The end of the list of 24 great films I think you ought to see; or, The Oops-cars, Part Five

[No apologies!]

Again, what I’m doing, and the rules for doing it, are in Part One—in a nutshell, this is me handing out awards to nominated films that didn’t win the Oscar in question, trying to spotlight great films from a decade of my wife’s and my collective Oscar obsession, in the hopes that I’m recommending something you haven’t seen (and maybe hadn’t even heard about).  I’m continuing up in the order of “how important the award is to me”, on my way to Best Picture.

Best Lead Actor: George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009)

Seeing great acting performances is, truthfully, probably the best part of the Oscar obsession—even when the film itself isn’t on a topic that ordinarily would have gotten me out, seeing beautifully realized portrayals of human beings is always something worth my time.  And for these acting awards, I’m simultaneously recognizing particularly great performances but also great actors who’ve reliably won me over.  George Clooney is a really amazing example of the sort of flashy leading man who decided a long time ago not to just coast on good looks and a smile that makes the straight ladies melt (I hear).  He’s consistent in finding a way to make his characters accessible—despite the fact that they look like Hollywood royalty (since George does), they feel more and more like everymen.  Up in the Air is just the best example of his many recent nominated performances, as Ryan Bingham is an example of all sorts of things about modernity—the way humans are treated as disposable by corporate culture, the way we can feel rootless and detached from our communities (which Bingham takes to extremes: when he at one point responds to the question “where are you from?” with “I’m from here” while sitting 35,000 feet up in a jumbo jet, we believe him), how hard it is to make meaningful relationships without making ourselves vulnerable.  In some ways, on the page, Bingham’s a bit too obvious a metaphor—a lot of stuff about “baggage” both real and imaginary, a lot of attempts to analogize his work and his lifestyle to his inner emotional life—but as realized by Clooney, he’s just perfect, a man charismatic enough to invest us in him but flawed enough that we are anxious to see him grow.  The movie’s other performers and performances are all almost as good: whether you approach it as a funny drama or a serious comedy, as a sweeping indictment of pre-recession America or a focused defense of “no man is an island”, the film is definitely worth your time.

Best Lead Actress: Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Anne Hathaway….the oft-maligned Anne Hathaway.  I just don’t get the hatred, frankly—the Internet has been weirdly harsh to Anne (especially in the months leading up to her Oscar win last year), and darned if I can figure out why.  Sure, she’s attractive and a little self-important and heck, maybe she has some annoying personality tics (though I think if you know her well enough to feel that way, but don’t know her in real life, maybe back off the TMZ and Us Weekly a little bit), but aren’t most stars like that?  Anyway, she wins me over consistently as an actress who really commits to whatever she’s been asked to do, and who’s not afraid to make herself a little ridiculous or over the top if that’s what the role calls for.  Maybe the best example of this, and one of the most sparkling gems we found due to our Oscar obsession (a film we NEVER would otherwise have seen, but really fell for), is Anne’s role as Kym, the struggling, haunted drug addict who attends her sister’s wedding in Rachel Getting Married.  Two things make this movie incredible, and the first is definitely Anne’s performance—Kym is charming, blunt, self-deprecating, tough, selfish, angry, this range of emotions and sides that fully challenges any actor to inhabit her, but Anne pulls it off with incredible success, making all of the elements in Kym come across as natural and fully integrated into this complicated young woman who is simultaneously desperate to find a place inside a “happy family” at a classically “happy family” event and desperate to tear down the curtains and let some light in on what this family is and why she became who she is.  And all of this takes place inside the second incredible thing, which is that the director, Jonathan Demme, somehow makes this feel totally real, so that it honestly becomes a documentary like experience, with the camera maneuvering through a wholly believable and often appealing wedding weekend a big New England home where the daughter will get married in the backyard and the father’s musician friends are there to jam and play dance music, and every scene feels like just a corner of a much larger party that the camera will swing around to discover at any moment.  Because of the natural performance from Anne and this natural setting, everything feels heightened—the intense awkward feelings when someone begins to embarrass themselves, the highs of happiness when a genuinely joyous moment hits, the gut-wrenching agony when someone says words they could never take back in a lifetime of apologies.  Kym’s secrets come to light, as do the family’s, but not in the way a movie would normally develop—we simultaneously see “the movie” storyline but are aware of how calm and even normal, in many ways, the wedding would feel to most of the guests.  Even if you don’t like Anne Hathaway (maybe especially if you do), this is a film worth watching—gripping, honest, sometimes tough to take, and unafraid of giving real answers rather than happy endings.

Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master (2012)

I’ve left the supporting roles for last because truthfully, I usually find myself more invested in them than the leads—I discover more unexpected films, and richer characterizations, in these supporting categories, I find.  And it’s no surprise that my two favorite actors of the last decade are here.  It’s just tragic to have to talk about this one right now, of course, and I don’t feel I really know how to.  Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the finest talents of his generation, and maybe the finest—mesmerizing without being showy, almost invisible inside his roles and yet the guy you know you’ll be talking about after the lights come up, a man who consistently made decent films good and good films great.  His voice was always so tightly controlled, with none of the flash and range of more excitable actors like Pacino or Penn, and yet inside that narrow band he evoked intense emotion.  He was unafraid to be pathetic, slimy, even repellent, and then turn around in his next film to be the everyman, the sly rebel, the star of the party.  It’s hard to think of a more tragic loss of talent.  And in The Master, we are fortunate that he left behind maybe his greatest single performance (opposite, it has to be said, an astonishingly good performance by Joaquin Phoenix)—Lancaster Dodd, the audacious, passionate, furious con man who falls in love (not romantically, but no less intensely for all that) with a drifter who fascinates him on every level.  You don’t want to root for Dodd and yet PSH makes sure we can’t take our eyes off of him, and on some level we buy into what he’s selling even as we know it’s smoke and mirrors.  The word association scene he plays with Phoenix’s character (Freddy Quell) is so powerful and unrelenting, I held my breath both times I saw this in the theaters (and yeah, this is one of the rare Oscar nominees I insisted on seeing twice on the big screen).  I can’t say I fully understand The Master‘s plot (it’s Paul Thomas Anderson‘s version of a Terrence Malick movie), nor can I imagine being friends with either Quell or Dodd, but I can’t think of another recent movie that is as successful at getting inside my head and haunting me.  That was PSH’s talent, and now all we can do is fire up old films of his and dream of what could have been.

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams in Doubt (2008)

It’s funny, but I nearly inverted these two awards—that is, I nearly gave the nod to Amy Adams for her work in The Master and to PSH for his work in Doubt.  My two favorite performers of the last decade are never better than when they’re working off each other, I think.  Amy was easy to overlook at the start of her career: her roles as ditzy cheerleaders (Drop Dead Gorgeous…yeah, if you haven’t re-watched in a while, that’s Amy Adams) and sleazy teen tramps (Cruel Intentions 2….ugh) didn’t exactly brim with promise.  But then she started to find roles that gave her more to do and suddenly there was a lot of depth there: depth that’s naturally present in a filmy like Doubt, based on a pretty deep script by John Patrick Shanley, but also in films where it could easily have been absent (she’s way better than her material in Julie & Julia, and I know this sounds ridiculous but she brings a lot more to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby than that script demanded).  Her range goes from innocent ingenue to toughened realist to slinky sexpot, and she’s fortunate not to have been typecast by a Hollywood that does that to actresses far more readily than it should.  Doubt shows off a nice subsection of this range in a subtle role that was easy to overlook—with PSH and Meryl Streep in the lead roles, and a powerful brief performance by Viola Davis as the mother of a boy who may or may not have been molested, Amy’s Sister James, a nun who suspects the abuse but cannot prove it, is the glue that holds these performances together.  Her suspicions are what inflame Streep’s Sister Aloysius to more or less open war on Father Flynn (PSH’s role); her commitment to faith in humanity leads her to empathize with Father Flynn and trust him at a critical moment.  By the end of the film, she finds herself effectively hearing her superior’s confession, and what Amy does with body language and a small selection of line reads to draw out and make believable that last scene is more or less the extent to which the movie works (I thought it did).  There are criticisms to be voiced of Doubt—it’s heavy-handed at times, and certainly the material simultaneously asks a lot of us and withholds some of what we probably need to invest as fully as we want to.  But not of Amy Adams in the role, who takes the fourth or fifth most memorable part in the piece and makes it the fulcrum on which the movie can pivot.  She has this effect in a lot of other roles too—if you haven’t seen her supporting turns in The Fighter or The Master (to name two other Oscar nominated roles), those are absolutely worth your time also.  It’s terrible that the Oscars have never yet found time to hand her the award—all I can hope for is a long career ahead of her, with plenty more opportunities to take away some overdue hardware.

Best Picture: True Grit (2010)

Picking a best picture from the many great films that haven’t won it was incredibly difficult, but in the end, this was a film I wanted to honor in almost all the categories on the way up, which ultimately convinced me this was the right place to put it.  Where to begin?  Maybe where the film itself begins—the movie’s astonishing cinematography by the best guy in the business, the criminally overlooked Roger Deakins (ELEVEN nominations—count ’em!—and NO statues yet), which starts us out with that shot of the dead man in the snow that might have been painted in oils by an Old Master and be hanging in the Met.  In the backgroun, Carter Burwell builds this powerful, moving, period score around the central melody in the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”.  And then we meet Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld in a debut role that suggests a lifetime of talent ahead), and between Hailee’s masterful portrayal of a twelve year old who seems to have been born 37 (and a no-nonsense spitfire 37 year old, at that) and the delightfully lyrical words written for her in a script that is both classic Charles Portis (the author of the novel on which this is based) and classic Coen brothers (our screenwriter/directors), we fall in love with Mattie right away and are up for the adventure of tracking down her father’s killer.  The movie strikes that balance of humor and grim reality that the Coen brothers manage at their best—a little more somber than O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a little less grim than Fargo—maybe most successfully in the two tough guys who end up at Mattie’s side.  One of them the aging, degenerate, drunken tiger of a man, Rooster Cogburn, played with delirious self-indulgence by Jeff Bridges (but self-indulgent in the most watchable of ways), and the other an idealistic, proud, white-hot man of justice, the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, played with earnest grace by Matt Damon.  The whole movie unfolds from the nearly incredible notion that these three people might be out on the trail of a hunted murderer together, the pre-teen girl trying to call the shots while the old rascal and the young lawman squabble, ultimately falling victim to their own tragic flaws as well as realizing the best of themselves in a moment of crisis.  I am spell-bound throughout by the dialogue, the beauty of the shots that Deakins and the Coens collaborate in providing, the intensity with which the story pulls us along and the glee that comes from watching sterling performers (and this is an incredible cast top to bottom: there are no small actors, even in the small parts) sink their teeth into a really good script.  It’s a heart-breaking film as well as a heart-warming one, with losses and victories scattered about equally as we go.  I love every moment of it right up to the last shot of the one-armed figure treading away from us and the music swelling a little so that Iris DeMent (whose voice you either love or you hate, and I love it) can pull the score together with a couple of verses of that old hymn at the end.  It’s the kind of film you could see once a year from the age of eleven to ninety-one, and find something in it for yourself every time.  If you’ve never even seen it once, you really owe it to yourself to try it: it’s good in almost every one of the ways a movie can be.

And that’s it—I don’t know when I’ll be back to blog again (hopefully soon), but in the meantime I hope some of you enjoyed skimming through my movie suggestions, and maybe even reading the details of what I loved and why.  If there’s anything you missed, remember you can see all the posts in this series (this one included) just by clicking on this link.  Happy movie-going, happy at-home video watching, and maybe your favorites from 2013 have a good year hauling away awards from the Oscar ceremony on Sunday!

Even more of the list of 24 great films you likely haven’t seen—a series we are apparently calling The Oops-cars (of which this is Part Four)

[In retrospect, going for a silly name was probably a mistake.]

Again, what I’m doing, and the rules for doing it, are in Part One—in a nutshell, this is me handing out awards to nominated films that didn’t win the Oscar in question, trying to spotlight great films from a decade of my wife’s and my collective Oscar obsession, in the hopes that I’m recommending something you haven’t seen (and maybe hadn’t even heard about).  I’m continuing up in the order of “how important the award is to me”, on my way to Best Picture.

Best Animated Feature: Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

Probably at the outset it should be admitted that this category is just the Academy saying “Crud, Pixar is pretty awesome, isn’t it?  Let’s give them an award every year!”  (I jest, of course…they’ve only won 50% of these.  Which is still an enormous amount.)  Anyway, that said, yes, Pixar’s pretty awesome (at least sometimes).  And fortunately the Academy is broad-minded enough to make sure that most years there are one or two interesting and non-mainstream choices; for every Kung Fu Panda 2 (and man, was that not worth it) there’s a The Illusionist or this movie, one of Hayao Miyazaki‘s less well-known recent films but still a great example of the master of modern animation at work.  Judging from the American box office, I’m guessing a lot of you haven’t seen this one, or maybe any Miyazaki ever, which is both a shame (because his work is almost always amazing) and a wonderful thing (because you have a ton of great movies ahead of you).  Miyazaki has been writing and directing animated features for my whole lifetime, which only amounts to a dozen films or so, but it’s a great catalog—his characters are dynamic and memorable, his visuals are stunningly beautiful and daring (especially for films aimed at children), and he’s unafraid of complicated and challenging messages.  Personally, I see a lot of post-war Japan in his art—a definite skepticism of nationalism and military aggression, an acknowledgement of the horrors that superweapons wreak, a devotion to community and to humanity’s ability to rebuild from tragedy and devastation.  Here, he adapts a modern Western fairy tale, a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, in which a young girl is cursed with premature old age; suddenly a withered crone, she takes to the road, befriends a collection of strange and magical creatures, and finds herself a housemaid to the dazzling, dangerous, and handsome young wizard named Howl.  The story weaves together a personal journey towards confidence and assertiveness into a larger collective effort to break the chains of violence and fear that seem to have bound up most of the surrounding world.  It’s not Miyazaki’s absolute best work, but that’s merely saying it’s one of the best ten animated films released in the last 15 years, and not one of the best two or three (as I think Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke have a fair claim to be).  If you’ve never seen anything by him before, this is a fine place to start, and if you have but missed this one, go find a copy!

Best Live Action Short: Pentecost (2011)

Yes, the short films make it almost to the top of my list of most important categories…and I almost think I under-rate them.  The short films may be my favorite part of the Oscars for three reasons: 1) it’s easy to see a whole category, so that in just 90-120 minutes I can be as fully informed a voter as any member of the Academy; 2) they’re adventurous and strange, since short films are blissfully free from any pressures to make money, so you see some incredible films that could never be made as features; and 3) they are always a surprise, since unlike the big nominated feature films I’ve never seen any trailers or advertisements, and often have nothing to go on but a title, so the best ones are a truly unexpected delight.  The hit-or-miss factor is high, I’ll admit—every year there’s at least one short film that I don’t get at all, and some years are stronger than others.  But I’ve never yet come away without a favorite.  Pentecost is just one of half a dozen I wanted to choose, and I picked it because it’s the one that made me laugh loudest—it’s the simple story of an Irish boy who’s crazy about football (“soccer” for you Yanks), his conscription onto a team of altar boys for the biggest church service in the local parish’s recent memory, and the wonderful/terrible thing that happens when his imaginary world intrudes onto the reality of high Mass with the Archbishop.  I’ll admit, half of my laughter comes from years of service as an acolyte, a lay reader, and a member of the altar guild—the scene where an adult (the warden, I think? or maybe the verger?) gives the altar boys a “pep talk” like it’s halftime in Hoosiers floors me every time—so who knows if it will work for you?  But it’s short, and if you click on that link in the heading above, it’ll take you to the full short film on Youtube.  Whether you like it or not, try to catch a short film screening—in big cities this week, you’ll probably have an arthouse theater showing all five nominees for one admission, and anyone with cable can likely get all five on demand for about $8 (which is what we’ll be doing).  If you try it once, I’m certain you’ll get addicted like we have.

Best Documentary Short Subject: Mondays at Racine (2012)

Of the short categories, documentary is the hardest to track down—much rarer to find even arthouse theaters doing showings, and the cable on demand people for whatever reason never give me the option of paying $8 for them the way they do the live-action and animated categories.  But since moving to Chicago, where the incomparable Music Box Theatre keeps documentary films a vital part of their annual catalog, Betsy and I have seen the documentaries twice and it’s been almost a life-changing experience—documentary shorts are passion projects by definition, stories film-makers were desperate to tell despite the fact that there would never be any money in them (not that documentary features rake in cash, but shorts are in an even worse state).  And as a result they’re incredibly moving.  Our two favorites were the two winners, but a solid second place finish last year was this beautiful short film, Mondays at Racine.  It’s the story of two sisters who run a beauty salon on Long Island, and every third Monday of the month, they are open solely to women fighting cancer—everything they do that day is free as a loving service to the women who come to them.  The documentary tells the story of these sisters and of a few of their regular clients—both long-time veteran cancer survivors and the very recently diagnosed.  They do all they can to encourage and support each other, and to remind women going through chemo and radiation and all the other things that come with a cancer diagnosis that they are beautiful, they are accepted, and they are loved.  It doesn’t pull its punches, and in fact there are some pretty frank moments about how hard some of this is and how human we remain, no matter how much it would help us all to become saints in times of distress.  If you ever have the chance to see even one of the short documentaries, I think the worst ones are still interesting, and the best, like Mondays at Racine, will stay with you for years.

Best Animated Short: The Lady and the Reaper (2009)

Of all the shorts, the ones you’re probably most familiar with are animated short films—almost every Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse you’ve ever seen, for instance—and certainly it’s where we started our “short film obsession” that’s a significant element in our “Oscar obsession”.  Despite how inventive the live action shorts are, and how moving the documentary shorts are, I had to list this after them—it’s always the short category we get most wound up about.  In recent years there’s been a disturbing trend towards giving a nomination to Pixar (come on, Academy, they’re doing fine without handing them a second category too), but I have to admit, their short films are well made.  Anyway, the best ones are always off-beat and from unexpected places—Head Over Heels in which a married couple live in the same house but with opposite gravitational fields; Logorama, a savage and profane assault on commercialism in which Ronald McDonald goes on a terrifying shooting spree through a stylized Los Angeles, at one point knocking out the Haribo gummy bear and taking Big Boy hostage at gunpoint (it is as astounding and laugh-out-loud crazy as it sounds); La Maison de Petits Cubes, a somber and beautiful reflection on loss in which a lonely old man has to keep adding levels to his house to keep above rising floodwaters, and then ultimately must dive down under the water, swimming through the old levels of his house and, by extension, his memories.  All of those are wonderful (and two won Oscars)—my choice for the best non-winner is The Lady and the Reaper, one of the funniest films I’ve seen about death—an old woman is anxious to die and rejoin her beloved husband, and is thrilled when the Grim Reaper arrives.  But a doctor, armed with modern medicine, rushes forward to defend her, and he and the Reaper fight in classic animated fashion (think Roadrunner v. Coyote or Bugs v. Elmer) with the old gal rooting the Reaper on the whole way.  Strange, unexpected, and delightful.  So is this whole category, so seek it out—just remember, if you’re bringing kids along (or if they’re around when you get it on demand for $8), now and then a short is “adult” (like Logorama) and you’ll be warned that it is.

Best Director: Michael Haneke for Amour (2012)

Last post, I talked about the foreign film that won our household’s vote for “best film of 2011”.  Here in director, I get to recognize the foreign film that brought down the prize for 2012: Amour.  It’s always hard to hand out the best director prize—in some ways a director seems so critical to a film’s success (there’s a reason I’ve learned to follow certain directors…and to avoid others even when their film sounds interesting), and in other ways it’s hard to pick out what a director does to make a film great (am I just appreciating the work of actors, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, and the editor when I really love a scene or a whole film? or is the director some kind of secret sauce that made all of that possible?).  I think in the end, when I can see a film follows a really bold vision, I have to believe that’s the director at work, keeping everything on track, and man is that true here.  Amour is an unflinching look at what it means to love someone you are losing—in this case, Georges and Anne are an elderly Parisian couple, and Anne has a stroke.  She starts to fade and we know where this is going (in part because of something we see in the opening scene).  And the film is simply interested in being with them—we never leave their Parisian apartment.  Sometimes they have visitors, but never for long: this is the story of Georges and what it means for him to love Anne.  It’s the story of how Anne loses herself even as she fights not to, and of how even at her weakest there is that fire inside her that has bound Georges to her his whole life.  It is intensely, sometimes unbearably sad, and yet it is also intensely, sometimes unbearably joyous in its celebration of what it means to go up to the threshold of death together.  The performances are incredible—Riva deserved her acting nomination (it’s almost impossible to believe she didn’t suffer a stroke in real life, given how fully committed she is to her performance) and Trintingant was robbed in being overlooked (he was the best actor I saw last year, and I saw Daniel Day-Lewis channeling the ghost of Abraham Lincoln last year.  Trintignant was even better than THAT.).  But the thing that makes the performances incredible is Michael Haneke and the shamelessness of his camera, his unwillingness to let us look away even when we are seeing something unfathomably intimate and private—and I’m not talking about sex, which Hollywood will give you nine times a weekend in living color, but about the pain that comes with this kind of lasting love, the depth of commitment a person has to have to a partner who is going into the darkness and losing even their sense of self.  Hollywood is a little frightened of showing us something this real because they don’t figure we want to see it—and I’ll grant you this, I would not have thought I could take it or would want to, and it’s only Oscar nominations that brought me out to see it.  And I cried and I loved it, and my wife went back a second time dragging friends because she couldn’t stand for people not to see this film, and I have to believe that, as the years pass, it will only ever mean more to me than it does now, not less.  You are, I am almost certain, not enthusiastic about sitting down to watch a subtitled French film by an Austrian director in which you will watch one old woman die slowly while her helpless husband tries to simply be there to love her to the end.  Please, please see it anyway.  There are things about love we all should know, and I know some of them a little more now because I gave this film my time.

Almost done now: just one more post to go.  In the meantime, if you missed any of the earlier posts, click on this link to see them all.

Still more of the list of 24 great movies you may never have seen; or The Oops-cars, Part Three

[What do you mean, “the people in marketing say Oops-cars is a branding thing and we’re too committed to it”?  This is a one-person blog!  I can change the ridiculous alternative title for this series of posts anytime I like!  Put me on with your manager…]

Again, what I’m doing, and the rules for doing it, are in Part One—in a nutshell, this is me handing out awards to nominated films that didn’t win the Oscar in question, trying to spotlight great films from a decade of my wife’s and my collective Oscar obsession, in the hopes that I’m recommending something you haven’t seen (and maybe hadn’t even heard about).  I’m continuing up in the order of “how important the award is to me”, on my way to Best Picture.

Best Foreign Language Film: A Royal Affair (2012)

Foreign language films are hard for us because nominees so rarely screen anywhere we can see them, and for that reason until a few years ago, this category would have ranked much lower for us.  But then we hit an incredible hot streak—the last two years, both Betsy’s and my favorite film of the year each year was a foreign language nominee (and it wasn’t close, either year).  So I’d love to talk about them right now…except both films won this category, and my rules prevent me talking about them here, so I’ll be praising each one later in other categories they were nominated in.  It leaves me with a solid film, though—I don’t really wish it had won last year since it was clearly second best in the category, but I wish more people had seen it and want to give it my endorsement here.  A Royal Affair describes a strange and brief period in the history of Denmark—a foolish young king who decides to elevate a commoner (specifically, a country doctor) to the position of trusted adviser, ultimately investing a lot of the power of the state in him.  The commoner, Struensee, turns out to be a radical who wants to empower the people and upset the hierarchy—as a result, the nobility organize against him.  Struensee is, unfortunately, vulnerable to opposition, since he’s a more appealing fellow than the silly king, and the queen has certainly noticed (*ahem*).  Now, I’m susceptible to this story because it weirdly resonates with an ancestor of mine—my commoner Swedish ancestor, after getting a university education, was promoted to Prime Minister by an insane Swedish king, angered the Swedish nobility, and was beheaded for it (though not for sleeping with the queen)…I know, it sounds like some comedy bit I’m working up, but seriously, I’m descended from Jöran Persson, not that this will mean anything to non-Swedes—but I think it’s a fascinating story for anybody.  Certainly love triangles, a staple of rom-coms and angsty dramas, get more interesting to me when the triangle is simultaneously an alliance of three powerful young people who believe they can remake their country with Enlightenment philosophy.  The actors are great—the reliably mesmerizing Mads Mikkelsen, and Alicia Vikander who impressed us twice last year and is clearly a young star on the rise, are the most notable successes—and for a period piece, this one does a lot better than most confronting the realities of life in the pre-modern age for the haves and have-nots.

Best Cinematography: Children of Men (2006)

Cinematography is one of the things my Oscar obsession really put me in touch with–I’ve never seen so many films the way they were meant to be seen (i.e., on the big screen), and it’s made me so much more aware of how the language of film really is visual.  People sometimes acknowledge this casually, saying they have to see a big blockbuster like The Avengers on the big screen to really appreciate it (and they’re right, they do), but I’m finding that almost any well-made film, blockbuster or no, really needs to be seen in that medium in order to appreciate it.  Children of Men is a good example—a thriller, sure, but not the kind of film that most people would normally insist has to be seen in theaters.  But Lubezki’s work (he’s consistently great—no Roger Deakins, but consistently great…Deakins we’ll come back to, down the road) here, along with Cuarón’s daring direction, is incredible.  It’s most visible in the long unbroken take of the assault on the car, where you feel claustrophobically present in a moment that just keeps going and will not “break” with a cut or edit that lets you remember you’re not trapped in a violent situation personally.  But you can see it at every step of the way in this movie, which makes the grit and terror of a strangely plausible future present in almost every shot.  This is also just a great film.  The source material is a brilliant sci-fi novel by P. D. James, an acclaimed mystery novelist who wrote this one science fiction piece and never another: it is nothing like this movie, really, as it is quiet and psychological and a deep meditation on loss and faith (in some respects).  But that’s the magic of the director, Alfonso Cuarón, who has never made a bad film (and has made several great ones)—he knows not to be intimidated by source texts that are hard to film (as this novel definitely is) and instead finds the movie inside them.  Great acting from a couple of actors I always love and one I always hate but who wins me over in this one.  The premise—in the future, humanity has gone suddenly and totally sterile, so no children have been born in decades and the species is confronting its own death, when there is an unexpected and dangerous ray of hope—is so outlandish, but between the script and the performances and, maybe most critically, the look of the movie, it sells itself 100%.  One of the best films I’ve seen this decade.

Best Adapted Screenplay: In the Loop (2009)

Man, there are so many gems in the best screenplay awards, it kills me to hand out just one of these.  A pro tip for the less-experienced moviegoer—if you want to “discover” a great film that will impress your friends, look for screenplay nominees that didn’t get nominated for Best Picture (this works less well in the modern 6-10 BP nominee era, but it’s still good advice).  A film that’s well written enough to get the screenwriters’ attention is usually better than its reputation, and that’s certainly true for this little gem, a dark, hilarious, bitter, savage satire of modern politics and the war on terror.  Based on a British series I’ve never seen (but which, on the basis of this movie, I badly want to) called The Thick of It, In the Loop tells the story of a bumbling but ambitious member of the British Parliament whose attempts to make a name for himself accidentally involve him in an American push for war.  Both sides (the diplomats who want to avoid war and the generals who want to ram it past an unsuspecting public) start to play him and the rest of the British government, and the mania and the humor build as he takes a junket to D.C., and then ultimately a trip to the United Nations while powerful players inside Downing Street and the White House keep moving their pawns around in the game of whatever-thrones-can-be-analogized-to-nowadays.  The actors are fantastic, maybe most especially the late James Gandolfini as the one American general who seems like a human being, and Peter Capaldi (the Twelfth Doctor, for those who know what that means) whose Scottish political spin doctor is the most exuberantly and terrifyingly profane man you’ll meet outside a Scorsese film.  What this movie slyly has to say about international politics and the path to war (and how petty absolutely all of it can be) is such a rich and important message for us today…and so of course 95% of you have never even heard of this film, let alone seen it.  The good news for Netflix subscribers is this one is streaming right now, so I encourage you to give it a try.

Best Original Screenplay: A Separation (2011)

Okay, I give in: before I deal with the best film of 2011, I have to give an honorable mention to Another Year (2010)—I told you these non-BP nominated scripts win me over—a Mike Leigh film that is as gentle and perceptive as Leigh’s recent films have been, and as powerful.  Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play the most realistically happy married couple I’ve ever seen on a screen, never cloying but also never exasperating with those contrived conflicts so many scripts force on us.  The movie simply follows them through a year, and their relationships with friends and family whose lives are in some way less satisfying, even depressing.  They listen with patience, they react with warmth (and at times needed severity), and the divide that separates the content and the discontent speaks for itself.  All the film wants to show you is what happiness is through a lens that feels persistently realistic, and never undercut by cynicism.  If you’re used to traditional Hollywood scripts, you may fidget a little at first, but I’m pretty sure the Hepples will win you over.

On the other end of the happiness spectrum is A Separation, an Iranian film that was, hands-down, the best film of 2011 (I liked The Artist fine, but it can’t hold a candle to Asgar Farhadi‘s masterpiece).  I’ve written about it here before (in my review of 2011 films before that year’s Oscars), and I’ll borrow directly from my description of it last time around—the film begins very simply: a man and a woman are facing the camera, speaking to a judge we do not see.  She would like to take her daughter away from Iran, and if her husband will not join them, she wants a divorce.  He is willing to let her go, but will not be parted from the girl.  You feel as though you are watching an actual marriage unraveling—it is hard to be aware that these are actors playing parts.  That documentary feeling persists, as minor decisions become major ones.  I went in expecting a family drama, but what I got was a lot more: ruminations on social norms and religious faith, a legal thriller, a murder mystery.  We believe in the people we see; we cannot judge them too harshly because we see ourselves in them; we are forced to examine what it means to be good, to fulfill our obligations, to build a family.  And the last 30 seconds drive home exactly the point by not showing us the one thing we want to see: Farhadi doesn’t want to tell us anything as much as he wants us to tell our stories, to tell the story we think just happened.  I guarantee, after it ends, you’ll want to turn to the person next to you and talk about what you believe happened the moment after the camera faded to black.  If you don’t normally go in for foreign films, especially those with subtitles, please make an exception for this one—it will repay your patience.

Best Documentary Feature: The Invisible War (2012)

I’ve learned so much from the Academy’s nominated documentaries that it’s a little churlish to complain about the nomination process…but the nomination process for documentaries does suck pretty badly.  Every year there are powerful and important films overlooked, and less well-made films elevated as nominees.  Several times I’ve found myself saying “well, I’m glad this important issue was covered, but this isn’t great film-making—it’s like a rough draft that’s just a brain dump of ideas and evidence, but no real structure to the argument”.  Some, though, really kick you in the gut with both the message and the craft, and one film-maker who really shines in documentary features is Kirby Dick, the director/writer of The Invisible War.  At this point I’d watch just about anything he made out of respect for the care with which he chooses stories and the skill with which he tells them.  Here he tells a harrowing, vitally important, make-you-want-to-punch-the-walls story about how endemic sexual assault is in our nation’s military—how vulnerable young women and men are to abuse and violation, how the whole hierarchy is structured to make it almost impossible for them to get justice, how really on the contrary their rapists are often the officers in charge of deciding whether to pursue charges (how many criminals would we convict if each criminal was their own district attorney?).  He gives you just the right balance of personal anecdote and statistical evidence, and mixes together the horrible reality with a sense of what you can lobby for to fix the problem.  I think this is the only documentary I’ve ever seen where, within 15 minutes of the credits rolling, I was sitting down to write angry and passionate letters to my Congressman and Senators—and I stayed angry and passionate long enough to follow up with second letters.  I even talked by phone with someone in my representative’s office.  That’s not a testament to my civic engagement, since I haven’t gone as far with any other issue—it’s a testament to how deep this film will touch you, and how important it will be for you to stand up and defend the young women and men who have stood up to defend their country (and thereby put themselves inside one of the most dangerous sexual assault environments in the country—our nation’s armed forces…man, it still pisses me off).  Someday this will be worth seeing just for its skill in movie-making and as a reminder of that terrible time when rapists ran unchecked in our military—right now it’s even more important as a film that will spur you to action and make you well-informed so that your actions can be effective.

All right, more than half-way done!  Check back in soon for the last two parts in the series, and I hope if you’re reading these it’s spurred you to check Netflix or Hulu or whatever movie access points you have to try one or more of them out.  If you’ve missed any pieces of the series, click on this link to see all the Oops-cars posts.

Continuing the list of 24 great movies you probably haven’t seen; or, The Oops-cars, Part Two

[Wait, I thought we abandoned “Oops-cars” as obviously terrible last time…it’s as bad as calling them, I don’t know, the “According-to-Me Awards”, or…wait, actually, that’s not a bad pun on “Academy”, nice work, James! Let’s work with that going forward!]

What I’m doing, and the rules for doing it, are in Part One—in a nutshell, this is me handing out awards to nominated films that didn’t win the Oscar in question, trying to spotlight great films from a decade of my wife’s and my collective Oscar obsession, in the hopes that I’m recommending something you haven’t seen (and maybe hadn’t even heard about).  I’m continuing up in the order of “how important the award is to me”, on my way to Best Picture.

Best Visual Effects: District 9 (2009)

Ugh.  Best Visual Effects.  The sole reason I have seen a Transformers sequel.  Also, a category that seems to just sop up all the big blockbusters the Academy wishes it could give more prestigious awards to—as a result, really nothing in this category seems plausibly “overlooked” to me, and I’m betting you’ve seen the film I’m recommending (which grossed over $100 million domestically).  But it’s worth accepting, too, that great visual effects are one of the reasons we go to the movies—and maybe especially why we’re willing to pay to see them on the big screen rather than on TV in our living room.  Sometimes it’s fortunate that those visual effects are dazzling because they’re paired with cheap, derivative writing and really hackish acting and they’re the only reason we don’t walk out (*cough cough*Avatar!*cough*), but on rare occasions like this one, it’s fortunate for an entirely different reason: because they bring in a wide enough audience for the thrills, and the movie’s important message can reach many more people as a result.  District 9 is science fiction done right—a window into our world as it is, but allowing us to see it more clearly by showing it to us as though it’s something alien (in this case, literally alien).  If you’ve never seen it, the essential premise is that, in an alternative Earth’s history, aliens arrived unexpectedly (and without explaining themselves) in South Africa, and they have been quarantined and abused, living in a garbage-strewn ghetto, ever since.  Yes, given the setting, it seems like an easy apartheid analogue, but sadly recent human history gives us no shortage of internment camps, settlement disputes, refugee situations and legalized segregation structures to tie to this movie and explore through its plot.  We follow one bureaucrat named Wikus who finds himself infected with something he doesn’t understand; even as he is cooperating with oppressive assaults on the aliens, he finds himself an outcast from his own kind.  He discovers his humanity even as he loses it, and we discover the range of our empathy as we follow him.  For a summer sci-fi thriller, it has a real head on its shoulders and everything in the film is well-orchestrated in the service of getting us to think about these deeper issues.  Again, I figure you’ve seen this, but if you haven’t, man, I encourage you strongly to give it a try.

Best Original Song: A Mighty Wind for “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (2003)

In some ways, Best Song should definitely have made Part One of this series for my lack of investment in it—it’s such a ridiculous category.  There was a time when movies brought original songs into the national consciousness—famous, timeless songs.  In 1936, in this category, Jerome Kern’s beautiful “The Way You Look Tonight” edged out the incomparable Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (“Pennies from Heaven” was another nominee).  In recent years, it’s pretty wretched, with forgettable (mostly) songs from forgettable (mostly) films.  Why is it not first on my list of least important Oscars?  Because it’s also the vehicle for unexpected recognition for some of my favorite movies—wins for Once and The Muppets, even a nomination (VERY weirdly) for a documentary of all things, and one I loved, called Chasing Ice.  But the film I have to recognize here is a cult film by the man who popularized an increasingly familiar genre—Christopher Guest, master of the mockumentary.  Hopefully you’ve seen his first run at the genre, This Is Spinal Tap, a movie that remains glorious and over the top?  Every Guest fan has a favorite Guest film—for me, even though it’s not his most laugh-out-loud (that’s probably Best In Show), I love A Mighty Wind, his take on a PBS broadcast of a big reunion concert by aging folk bands, because of how sweet he is with the center of the movie.  The film’s humor builds out of what I think of as the “subplots”—the Folksmen with their destined-for-obscurity blend of cheesy nostalgia and anachronistic political leftism, the Main Street Singers whose approach to folk music is as over-produced and saccharine as the Cleaver family (one character refers to their songs as “toothpaste commercials”), the threadbare but snobbish folks at the theater, etc.  But the heart of the movie is not just funny but moving—Mitch and Micki, the star-crossed lovers who have agreed to perform together despite the fact that their relationship crashed and burned decades ago.  There’s humor in Mitch’s detachment from reality, and Micki’s nervousness, but mostly it’s about how the two of them saved each other, in a sense, and made something wonderful together.  We can’t plausibly hope for them to fall in love again: Micki’s married to a lovable oddball, and Mitch doesn’t quite seem like a man who can find a partner, anymore.  But when they manage to make the stage at the last minute, and the autoharp fires up this song, I defy you not to get carried away (as they are), no matter how formulaic the lyrics (intentionally) are.  Guest’s work is best when we really do see a documentary-like insight into the human condition, amid the humor.  I see it in this film.

Best Costume Design: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Terry Gilliam, a director I mentioned briefly in Part One, is the kind of director you can love or hate but you can never dismiss as “boring”.  Roger Ebert once said of him that, whatever Gilliam’s other faults, he can never be accused of failing to attempt to amaze the audience at every turn.  The visual style he brought to the animations for Monty Python repeats itself (and grows and evolves over the years) in almost all of his films, from the accessible and commercial (Time Bandits, most notably, I think?) to the artistic and bizarre (Brazil is almost the archetype for “art film by misunderstood and ill-treated director”).  Sometimes I love his stuff and sometimes I find I can’t, but I am always transported by Gilliam’s visual style and fascinated by what he tries to say.  Parnassus is a tragic film in many respects, most notably the fact that Heath Ledger died when only half of his scenes were finished shooting.  That would stop a lot of directors, and others would recast and start over.  Gilliam simply keeps Ledger in half the film, and replaces him in the rest with three actors—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.  This should not work, but the fact that it does, and that in fact inside the logic of the movie it seems almost inevitable that all four actors should have played this one role, is a tribute to Gilliam’s inventiveness and artistry.  The plot is both simple and complex.  Simple because this is a Faustian bargain: an old man runs a strange traveling performing troupe, a sideshow that allows audience members to enter his mind (sort of like Being John Malkovich if every scene were the scene where Malkovich enters his own mind), all because he has a bet with the Devil that humans are basically good.  This is a bet he seems destined to lose, and the stakes are so high that it’s almost agonizing to see how toughened the modern world is (and how naive Parnassus’s attempts to woo it are).  Complex because Gilliam is not trying to tell us one thing—“Don’t bet on human virtue.”—but dozens of things, and with a cast like this, especially with the aforementioned four-headed central character and the immense aging grandeur of Christopher Plummer in the role of the mystical Parnassus, the movie does speak that multitude of ideas all at once.  You won’t forget anything you’ve seen, even if you can’t make sense of what half of it meant, and if Gilliam has even half the effect on you that he does on me, it’ll inspire you to check out other films in his eclectic and bizarre history as a film-maker.  I hope it does.

Best Original Score: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Speaking of directors who inspire a cult following: Wes Anderson.  I never much liked Wes Anderson.  I sat through Rushmore once (unimpressed).  Because I love and trust my friends, I then subjected myself to The Royal Tenenbaums not once but twice—I can’t even claim to have understood what they loved about it.  So when I heard that this (in my opinion) overpraised, under-delivering indie dude had been handed the film adaptation of a book I loved as a child, I was not entirely thrilled.  That I fell in love with the film (and through it, learned to appreciate what Anderson does really well) is a testament to a lot of things, but I think the way Anderson integrates a score into a movie (and the skill of his collaborators—in this case, Alexander Desplat, who is deservedly getting to be a major name like Howard Shore or John Williams) is an important part of it.  I think the success of Fox for me boils down to an essential truth about Anderson that I hadn’t grasped before this film: he is a genius at crafting carefully detailed and almost claustrophobically bound worlds.  Inside those worlds, his characters are let loose to be larger than life—they never fly too far out of hand because the life they are larger than always feels like a doll’s house.  For live action film-making, I honestly don’t think this always works: I’ve since seen Moonrise Kingdom, which I thought really delivered, but I haven’t looked at his other work.  But in Fox Anderson’s gifts are handed the perfect ingredients in the strange story, crafted by Roald Dahl’s lightly criminal sense of humor, of a thieving fox who wants to land just “one more heist” and nearly destroys his entire society as a result.  Somehow it has to walk the balance between comedy and thriller, and Anderson and Dahl combine to make this strangely childlike story also really adult, focused on the problems of how to make a marriage work and how to parent in a way that encourages without confining.  Plinking along underneath even more serious moments is Desplat’s playful score, like a windup brass band at times, at others like a rodent banjo duel, every now and then like an old spaghetti Western scored only with instruments found at a preschool—all the sounds a little smaller, a little higher in pitch, drawing us down into this stop-motion world into which Wes Anderson has fully invested himself.  If you didn’t see it when it came out—and given its target audience was fuzzy (is this for kids or hipsters? is it a straight adaptation of a modern fable or is it a sort of sly parody?) not a ton of people got out to the theaters—give Mr. Fox (who is undeniably fantastic as voiced by George Clooney) a chance to win you over with his charisma while simultaneously exasperating you with the clarity of how his tragic flaw will bring him down.  Moviegoers seemed to think it was a movie that didn’t work for kids or adults, judging by the ticket sales, but I’d say it works for both, on the contrary, and might spark some thoughtful conversation with older kids about family dynamics and how we come to be who we are.

Best Production Design/Art Direction: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Now we’re getting into territory I’m more invested in—“art direction” has been an odd name for the category for decades, and last year they finally renamed it “production design”.  Really what we’re talking about is all the physical elements of a movie that make it real to us and help it say what it has to say.  Usually films are nominated and win for lavish stuff, riotous color, you know the type—your Sweeney Todds, your Alice in Wonderlands—but I am often more struck by a film like this one, that needs to totally convince us we are in the 1950s and our liberties are at risk.  Of course a huge piece of that conviction comes from the performance of a lifetime from David Strathairn, one of those character actors who you instantly recognize when he comes on screen but can’t quite place…then you hit IMDB and realize you’ve seen him in 19 different movies.  Something about his grim determination, his gravitas combined with a fire very deep in those set eyes, makes us understand Edward R. Murrow and the vital importance of these questions of freedom, and would take us into the McCarthy era on the weight of his performance alone.  But he’s not alone, with a great supporting cast and script, and (most importantly for this category) a set that pushes us into that dawn of television, the ashtrays curling smoke and the investigative team still working out how to present an argument on screen, the early suburban homes and the tiny urban apartments, all of it (out of necessity) designed to be filmed in black and white, which adds a layer of challenge to the designers that must have been intense.  All great historical films have their detractors and I imagine this one does too, but it’s hard to see what to fault—they show us the man McCarthy really was (literally, they only show actual footage of him, never an actor’s portrayal) and a great cast, set, and script make us aware of how perilous it was to be a non-conformist in that America, and how lucky we were that a few brave souls like Murrow put their reputations and careers on the line to defend the most ancient of American liberties, all of them enshrined in the First Amendment: freedom of speech, of association, and of the press.

All right, Parts One and Two are done; again, check back in soon for the rest of the five-part series, and happy movie-watching in the meantime!  Click on this link to see all the posts in the series.

24 great movies you probably haven’t seen; or, what I’m calling “The Oops-cars”, Part One

[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.

“The City of the West” seen through Western eyes

Yes, it’s time again for another rumination on Chicago—“rumination”, a word suggestive of digestive processes, of breaking down what you’ve taken in so that it can work on you, for good or ill.  A good word, I think, for Chicago and me.  We grow into each other, these days.

The title of this post arises from some thoughts earlier today: I saw references to Chicago as “the City of the West”, sometimes “the Great City of the West”, which were written back in the late 1800s.  I expect that perhaps as much as half the nation still sees Chicago as “Western” in some way—certainly as West of them, West of the places the country was first born.  But of course to me it is the East, the old place my family left behind more than a century ago.  I took a bus tour of my neighborhood with the other new faculty members from my university this week, and the Englishman sitting next to me was startled by something our tour guide said.  He turned to me—“Wait.  All this was built up in the 1910s and 1920s?  A hundred years ago this was farmland?  That’s incredible!”  The newness of the place astounded him, as I suppose it would any person who grew up in a 200 year old house in a village organized around a church that’s stood for 6 or 7 centuries.  But to me, of course, the notion of row upon row of brick houses, all of them 100 years old, is astonishingly old.  I live a few blocks from an El station that’s been there for 104 years.  Hear that, Seattle?  Mass transit in a neighborhood miles away from downtown for a century now.  Crazy.

What I do with this, I don’t yet know.  I feel young in this city of youth—the adolescent city Sandburg described in last Friday’s poem has grown up a bit, I think, in 100 years, but it’s still a 20-something with a chip on its shoulder.  Who am I, then?  Where do I come into this story?  I guess in a way this is one of the classic American motifs—the young man headed back East some distance from where he grew up and discovering how well he fits, if he will be accepted, if he will accept what he finds.  This is the plot of half of Henry James, isn’t it?  And it’s Jay Gatsby’s arc, and Nick’s too.  Arrowsmith’s, I suppose, to name a Pulitzer winner, and the protagonist from One of Ours whose name, I am ashamed to admit, eludes me.  I wonder if fiction is helpful to me in making this journey, or if it’s merely a layer I’ll need to peel back—something that tricks me into substituting stories I’ve heard for my own authentic experience.  Does living what you’ve read about make the living less vivid?

I’m not telling you enough about my time in Chicago, and that’s why most of you are here.  There’s a lot to tell, but no way to make it a really compelling narrative without writing an epic; I’ll try to give a little info where I can.  In the last 8-9 days, I’ve discovered a world of art on my doorstep—I’ve never lived in a city with paintings like the Art Institute’s, and I’m going to spend some time there (I get in free as a faculty member of an Illinois institution).  I am curious to see how that will affect me.  To see Monet not once in a great while, but rather anytime I like.  To see Monet not as a visitor to some foreign city where “Monet” lives, or as a visitor making a quick tour through Seattle in an exhibition, but rather as an inhabitant of my time and place, more or less.  Monet, of course, being a stand-in for dozens of the world’s great artists.  We spent hours at the AIC last Saturday, and will definitely be going back, if only because I have never in my life said “that painting is so moving, I want to see it again in a couple of weeks and see how it strikes me”, and I wonder what it will be like if I try that.  Am I an art person, after all?

The food in Chicago is varied and wonderful — in the last few days I’ve had fantastic food from 5 or 6 different cultures, including amazingly authentic Polish pierogi, and the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had (who knew that they needed cardamom?  Thanks, Sweden!).  It’s easy to just rave about the dining options in my city, but I’m hoping to draw something out of all these little restaurants in the long run.  All these nationalities expressing something with food—is it who they really are?  Is the presence of all this cuisine in Chicago some kind of culinary embassy system, a way of touching lands I may never see and learning to understand their people?  Or am I fooling myself if I think that way, ignoring the fact that all of this food is simply a commodity exchanged for my money, and I’m not being sold “authentic culture”, I’m being sold whatever they can package for an American audience?  I’ve always lived in a city full of immigrants—Seattle and Vancouver are pretty cosmopolitan, and heck, even the suburbs I’ve lived in have shown real ethnic diversity—but I don’t think I’ve thought enough about what that means.  The fact that I’ll be working with the most diverse student population I’ve ever encountered is, I think, getting into my head a bit.  I want to be good at reaching out to, and identifying with, people whose experiences are really very different from mine.  I think I have been good at that in the past.  We’ll see how well it works here, where I am a fish, not out of water, but adjusting at the very least to a new part of the lake, if not another watershed entirely.

That tour of my neighborhood I mentioned gave me a lot to think about—I allegedly live in my neighborhood’s “pocket of poverty”.  To be fair, the tour guide had no idea he was gesturing at my apartment building when he was saying these things.  But still, it raises some really good questions for me: what is poverty, really, especially in America today?  If I lived in a poor place, how would I know it?  If my neighbors are poor, does that obligate me to them any more than if they lived across town?  What do I need to do to be a good citizen of my block, and not just my city as a whole?  The neighborhood’s full of ethnicities and immigrant stories, as I said earlier.  We are home to the school in Chicago with the most spoken languages in its student body (70 different languages, I think?).  We are also home to the best public school in the state.  They are not the same school.  Is that inevitable, or a choice we made?  I live a few blocks from the only memorial in the whole of the United States to the Cambodian genocide victims—the people who died in the Killing Fields.  I know nothing at all about the Killing Fields, other than the name Pol Pot and a sense of deep sorrow in the few Cambodians I spoke to at the memorial.  What should I know, and how much time should I invest in learning it?  How can one person get full enough of the world to feel satisfied that they know enough?  This, as I recall, was Socrates’ problem.  And all of this arises merely from me paying slightly better attention to my immediate surroundings for an afternoon.  I hope to get past the questions to some answers, sooner or later.

“Pulitzers”, you say, “James, have you forgotten that this blog is about literature?  About reading novels, one of which you’ve been mired in for months?” I know, I know.  That’s going to ramp up next week: I have found a copy of Laughing Boy from the 1950s in my library.  I’ll not only be able to finish it, but I can reflect on a new preface La Farge wrote for the 1950s edition that reveals a bit of what he thought he was doing in writing about Native Americans, and what he later regretted.  And then I hope to move forward.  There’s some good American writing waiting for me, and perhaps it will help me get a better handle on this city of mine, which some call the most American of cities.  Frankly, I’m not sure yet—not sure how to sort my way through the hype of “Chicago” to figure out what Chicago actually is.  It’s a town that makes evangelists of its residents, perhaps most of all the people who move here from other parts of the country.  I’m going to have to hold back certain impulses that direction just to be able to see it with any accuracy.

So, in short, Chicago continues to work on me (as evidence in the emotions tangled above), I’m continuing to find things to appreciate about my new city (with the exception of those who drive and ride on its roads—never have I feared more for my own safety and the safety of others in a North American city), I’m expecting some lit-blogging this week as I shake off the rust and get back in the saddle (so to speak), and my propensity for making parenthetical remarks continues nearly unabated (though you must like at least some of these asides, or else you could hardly stand to visit the blog at all!).  I don’t know if these weekly Chicago reports are really of interest to many folks, so we’ll see how many I continue to produce.  But for now they seem to be a good way for me to journal, at least, and that in itself is a worthwhile thing to do.  Have a good weekend, and peace and safety to those of you in the path of Irene.

Poetry Friday: A Digression

I know I should post a poem from 1930, since A) that’s what I said I’d do, B) it’s been good to explore poetry through this weekly blog post, and C) it drives half the traffic to this site (welcome poetry people! I will not do your homework for you, but I’m happy you dropped by.  I hope you read some of the rest of the blog).  But I’ve been reading a book by a Classics professor called Homeric Moments in which she extols the virtues of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it’s reminded me how truly great those epic poems really are.  This blog may slowly morph into a broader literary blog as time passes: I know it hasn’t yet, but I figured a couple of reflections on Homer and the Greek epic would be suitable on a Friday.

The author of this book I’m reading (Eva Brann, by the way) focuses on several dozen “moments” from Homer’s two poems, though she’s using “moment” in an extremely broad way—and that’s certainly not a problem, in my opinion.  She loves Homer with a passion, she’s been reading and teaching these works for 50 years, and she wants more people to realize what they’re missing.  The five years I spent teaching the Iliad to sophomores were certainly among the best moments of my working life (if not my life as a whole), and I feel a real kinship to her.  Sometimes Brann is hard to follow—so academic and precise with terminology that it’s difficult to make sense of what she loves about the poems.  But then she opens up with some paragraphs that get at the core of why it is powerful that all of Western literature, including the novels that win Pulitzer Prizes, traces its lineage back to this blind singer and his demi-god heroes of the dimly lit past of ancient Greece…so ancient, in fact, that what we think of as “ancient Greece” (Socrates and Aristotle and togas and democracy) was probably farther removed from Homer and the fall of Troy than we are from Shakespeare.  Here’s a taste of what I mean: Brann is focused on the shield of Achilles—THE shield, the shield forged for him by the smith-god Hephaestos—a shield whose beauty and symbolism move me so powerfully that it served as the central image of the baccalaureate speech I gave to the class of 2008 at EHS.  If you don’t know the poem or the description of the shield, what follows may be hard to make sense of: as a quick reminder to those who knew once and have forgotten, the shield carries on it cities and sunbeams, singers and lovers, wars and feasts, trees and plowed fields, rivers and oceans.  Envision it, and see what Brann believes about it.

The Homeric world, the poet’s and artisan’s world, is in its visible surface indefeasibly beautiful, no matter what happens within it.  Dancing youths and devouring lions, wine-refreshed plowmen and brutal amushes are all equally golden.  This is, after all, the truth about the Iliad itself: a blood-and-guts poem of unfailing beauty which, through its similes and storied recollections draws all the ordained labors and graceful recreations of the peaceful world into itself.  It is this world, whole and hale and soberly glorified by the artist, that Achilles carries into the last battle.  He bears it; it shields him.  He exposes it; it covers him.  He exposes it to the thrust of spears under which it is punctured and staved in but never completely penetrated (as any world is reparable after war), while during battle it insulates the warrior—but barely—from totally berserk dissociation.  Achilles carries the shield into battle as a real enough defense against mortal wounding , but he also bears it about—earth, star-studded heaven, seas, cities, land—as if he were the power behind the cosmos.  I surmise, I imagine, that Homer thinks of swift-footed, swift-fated Achilles as the being who makes possible the poetry that makes the full world visible.

The point of relating all of this is not to convince those few of you who read this and care that Brann is right in her analysis.  I’m not convinced she is (though she certainly makes a compelling case).  It’s that these epic poems at the dawn of human literature (not story—story being older, far older, than Homer—but literature) still have the power to make us feel this way.  It’s a power I have yet to find in the American novel, even at its best.  Maybe that’s a bias of mine, and an unworthy one: I don’t know.

Paul Goodman, a now-nearly-forgotten poet of the 20th Century, wrote a brief little poem entitled “Wonders of the Iliad” in which he relates moments that move him powerfully, and concludes by saying that, to the extent that the people he meets in life resemble these moments in the Iliad, he regards those people as human.  The Iliad as more human than humanity itself.  A high mark to set: too high, I suppose.  But today I found that letting thoughts dwell on the Iliad was very “humanizing” in all the senses that make the word “humanities” a bit magical for me still.  I sank into memories, memories of people.  Brian, a wise counselor and colleague, convincing me to go ahead and teach Homer—that the kids would get it, after all.  The voice of Olga as she declaimed Athena’s rebuke of Achilles in Book 1 with such force that the whole classroom caught its breath.  Daniel sneaking a copy of the Iliad into class and reading it every chance he got (correcting me at class breaks, if I was fortunate: in the middle of class if I was not).  Whatever combination of humans it took to convince me to play the role of Zeus on camera (“You just have one line, Shwag—just ‘I am Zeus’.  Okay, cool.  Can you say it and do a little dance step or something?  Awesome.”): the part may have been small, but somehow I didn’t manage to live it down very successfully.  There are many, many other names and moments I keep as treasures that I don’t have space to delve into now.  I taught a lot of good literature: stories that are as epic and gripping as Western culture has produced.  Somehow, none of it lingers with me (or, if I can take their comments and emails as any indication, with my former students) quite as deeply or in quite so resonant a fashion as Homer’s poetry does.

It leaves me wondering, as it always does.  Wondering how that blind old man who had likely never seen a battle, who had no way of even conceiving of the centuries of audiences waiting for his words, accomplished these remarkable poems—spoke to something in the human spirit that remains even now.  Wondering whether America has ever produced such art (and, if it has, if I will ever find it): art that will remain somehow new and classic, timeless and relevant, over the next three thousand years.  If you think I’m overselling the Iliad and the Odyssey, I suggest you sit down with them.  You may think you know “all about the wooden horse”…and maybe you do.  Get a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation (of either poem), find a spot with just the right sort of evening light and read it (aloud if you possibly can, especially if you can do so without feeling self-conscious).  Skip over parts if you must—get the story of it first.  Return to it when you are older.  It grows with you.  I’ll probably write about it here again…maybe more than most of you will want to read.  Thank you, at least, for hearing me out this time.  I’ll be back soon with more from the latest Pulitzer novel—for now, I’m off across the wine-dark sea to the shores of windy Troy.