[Actually, scratch that, “The Oops-cars” is a TERRIBLE name; what on earth am I thinking?]
Hello, faithful readers (or new arrivals): here at Following Pulitzer we remain in the midst of a long outage while I adjust my life to the arrival of our first child, a daughter who is by turns delightful and challenging (as are all infants, I hear). One of the many impacts of her entrance into our lives is to put a temporary halt to the Academy Awards mania that my wife and I have engaged in since about 2004, when we looked at the Oscar nominees and said “Crud, I thought we were moviegoers?” Which my wife followed up with “Well, why shouldn’t we try to see a bunch of these? Even if we don’t think they look good, they must be good enough for the Academy.” And while the decade since has convinced us the Academy doesn’t always know what it’s doing (we still haven’t forgiven them for The Blind Side), it’s also opened our eyes to a lot of wonderful cinema. We love our daughter, but I think it’s fair to say that, this January/February, we miss our frantic hustle to take in as many nominees as possible, and all the conversations and insights those films have sparked for us both.
And I, of course, have in recent years always penned some musing over what I’ve seen and how it affects me, since if this blog is about anything it’s about me and how art shapes my view of the world. I know, I know: I owe you all a Pulitzer post, and Upton Sinclair and I will be back on that wagon some day, maybe some day soon. But for now, I hope you’ll let me indulge in a short series of Oscars posts that I think will be good for me, and hopefully useful to you. I’ll be breaking it into five pieces because it will be monumentally long, but I think each piece can be successfully skimmed if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to read all my little notes.
Here’s what I’m up to: I want to think about all I’ve learned from ten years of moviegoing, in part to remind myself that it will be a part of my life again, and in part to remind myself of how rich the experience has already been. And I feel like every year some of my favorite films get overlooked—I want to bring them into the light and share some of my best experiences with others. And maybe if I can spotlight, not this year’s movies—which I know I won’t see in the theaters—but instead movies from the recent past that I (and maybe you) can access more easily (DVDs from Netflix, On Demand, streaming from all over the place, etc.), it’s more likely you’ll take a chance on something I suggest. I’ll be giving you one film from each of Oscar’s 24 categories—in every case, a recent nominee that did not win, that I have seen and loved, and which I think you easily could have missed. I’ll handle the categories in reverse order of importance (to me, at least) to save the very best for last. And I promise, I’m aiming for stuff I think really will appeal to you—I’m a Terrence Malick fan, but I won’t suggest that I think a ton of people should rush out and rent The Tree of Life, which is definitely an acquired taste—but maybe will be a little adventurous or obscure, just to make sure I really am giving you some worthwhile advice. Without further ado, let’s get to our first film:
Best Sound Mixing: WALL-E (2008)
I know, I know—half of you are wondering why I think WALL-E is obscure, and the other half are wondering what the heck “Best Sound Mixing” even honors. Here’s the deal—the Academy doesn’t seem to know either. Every year, they nominate a bunch of major BP films (usually seemingly on the grounds that they were probably really good at everything) along with a bunch of loud blockbusters (on the grounds that all that hearing damage must have been worth it on some level). So I’m left with a long string of well-known films to work with, and all I know about sound mixing is that it’s really hard to get all the levels right, or at least it seems to be since half the time I can’t hear the dialogue over the soundtrack. Why WALL-E, then? Because even though I know half the hemisphere saw it, it’s one of my top 10 films of the last 10 years, and if you thought “oh, a kid’s film” or something along those lines, you really ought to see it. Plus, although I don’t think this is exactly what “sound mixing” means, one of the movie’s greatest strengths is how effectively it communicates with a real minimum of sound. The opening 20-30 minutes are a gem, and during that opening passage it’s effectively just a silent film, a little comic, a little tragic, mostly evoking wonder and deep investment in this nearly-mute garbage compacter that captures the heart right away. But you probably knew that and own this already. Next!
Best Sound Editing: There Will Be Blood (2007)
I don’t think the Academy and I are totally solid on this one either (I defy anyone to explain in a totally consistent fashion what distinguishes a well mixed soundtrack from a well-edited soundtrack: every now and then I can tell, but usually I cannot). Anyway, if there’s a recent film that haunts me with its audio (and not simply its score, about which more later), I think Paul Thomas Anderson‘s epic (loosely based on an Upton Sinclair novel! Haha! A Pulitzer tie-in!) is a good example of this: the sound of everything in the film, the rattle of machinery, the strain of human exertion, the cacophony of human crowds, all of it set against, yes, that spare and challenging score…it sticks with you. Unless you’re a big PTA fan or the kind of filmgoer who sees every Daniel Day-Lewis film on the basis that, if DDL thinks it’s worth leaving his work as a cobbler or calligrapher or 19th century sailmaker, or whatever it is he’s doing now, it’s probably worth seeing, I’m guessing that you didn’t catch this one. Certainly Betsy and I never would have seen it unless the Oscars compelled us to (sorry, DDL, I’m not totally sold on your taste in scripts, though you are a genius). And immediately after seeing it, we really felt unhappy and weird and figured it had been a not-good film experience. Except that we couldn’t get the images and performances out of our heads (not to mention the eerie sound of the world PTA creates), and we kept talking about it and talking about it, far more than we did about other 2007 films we loved, until we were convinced that a film that got us this stirred up and this interested in it must be pretty incredible. What it says about ambition and emptiness and the American dream (and all the nightmares it can give birth to) is immense and lasting, even if taking it all in is a pretty intense experience. Of all the films I’ve ever seen, it’s the one that grows most on me the more I reflect on it: so watch it, for sure, but give yourself some time afterwards before jumping to a conclusion about how you feel about it.
Best Makeup: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
This is almost always the weirdest category: films that get no other support end up here, and when you’re Oscars pros like Betsy and me (yes, “Betsy and me“, trust me on this one, I’m a former English teacher) you aim for the multiple nominees first. This means that we often see few, if any, of the movies in this category, so I bet I’m missing an even more obscure and exciting film in here somewhere. But! Guillermo del Toro is a genius at world creation, especially the creation of environments and creatures that feel very real, very organic, and very well-situated with one another. Hellboy II is a great example of this, and a worthy makeup nominee—the story is, eh, all right enough, and the action is decent for an action flick (though these two combined didn’t get it enough buzz to be a big hit—I’m betting most of you never saw this one in the theaters), but the beauty of what we see on screen, especially the dazzling and sometimes terrifying side characters who appear in one or two brief scenes, is breath-taking. The essential premise of the story is that humanity’s long truce with the other mystical creatures who inhabit the shadows of this world is coming to an end; that humanity has no idea this is the case; that a bunch of non-human freaks are the only defense standing between our society and annihilation; and lastly that, through rushing into the shadowy places and running up against strange creatures, these freaks come to question whose side they ought to be on, and why. The fact that the makeup work totally sells us on the reality of the high stakes and the ferocity of some of these creatures is definitely the film’s highest achievement, and is worth marveling at all on its own. If you don’t know GDT’s work, this is not his best film for sure, but it’s a great introduction to his aesthetic, and if you find you like it there’s much more to dive into. As a fan of directors with distinctive aesthetics (Terry Gilliam, anyone?), I was hooked.
Best Film Editing: Frost/Nixon (2008)
One of the weird sides of being obsessive about the Oscars is that I have no perspective at all on which movies are a “big deal”—in this case, when I was reviewing my options, I glossed right past this film at first because in my head it was “way too widely seen”, given how many nominations it got and how much buzz surrounded it for a while in 2008. I finally circled back to it, though, and if Wikipedia’s box office numbers are right, practically nobody saw this incredible film (it made back $27 million, and the production budget was $25 mill, so with the added costs of marketing it may still be in the hole, financially). It’s an amazing cast, and Langella in particular is getting better and better the older he gets (Robot & Frank, if you haven’t seen it, streams on Netflix and is unexpectedly delightful), but this really is in some ways about the editing—let’s face it, when your movie’s focused on two dudes sitting and talking on a makeshift TV set, you have to create energy and suspense and intrigue somehow, and Ron Howard is employing his better talents here to make all that come true. Frost’s work with his team, criss-crossing the globe; the quick cuts back and forth to convey the emotion and tension in both men at key points in the interviews; all of this adds up to a really gripping film. Whether or not it’s totally accurate about Nixon (it’s not, not entirely) is not the point: it’s revealing of a lot about celebrity, and politics’ place in society, and how some of that had changed over the careers of these two men, one a jet-set journalist, the other a tired war horse (and criminal) who’d been around since the Cold War was invented. Well worth your time.
Okay, that’s it for Part One—Part Two (and the rest) will be showing up in this space soon, so keep your eyes open! Clicking on this link will bring up all of the articles in the series.