Schmitz.  I must reiterate, though, that I am beaming with pride for Kate Winslet, as I have loved her for years.

How can you not be happy for her?

How can you not be happy for her?

I have never been a fan of Mickey Rourke and I will be the first to admit it.  His campaigning for an Oscar this year has been equal parts refreshing and crass, as I’ve never seen someone so eager to win.  Regardless, in yet another case of rewarding a mimicry, or even a caricature, of a historical figure, Sean Penn won for the role of Harvey Milk.  Rourke’s work as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler was more original, more touching, and less cartoonish than Penn.  Again, I think I was the only person who vehemently disliked Milk, and the rumblings I had heard of Penn dropping the f-bomb in his personal life certainly didn’t win him any points in my mind.  The work, over all, speaks for itself – Rourke simply did a better job than Penn.

Finally, for Best Film, I remain true to my original feelings – Slumdog Millionaire was not, by any means, the best motion picture of 2008.  The story had myriad holes in plot, the luck of Jamal was implausible, at best, and the narrative itself was just kind of all over the place.  I am no moron, and I enjoy a complex and layered story more than most people, but Slumdog left me feeling merely satisfied and not mesmerized like most critics.  Frost/Nixon was flat, horrendously biased, and stumbled in the translation to film; The Reader was slow and I had problems with it treating a Nazi guard so sympathetically.  My feelings concerning Milk need not be repeated.  To be honest, I would have loved to see Rachel Getting Married win the Best Film, but as we are dealing with the real world, I would pick The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as the winner.  The story was enthralling, the direction sublime, and the feel of the film was very similar to Forrest Gump, but with more bite and humor.  The story was even more implausible than Slumdog, but it embraced this quirk rather than ignoring it.  I was truly immersed in the world of Button, instead of noticing plot problems and checking my watch, much like what happened to me while watching Slumdog.

Trust me, I fully understand how political the Oscars have become, and how other awards shows that lead up to it, including but not limited to the Directors’ Guild, Producers’ Guild, and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards.  Just because you gave the best performance of the year or created the most remarkable motion picture doesn’t mean that you will necessarily win the Academy Award.  That said, I was thoroughly disappointed with almost every facet of last night’s ceremony.  Hopefully, the ceremony of 2010 will be better in every way; to be sure, it can’t get much worse.

Fey and Martin were probably the only truly enjoyable moment of the night.  Fey FTW.

Fey and Martin were probably the only truly enjoyable moment of the night. Fey FTW.

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Protected: Keep Your Head Up, Kid

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Protected: Into This Bitter World

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