07 March, 2010

1202 minutes

So here's the thing.

It was a big surprise when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced back last June that they were going to be having ten Best Picture nominees for this year's Oscars, rather than the five nominees that have been standard for the last sixty-odd years. The main reason for the change was to address concerns that the films being nominated just had no popular appeal, and that the nominations were going to more elitist films rather than popular entertainments. Just look at last year, when nominations went to films about a gay local politician or one guy interviewing another guy, while at the same time a well-made and hugely popular Batman film was completely ignored. Reduced viewerships for the Oscars were blamed on that fact - no-one is watching the Oscars because most people haven't even heard of Slumdog Millionaire, while not even the host of the Oscars saw The Reader, and therefore no-one cares enough about the films being nominated to see which one wins. Hopefully an expanded list of nominees would allow for some of the bigger popular films to get on the list, and therefore hopefully prompt fans of these films to watch the ceremony.

And it does seem to have worked - of the ten nominated films, five have grossed over $US100m. While the list does feature a number of the usual smaller, lower-profile films, there are a lot of films that people will have heard of and most likely seen. But the funny thing is that it wasn't necessary. It's easy to identify the five films that would have been nominated in any normal year, and of those five films, two (Avatar and Inglourious Basterds) were genuinely popular hits with a substantial fanbase. In other words, they expanded the number of nominees to allow for the inclusion of more popular films in a year when the popular films were going to be nominated anyway.

[Comments on all ten Best Picture films - Avatar; The Hurt Locker; Up In The Air; Precious (Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire); Inglourious Basterds; A Serious Man; Up; District 9; The Blind Side; and An Education - after the jump.]

Sadly, Avatar's nomination was inevitable. They just can't ignore the highest-grossing film in history. I've already said everything I have to say about Avatar, and I don't intend to repeat myself. However, I do want to say that, despite all the hype about these Oscars being about Avatar versus Hurt Locker, I honestly don't see Avatar winning. There has definitely been a rising level of awareness about the film's many flaws - its plot, its characters, its dialogue, its acting. And I don't see the Oscar voters going for the empty spectacle of Avatar. Now, to be fair, many of the problems with Avatar are also present in Titanic, another largely empty spectacle film with clunky dialogue and clichéd characters, which won the Oscar over the much-more deserving LA Confidential. But Titanic was very Oscar-friendly, a lush detailed period love story that was always going to appeal to the Oscar voters. On the other hand, Avatar is unmistakably a science-fiction film, and no science-fiction film has ever won the Best Picture Oscar. (Indeed, looking through past Best Picture nominees, the only science-fiction films I can see to previously even be nominated are Star Wars and ET the Extra-Terrestrial - both films that were huge hits and held the record for highest-grossing film ever, both films that are much stronger in substance than Avatar was, and both films that lost.) So I'm not expecting a heavily-flawed science-fiction film like Avatar to win, no matter how big the hype. Oscar just doesn't work like that.

I much preferred The Hurt Locker, the new film from Kathryn Bigelow (who, as everyone hyping the Oscars reminds us at every opportunity, is James Cameron's ex-wife). While it seems strange to think of the director of Point Break having made an Oscar-calibre film, Kathryn Bigelow has done just that. The Hurt Locker focuses on a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, coming to the end of a one-year tour of duty. After years of hectoring Iraq War films yelling "No blood for oil," it's nice to see a film that completely ignores the political issues around the war and instead just looks at what the experience is like for those people in the middle of this mess. There's no real overarching plot to the film, just a collection of intense moments as our characters get into the padded suit and walk up to yet another bloody bomb, while the days slowly count down toward the day when they can go home. And while the movie's end isn't exactly original, it's still an astonishing and skillful piece of movie-making.

So often action films seem to think that it's exciting when there are huge explosions and when characters run around with machine guns spraying bullets into everything and everyone in the room - although such excess usually ends up becoming tiresome. (See any film by Michael Bay.) So it's seems strange to watch a film like The Hurt Locker, and realise that it manages to be the most exciting action film that I've seen in a long time, despite the near complete absence of such scenes. If anything, the typical action scene doesn't seem to interest Bigelow - in one scene early in the film, Bigelow seems focused less on the big explosion going on, and more on the impact of the explosion on the surrounding environment. Meanwhile, in one of the film's best action sequences, the main characters find themselves caught under fire hiding in a ditch in the middle of nowhere, each side slowly deliberately shooting at their enemy one single shot at a time. It's intense and exciting, and probably the best action scene I've seen in a long time, largely because Bigelow is aware that it's not just the shooting guns that make a scene thrilling, but the suspense that builds in the in-between moments. And Bigelow's ability to construct a scene is quite incredible. A lot of films lately have used the jerky hand-held look and quick cutting style, but only a few have managed to get it to really work. The Hurt Locker is one of those films. Bigelow clearly knows what effect she's looking for from the audience and how to achieve it, piecing together tiny snatches of film from distinctive and noticeable angles, not to be showy, but to emphasise this sense of isolation and vulnerability on the part of the people in the situation. It's exceptional work. I will confess that I have pretty much just dismissed Bigelow's work in the past, largely because of Point Break, but the strength of this film makes me think I've been unfair to her. Someone who can make a film this well, this skillfully, really is talented and deserving of attention.

It's also interesting to see a film this good with so little star power. Sure, it has a few recognisable actors - Guy Pierce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly from Lost - in cameo roles, but among the actors that are on-screen for more than five minutes, there's no-one that you know. In particular, the lead role is taken by Jeremy Renner, who seems to have been working solidly for the last 10 or 15 years but who I don't recall ever seeing. But in this film, he gives the character a listless quality as he waits for the next adrenaline buzz that is compelling to watch.

The truth is, all the attention of these Oscars has been focused on Avatar versus The Hurt Locker, Cameron versus Bigelow. But I don't think this is actually the battle. If The Hurt Locker has competition, it's not from that disappointing science-fiction spectacle. While I do think The Hurt Locker is the likely winner, it does have a few points that may count against it - its box-office has been really low (only about $12 million in the US), and it doesn't have any star power. Plus, while the film offers an different view of the Iraq war to that of previous films, it feels to a degree like a film that is a few years out of date, like it could have been made in 2006 or 2007.

Which is why, if The Hurt Locker has competition, it's most likely to be from Up In The Air - a higher-grossing film (about $70 million), with a genuine movie star in George Clooney, and a film that at least circles around the big issue of the last year or two, the consequences of the economic meltdown on individuals.

Jason Reitman's first feature film, a comedy called Thank You For Smoking, was one of my film highlights of 2005 so, even though I wasn't as much a fan of his follow-up, Juno, I was still excited to see Reitman's newest film. And I liked Up In The Air. George Clooney plays a man whose job is to travel from city to city, telling downsized staff in different companies that they have been fired. He lives his life in airplanes, airports, and hotels (he's only home 40 nights a year). Mostly, Clooney just loves the status, the special treatment that comes with being a preferred customer (when he meets Vera Fermiga's character, their foreplay involves comparing frequent flyer cards, and my gosh does it turn them on), and his sole goal in life is to accumulate 10 million frequent-flier miles - a target only six other people have met. But he also loves the freedom that comes with his lifestyle, the fact that he is utterly unencumbered by anything.

The film's not really plot-driven (at least, not until the third act); instead, it's much more of an exploration of this character. The challenge for the film is that the central character is, at his core, a rather unsympathetic person - someone who consciously deliberately avoids any genuine emotional contact with people - so it requires an actor with Clooney's charisma just to make the film work. Fortunately, they did have Clooney, so we are able to like him despite his deliberately distanced nature. (The fact that Clooney, who has a bit of a reputation for being something of a playboy free of connections, seems to a degree to be almost playing himself certainly helps the film.) Of the remaining actors, Anna Kendrick, playing the out-of-college kid being trained by Clooney, is most enjoyable, and demonstrates that she deserves a much better career than being a supporting character in the Twilight films. Clooney and Kendrick work well together, and it helps that the film gives them some fun material - both clearly enjoying their characters' varying approaches to detachment and relationship both professionally and personally.

One thing that did surprise me was that the film didn't really have as much to do with the current economic situation as I had expected. Sure, the film includes sequences where real people who have been recently fired appear on-screen and reenact their responses, and there is one scene where Clooney's boss (Jason Bateman, Yay!) comments that business is booming thanks to the number of companies firing people in the recession. But other than that, it's a film where its mild topicality seems to be coincidental, not intentional. It has a few minor jabs at businesses in general - in particular the idea of bosses not even having the decency to look someone in the eyes when they fire them - but there's nothing particularly current about it. The film is too focused on Clooney's character to look at the wider world.

It has its flaws - as happens too often, the third act (where Clooney goes to his sister's wedding) almost seems from a different film. When you've spent the entire film on the road, jumping from place to place, to suddenly be stuck in one place for twenty or thirty minutes, spending time with people whose prior presence in the film was limited to a short phone call (if that), just to set in motion the events of the climax, felt overly artificial. And there's this weird idea that Clooney is a successful conference speaker in his off-hours, with people paying hundreds and thousands of dollars to hear him espousing his isolated lifestyle. And I simply didn't believe that - the notion of being able to pick up everything and leave immediately may be appealing to the Don Drapers of this world, but not to most of us. I mean, most motivational speakers that I've seen (admittedly only on TV commercials) seem to focus on teaching you how to have a successful personal life, not how to escape from it. So when Clooney talks about how we are tied down not just by our stuff, but by our relationships, he's preaching a viewpoint that I cannot believe would get the kind of positive response from the audience that we see. Plus there's one revelation late in the film that doesn't quite work, not necessarily because it's a surprise, but because it strained credibility when compared that character's earlier behaviour.

Still, the film gets credit for surprising me. At the start of the film, I found myself predicting that the film would end in one of two ways. So I was relieved to find that the film surprised me with an ending that wasn't as ironic or as life-affirming as either of those I was imagining, but nevertheless an ending that was absolutely right for the film.

Then there's Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire. This is a film that has acquired quite a reputation for being a devastating, heartbreaking, powerful film. Given the film's subject matter (it involves incest, rape, abuse, and so on) I went in fully realising that I was probably not going to enjoy the film. But at least I was expecting to admire the film, respect it. But I didn't. I haaaated the film. The last time I hated a film this much, I wrote two posts about how much I hated it. I'm almost dumbfounded by Precious, unable to comprehend how this film, so completely clumsy and awkward and misjudged and generally awful in almost every aspect, has received any praise at all, let alone the excessive effusive outpouring that it has received.

Precious (which you may be interested to know is based on a novel called 'Push' by a woman called Sapphire) is the story of Claireece 'Precious' Jones, a morbidly-obese illiterate teenager who has been regularly raped by her drug-addict father since she was a young child. She's now pregnant with her second child to her father, while her first child has Down syndrome. Her father having apparently left in the last few months (he only appears in a short rape flashback), Precious lives with her mother, who is angry at Precious for "stealing her man" and so constantly abuses her, physically, emotionally, and sexually. So Precious' lot in life in not great, but perhaps, just perhaps, with the help of a lesbian schoolteacher called Blu Rain and Mariah Carey pretending to be ugly, she may be able to move on to a happier life.

There's a scene about halfway through the film, when Precious goes to see her new social worker, that really shows my issues with the film. The social worker really is played by Mariah Carey, and director Lee Daniels really did make a conscious decision to make Mariah's social worker character look almost excessively plain. By which I don't just mean that she has really bad hair (although she does) or looks like she wears no makeup (which is also true) or that she just looks stressed and tired with bags under her eyes (which is how she looks). What I mean is that she has a moustache glued onto her upper lip. Really. And that's an example of the film's key problem - the filmmakers just didn't know when to stop. Bad hair, no makeup, bags under the eyes? She's still just not plain enough. We need her to look worse. We need her to have a moustache just to remove any doubt about how bad she looks. But the scene doesn't stop there. About thirty seconds after we meet Mariah and her moustache, Precious informs us of the name of her first child, the child with Down syndrome. The child's name is Mongo, because it's short for "mongoloid". Because why would you ever be considerate or compassionate when naming your Down syndrome incest-rape child?

It was at this point that I realised the film had completely lost me. It's a film that is so ugly, so depressing, so unrelentingly excessive in its wallowing in a kind of misery porn that my ability to believe the reality of the film is destroyed. I understand that there are people that do go through much, perhaps most, of what Precious goes through, and as a well-educated middle-class white man raised in a loving family in New Zealand, I can't exactly comment on the realism of the situation. But the film goes so far in stacking up every conceivable awfulness that it strains credibility. It's not just that she has a Down syndrome child from being raped by her father (I could believe that), but they push it to that extra degree, actually naming the child after an derogatory term for his disability. And that breaks the film, because they pushed too far and made it unbelievable. And they do that with everything in the film, and the miseries just pile on and on as it progresses. It's almost as if they tried to put as many problems on Precious as possible so that any viewer having gone through any problem can look at the film and see Precious going through that exact same situation. By the end of the film, when Precious discovers that she has caught AIDS from her now-deceased daughter-raping drug-addict father, it's a plot development that you see coming, not because the film sets the development up, but because it really is the only bad thing left that could happen to Precious but hasn't yet. (And yes, the AIDS diagnosis is technically a spoiler, but does that have any meaning in a film so bad that it's spoiled by its very existence?)

This brings me to the ending where, after two hours of absolute horror, they give us what is clearly intended to be a heartwarming life-affirming happy ending - except that it's easily the most unconvincing happy ending since Notting Hill. Precious finally asserts herself, leaves her mother, and moves on to a new life of independence and free from abuse. Which is fine, until you remember that Precious is only 17-years-old, she's spent the entire film pulling herself from complete illiteracy to a level of sub-literacy, she has no prospects at all, and she has two young children, one with Down syndrome. Oh, and she has AIDS, and it's 1987, so she's probably not living long. It's a happy ending in that at least she's not going to spend every day of the rest of her short life being hit on the head with a vase, but is the standard for a heartwarming happy ending really that low? It's like the film thinks that just telling us "this is a happy ending" is enough for it to be a happy ending, regardless of the reality of the situation. And it's not. The truth of this story is that this girl has pretty much no hope, and is facing a genuine struggle to survive every day for the rest of her life. So where is the happy hopeful ending that this film thinks it has?

As if the awfulness of the film's general story wasn't enough, the actual filmmaking isn't much better. Barely five minutes would pass without there being some moment where I couldn't understand the decisions that the director and editor had made, some moment that just offended me on a purely cinematic artistry level. Sometimes it was an artless and obvious filmmaking decision - witness the way harsh violent abuse scenes are interrupted by unpleasant shots of boiling pigs feet covered in hair, or the scene Precious sits in an office while all around her we see every obvious clichéd piece of news footage (speeches by Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, for instance) projected onto the windowblinds around her. Sometimes a single scene might adopt a particular stylistic approach to shooting that is never replicated in any other scene - it's almost like the night before shooting these scenes Lee Daniels happened to watch a Bourne film or a Robert Altman movie, and so decided to copy the shaky-cam or overlapping dialogue techniques he saw without any understanding of how to make those techniques work or any thought about whether there is anything about this scene that justifies using that style for this scene and no other. Sometimes it was just a weird camera angle or movement. And sometimes the filmmakers seem to have so little idea about what to do that it's as though they've never seen a film before - for instance, in one scene where Precious and her mother fight, the film jumps from normal speed, to a fast speed, to slow-motion, to an inserted photo of Precious and her mother in happier times, and back again, just moving from one speed to another with these photos appearing everywhere. There isn't any rhyme, reason, or rhythm to the editing of this scene - for all we can tell the film editor could have been a monkey randomly hitting buttons on the Avid machine hoping to edit Hamlet. The shooting and editing of that scene is so bad that at one point the mother throws the baby she's holding, and I literally have no idea whether she threw her onto the hard ground (really bad) or onto a soft sofa cushion (bad, but not quite as harmful to the child). The inability of the director and editor to make it clear what is actually going on is astonishing - they seem simply inept in their approach to the film.

Then there are the fantasy sequences, which I believe weren't in the original book, and were an addition for the film. And most of the time, these sequences are fine, although they don't really add to the film. We don't get much from the ten-second shots that show Precious as a movie star, or a pop singer, or even a thin white girl, but we can understand why she would imagine these scenes. But there is one fantasy scene that is really just misconceived and actively intrusive. In the lead-up to the scene, Precious and her mother sit in front of the TV and watch a black-and-white subtitled Italian film (La Ciocara, a 1960 film starring Sophia Loren). Right at that moment, I already don't believe the scene. I don't believe that this is a film that these people would ever watch. (After all, in a later scene, Precious describes a perfectly normal conversation in English between Blu Rain and her partner as sounding like "people on a television programme I don't watch." Yet she watched a subtitled Italian movie?) The only reason for the two to watch the film is the resulting fantasy sequence, where we watch Precious and her mother act out one of their fights as though it were a melodramatic fight scene from that film, complete with a black-and-white picture and subtitled Italian dialogue. It's just a nonsensical moment, where characters behave in unlikely ways for the sole purpose of justifying the inclusion of a bizarre fantasy sequence. How is it possible that no-one thought this was a bad idea?

I think one of my big problems with the film may relate to the fact that both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are credited as "presenting" the film. (Basically, what that means is that they were not involved in making the film, but attached their names to it afterwards to help promote the film.) Now, given that these are two of the biggest names in black entertainment, and that they both have a very well known passion for using the media to communicate a social message, and considering the subject matter of the film, it's natural to go into the film expecting it to have something to say about the struggles and problems of an urban underclass. And perhaps it's unfair to have such expectations, but that's what I was expecting. But because the film goes so far, to such excess, I can't take the film's situation seriously. And if I can't take the film's situation seriously, then that absolutely destroys any message that could be taken from the film. I'm a big fan of The Wire, and I realise it's unfair to compare a single film against the greatest television show ever made, but half an episode of that show contains more perceptive comment about race and the consequences of creating an urban underclass than there is in the entire two-hour running length of this film.

Now, the film does have good performances. The actors (yes, including Mariah and Lenny Kravitz) do very well with the incredibly-bad material that they are given. Mo'Nique has obviously received a lot of attention, and everyone knows she'll win the Oscar for her performance as Precious' mother. And it's well deserved - Mo'Nique is absolutely terrifying in the role, but it's always recognisably grounded in her own fears and vulnerabilities. But I get the sense that so much attention has been focused on Mo'Nique that Gabourey Sidibe's performance in the titular role seems to have been overlooked. The nature of the role means that Mo'Nique's performance is very showy, but Sidibe is phenomenal in a role that requires her to be small and withdrawn and beaten down yet hopeful.

But since I don't want to end on a positive note about the film, I want to complain about one last point: the title. Because Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire really is the film's on-screen title. (Well, actually, the title as it first appears on-screen in handwriting is Precious (Base on Nol by Saf), before the illiterate sub-title is translated.) The thing is, I can understand them including a note about the source material on a poster or in adverts or other promotional material, to ensure that fans of the book know what the film is despite the title change. But to have that as the film's actual title is just indulgent. And it's not even a consequence of the change in title. When the film premiered in Sundance, it was called Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire. The title excess was always there, and it was the title change (to avoid confusion with the superhero film Push) that came later. But if you're going to have a title that indulgent in order to claim a literary pedigree, you need a good film to justify that indulgence. And not only is this film not good, it's so bad that it confounds belief. It's badly written, poorly made, and excessive to a point that it actively works against any significance or message that we might otherwise take away from the film. It does have some good performances, but nothing that could justify wasting your time and money to watch this film. It truly is awful. Precious is far and away the worst film of the year.

On the other hand, if I had my choice for the best film of the year, I would choose... well, actually I would choose Where The Wild Things Are. But very close to that film would be Inglourious Basterds. I have a couple of very minor problems with the film (basically, it needed to be even longer, and I wish someone else had been cast for Mike Myers' two-minute cameo), but other than that, it is one of the most electrifying extraordinary pieces of filmmaking I've seen in I-don't-know-how-long. I've already written about Inglourious Basterds back in September, so I don't want to repeat myself too much. The main thing is that, for the first time, I felt that Tarantino had come into his own as a filmmaker, giving us a piece of incredible cinema filled with stunning visuals and masterful camera use, and one where Tarantino displayed an impressive ability in manipulating the audience, experimenting with particular success in building and sustaining tensions. It really is extraordinary, The simple fact is, of the ten films that were nominated, this is far and away my favourite film. It will never in a million years win, and that is a shame.

With ten Best Picture nominees, there's a bit of a question hanging over the film lists. In any other year, five of these films would have fallen short of receiving a nomination. And so we need to wonder - which are the five 'real' nominees, and which five are just lucky to be there? Personally, I think the best way to answer the question is to look at the five nominees for Best Director. While every year there's always one film nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture (and vice versa), the two nominee lists usually track together pretty well. So, applying that idea, the five films above have received a Director nomination, and we can assume that they are most likely the ones that would have been ordinarily nominated. (They're also the five films with the largest number of nominations, which is a nice confirmation of that assumption.) So the remaining five films are probably fortunate to be able to benefit from a bad decision by the Academy.

The film I'm most glad (and surprised) to see benefit from the increased nominee numbers is A Serious Man, the new film from the Coen Brothers, and one of the most enjoyable and darkest comedies I've seen in a long time.

The book of Job is probably one of the books in the Bible that has most inspired authors. A good, pious, just man whose life falls down around him and who grapples with the question of what he did to deserve the suffering that God appears to have inflicted on him - this is a universal story, and something that we all can understand to some degree. In A Serious Man, the brothers Coen transpose the story of Job back to their childhood environment in 1960s Minnesota. Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, is a good, hard-working man on the verge of reaching the security of tenure, when someone starts writing anonymous defamatory letters to the tenure committee about him. There's also an overseas student who probably left an envelope with thousands of dollars on his desk to bribe Larry for a passing grade. Meanwhile, Larry's wife wants a gett so she can leave him for an uncomfortably touchy-feely friend, his dope-smoking son keeps bothering him to fix the aerial so he can watch F Troop, his daughter is stealing from him in order to pay for a nose job, his unwell brother has been crashing on his couch for months, Larry himself may have health problems, he's locked in constant conflict with the Columbia Record Group which is demanding money even though he never joined them, he has boundary disputes with one of his neighbours, he's having dreams about a different nude-sunbathing neighbour, and now he has to pay for the funeral of someone he really didn't like. Meanwhile, his visits to several different rabbis to discover why Hashem is putting him through so many tsuris seem to leave him even more unsatisfied, since the rabbis either refuse to see him, talk about how he needs to look at the parking lot, or tell him strange tales of a message in Hebrew engraved on the teeth of a goy.

In a lot of ways, the film is very much about the conflict between a rational science-based view of the world and a faith-based view that looks for a greater being in control of the world. In one of his earliest scenes, we see Larry in the classroom, a twenty-foot-tall blackboard covered in complex equations, trying to explain the uncertainties and paradoxes created by quantum mechanics by pointing to the example of Schrödinger's cat - an example that Larry himself states that he just doesn't understand. Far from finding science to offer a satisfactory view to the world, Larry seems to find its uncertainties unsettling - after all, if Schrödinger's cat can be both alive and dead at the same time, then how does one get any certainty from science? But then his efforts to seek answers from his Jewish faith don't offer any solace at all either. The film's whole focus comes down to one question: is he the victim of a cruel unfeeling God, or just sheer random bad luck?

This argument between faith and rationality is rather nicely encapsulated in the opening sequence to the film, an otherwise self-contained and irrelevant (but enjoyable) scene almost out of a Jewish folktale, set in an early 20th-century European Jewish village and spoken entirely in subtitled Yiddish, in which a husband and wife argue over whether or not the person that saved the husband's life was just a helpful neighbour or actually a malevolent dybbuk. We never get resolution to the question of whether that person really was dead, and nor does the film give us any resolution to the film's key question. (But then again, I see definite similarities between the final shot and the start of Job 38, and therefore wonder whether that's just my own personal bias revealing itself or whether the film really is leaning in one definite direction?)

But all this probably makes it seem like the film is a largely intellectual exercise in theoretical physics and philosophy. But the film is at its core a brilliant entertainment. While a couple of actors are recognisable, most I don't remember ever having seen before, including theatre actor Michael Stuhlbarg in the central role. Stuhlbarg has sadly been overlooked by the Academy, which is a shame because he gives a performance that really is brilliant - his role is very passive, with much of his frustration and desperation boiling under the surface and only rarely exploding out of sheer exasperation. (In one scene, Larry is confronted by the father of the student who left the envelope of money on Larry's desk. Larry refers to this as a bribe, which the father claims is a defamation and grounds for a lawsuit - but if Larry doesn't give the son a passing grade, then the father will sue him for taking the money that he denies having left because claiming that he did leave the money would be a defamation. This was one of my favourite scenes in the film, and it's all in Stuhlbarg's performance as he struggles to find a way to break through that logic.) The script by the Coen Brothers is one of their tightest ever, with very funny dialogue, and the escalation of burdens on Larry feels perfectly timed. And one of the things I admired most about the film was the feeling of being inside a very-tight insular Jewish community, one where everyone knows everyone else, to the point that the rare appearance of someone from outside this community seem almost intrusive. This isn't a world I've lived in or even seen before, a world that is almost alien to me, and the film offers a nice sense of the way particular cultural groups exist and thrive even while remaining invisible to those outside.

In A Serious Man, the Coens really have achieved an impressive feat. They took the best-selling book of all time, borrowed a a very-well known story that everyone can relate to, and they used it to form the basis of a film that is both universal and recognisable, yet intimate, personal, and utterly unique. And brilliant.

The other exciting inclusion in the nominees is the latest Pixar film, Up. Only one other animated movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture, Disney's Beauty and the Beast. It's commonly believed that the introduction of a Best Animated Feature category in 2001 was largely a move to ensure that such kids' films never again take a nominee spot from a real film. So it's exciting to see Pixar, a studio that has managed to maintain a level of genuine quality and innovation in its film product over 15 years and 10 films, finally break free of the Animated Feature ghetto and receive the Best Picture recognition that they deserve - even if it is because of a change in criteria.

It can't be said often enough - Pixar really do phenomenal work. It's astonishing to realise that their worst film is Cars, a film that would be the highlight of any other studio's catalogue but that just seems terribly average sitting alongside The Incredibles, Ratatouille, or Toy Story. It demonstrates how great the studio is at making genuine family films, films that entertain the youngest audience while exploring interesting subject matter that resonates with older viewers, all the while avoiding the pitfalls that other animated films fall into, pop-culture references that immediately date the films or toilet humour that just goes for the cheap laugh. I suspect the key to their success may lie in their dedication to producing short films, those that appear before theatrical screenings of their main features. Five minutes is not a long time to introduce entirely new characters, tell a story, and throw in some genuine belly-laughs, especially when you're also telling a story entirely without dialogue (as most of those original shorts do). This means that the filmmakers are forced to develop and exercise their storytelling skills, and learn to use expressions and actions, rather than dialogue, to express character. The culmination of that work appeared last year, when WALL-E introduced us to the film's core characters and their world in a 30-minute opening sequence that was almost entirely devoid of dialogue.

And the benefits of Pixar's short film programme are also evident in Up's best-known sequence. After an opening scene (in which two children, Ellie and Carl, meet and become friends over a shared love of adventure), we move into a five-minute sequence in which the two grow up, fall in love, marry, buy a house, and slowly have all their hopes and dreams dashed by reality, until at the end Ellie dies and the now-elderly Carl retreats from the world. It's an extraordinary sequence, two entire lives told in small moments, presented simply, no dialogue, just Michael Giacchino's gentle but versatile theme underpinning the moments. And yet there is more genuine emotion packed into that one sequence than in any other film I saw last year. It's truly extraordinary filmmaking. And while the story proper doesn't start until after that sequence, it's not just a scene that exists for its own sake - it's a core element in the film's storytelling, and all the way through the film calls back to that sequence for one reason or another. By the time the film's story actually begins, we've lived Carl's life, we know exactly how much he loved Ellie, we're just as devastated by her death as he is, and we completely understand how he became the man around which the film revolves.

And this is a key point. The film revolves around Carl. Too often, animated films are just dismissed as "kid's films," and as someone that loves quality animation, that's really depressing, because animation is so much more than just something you can sit the kids in front of. And Up is one film that really is not a kid's film. The film is about an old man, who has lived a long life and lost the love of his life, and who is desperately trying to cope with that pain. The film's key theme is about how the wild extravagant dreams of youth change as we experience real life, and how if you hold on to those dreams you can miss what is actually happening around you. These are not ideas for children to relate to, Hell, even I'm too young to really relate to those ideas. These are ideas for our parents and grandparents to identify with. Sure, the film throws a bone at its younger audience by including a kid character for them to relate to, but he never comes close to being more than a supporting character. This is absolutely the elderly Carl's story, and it's all the better for it.

If I have a problem with Up, it's with the film's slight tonal inconsistency. That opening sequence is so great and so emotionally honest and real, that to a degree it sits uneasily next to the fantasy of someone using thousands of helium-filled balloons to fly their house to a different country, or the comedy of an easily-distracted talking dog. That description makes the inconsistency in tone sound worse than it is - these disparate elements and tones surprisingly do work in the film, and the talking dog is never not funny - but there are times when it does seem like it is a different film to the film it started out being.

Which is why I personally thought Coraline, the stop-motion animated film based on Neil Gaiman's novel, is the better film. It may never reach the brilliance of Up's opening sequence, but as a whole film, I feel it has the edge. It's a beautifully realised film, telling a story that was both simple and genuinely creepy (even I as an adult found parts uncomfortable to watch), and supplementing it with a strong focus on creating atmosphere and a living breathing world. (And, in a year when Avatar brought so much attention to filmmaking in 3D, I felt that Coraline offered easily the most effective use of 3D as a storytelling device I've ever seen.) I loved Up, but I loved Coraline more.

But the key thing is, it has been a genuinely brilliant year for quality animated films. Of the five nominees for Best Animated Film, the only one I've not seen is the Irish film The Secret of Kells. The other nominees, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Princess and the Frog, as well as Coraline and Up, are all excellent films and ones that I can see continuing to be watched and enjoyed as classics for decades. And in such a great year for animated films, it's nice to see one receive the ultimate Oscar nomination - and since the Oscars are often just as much about a past body of work as the actual film, it seems right to see Pixar get that acknowledgement.

You've probably already seen District 9, so it's a bit pointless for me to write too much about the film. (Incidentally, the film makes Oscar history by being the first science-fiction movie to be nominated for Best Picture without also being the highest-grossing movie in cinematic history.) The term "science fiction" today often just seems to mean a Star Wars-style space fantasy, all lasers and spaceships and little substance. But this year, both science fiction nominees (Avatar and District 9) make use of one of the strengths of science fiction - its potential to provide a slightly twisted lens through which real-world issues can be addressed and discussed. But in Avatar the message is clichéd and one we've seen many times before, while District 9 always feels fresh and new. It's never difficult to know what District 9 is talking about - the film is about the creation of an oppressed underclass in South Africa, for crying out loud, so the analogy, both to apartheid and more recently the treatment of other African immigrants in the country, isn't exactly subtle - but it is different, well-conceived, and supported by a well-written and imaginative script.

One of the thing that I really loved about the film was the way that, having concieved and developed this very definite detailed world and backstory, writer and director Neill Blomkamp doesn't really bother giving us too much exposition. In the opening minutes we get just enough for the absolute core essentials for a basic understanding of the situation - alien ship breaks down, occupants becomes refugees and are herded into camps - and a few extra pieces of information are provided throughout the film as required, but it is definitely sparing in the amount of information provided to the audience. There's always a temptation in these types of films to overexplain things, and so I appreciated Blomkamp's willingness to leave questions hanging, even if it means the audience leaves with questions. It makes it feel as though this world is real, and that there are things that the people in that world either just don't know or else understand so well that any explanation for the audience would just be unrealistic for the characters to deliver.

Looking through this post, I realise just how many films this year centred around star-making appearances by people hardly anyone has heard of - Jeremy Renner, Christoph Waltz, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gabourey Sidibe - and to that list we can add first-time actor Sharlto Copley in the central role of Wikus van der Merwe. Copley was a film producer friend of Blomkamp when he was asked to take on the role. And it has to have been challenging for a non-actor to play. The role starts off as a kind of a goofy comic relief character, but one who is to a degree reasonably unsympathetic - he's callous and unthinkingly racist (for want of a better word) in his dealings with the aliens, and even as the film progresses his actions in helping the aliens seems motivated more by self-interest to get out of his situation than by being motivated to do the right thing. That Wikus ends the film as a likeable character is largely due to the performance of Copley, who manages to play the switch from comic relief to tragic figure well and makes the character likeable despite his failings.

It's not perfect - it really needed to choose a style for the film and stick to it, as the change from fake-documentary to standard movie as the film progresses doesn't work (I'd have just dropped the fake-documentary element, and found some other way to incorporate the interview material), and there have been understandable complaints that the movie is itself racist in the portrayal of the Nigerian characters - but the film is still very good. It's exciting when a new filmmaker introduces himself with something that seems genuinely new and original, and District 9 is certainly that.

There are two films remaining on the nominee list, and I don't know that I have all that much to say about either of them. Both are based on true stories, both are well-made and enjoyable films, but neither really has that much to them, which limits what one can write about them.

Before the nominations were announced, I was talking to someone, and mentioned that I had heard speculation that The Blind Side could be a possible best picture nominee. This person had really liked the film, but even she was surprised at the idea of the film being nominated. And looking at the film, that surprise is understandable. It's a good film, certainly, but it's not that good. But shortly after the nominations I read an article that pointed out that, while this hasn't happened recently, historically the nominee list has often made room for the competently-made crowd-pleasing film - and The Blind Side sits comfortably along other Best Picture nominees like Dead Poet's Society, Jerry Maguire, and Ghost (yes, Ghost really was nominated for Best Picture!). It's an interesting point. The Blind Side may not actually be one of the ten best films of the year, but the appearance in the list of an undeserving film in the nominee list is hardly unprecedented - and, as the article points out, it means the Oscars get to acknowledge the types of films that most multiplex viewers get to see.

And for what it is, a high-grossing feel-good true-story film for the mass filmgoing public, The Blind Side does do very well. It's the story of a wealthy white sports-loving family that takes in Michael Oher, a black 17-year-old son of a drug-addicted mother who has spent his life running away from one foster home after another. The Tuohy family works with him, builds him up, gets him a tutor to help him to improve his grades, and gets him onto the football team where his natural talents get him noticed.

It's not a bad film, it's well-made and entertaining, and Sandra Bullock does give a very good performance as Mrs Tuohy. And if you're at the multiplex faced with a dozen choices, this is probably one of the better options. But the film is a bit frustrating, because I feel that the character of Oher should be the main character in the film, but instead he's pushed over to the side. I think that's partly just inevitable - if the portrayal in the film is accurate to the real Oher, then he is a very withdrawn silent person, and not the easiest person to centre a film around. But for all its faults, Precious did do a good job of basing its film around a quiet, withdrawn, uncommunicative youth, and allowing us to know them as a person, so it is possible to build a film around such a person. It's frustrating that at the end of the film Michael Oher still largely remains a cypher - as an audience, we still don't know him. Instead we spend the film focused very much on the Tuohy family, and particularly Sandra Bullock. As a result, it's not the story of a man who survived intolerable circumstances but who made it through and succeeded with the help and support of some nice generous people. Instead, it's about a tough outspoken white woman who takes in this black kid and helps him succeed. But it's interesting because I look at this film as having the potential to be the film that Precious wanted to be - a genuinely life-affirming hopeful story of a disadvantaged withdrawn poorly-educated kid who takes advantage of opportunities to rise above his lot in life - but instead it's just the story of a nice woman helping out a black kid. It's a very good story, and it helps that it's true, but nevertheless it does feel like the focus of the story was a little bit off.

Finally, there's An Education, based on the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber who, as a 16-year-old girl pushed by her parents to focus on preparing for Oxford, instead turned her attention onto having a relationship with a man in his mid-30s. It was clearly an exciting affair, he took her to concerts or art exhibitions, they even took weekend trips to Paris or Rome together - all rather incredibly with the support of her parents, who apparently had fallen for the older man just as much as Barber (renamed Jenny for the film) herself had. But eventually the truth came out, the guy revealed himself to not be entirely reliable, and it all ended rather badly.

The reason why I don't feel I have that much to say about the film is basically because there's not that much to the film. It's all a rather empty exercise. In an article for The Times, Barber commented that "The film has now moved so far from my own life that I don’t really recognise any of it. ... Peter Sarsgaard is handsome and sympathetic and only faintly a conman. Even the suburban streets look idyllic. What was once a dark, shameful memory has become sunlit and glamorous thanks to the magic of Nick Hornby, Lone Sherfig and all."

But while I think she's saying that comment in a positive way, it goes to the heart of my problem with the film. The whole thing is glamorous and exciting in exactly the way that a 16-year-old girl would feel the situation was, but without bringing any hindsight reflection on the situation. It's reality with all the edges shaved off, until it just feels like a fun adventure. And sure, 1960s London is great and exciting, but if that's all there is to the film, then it just feels a bit hollow. If it was a dark, shameful memory, then the whole experience was not just this wonderful thing that we watch, and it seems dishonest to shy away from that aspect. It doesn't need to be all "predatory man preys on youthful innocent girl", but we should feel like the film took some effort to acknowledge the reality of the story we're watching. Now, a friend of mine disagrees with me. She feels that this is one of the positives of the film, that it doesn't tell you what to think but just presents the story and lets you make up your own mind. And to a degree that is true, except that the film seems so romanticised by a 16-year-old's point of view that that it ultimately seems untrue to what I imagine the story really was. And I have a problem with that.

To be fair, for what it is, the film is very good. It's well written - Nick Hornby adapting someone else's work for the first time. And it does have a phenomenal cast doing some excellent work. I'd only ever seen Carey Mulligan once before, when she played the main character in "Blink", a Doctor-lite episode of Doctor Who, and I was so impressed with her performance in that one episode that my decision to see this film was based largely on seeing that Mulligan was playing the lead. And there's a reason why her performance has been so highly praised - Mulligan's performance keep the character sweet and naïve, desperate to be sophisticated, convinced that because she knows about culture and art that she knows what it is to be an adult. If the film is the affair told entirely from the romanticised view of a 16-year-old, then you need an actor that manages to convince as that 16-year-old, and Mulligan does so. As David, Peter Sarsgaard has such strong charisma that we can almost believe that Jenny's parents would fall in love with him and be convinced, despite his being twice Jenny's age, that this was a good match. And the strength of the supporting cast is extraordinary. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour clearly enjoyed the comedy potential of Jenny's parents, even if the characters were a bit one-dimensional; I'm always excited to see Olivia Williams, especially when it's a role as strong as in this film, as the person most concerned by the direction Jenny's taking; and even Emma Thompson turns up for a couple of scenes as the school's headmistress.

On the whole, An Education is an enjoyable enough film, well-made and entertaining, and is well worth seeing for the performances on display, but it has sadly been overpraised far beyond its actual merits.

And there we are. Ten films. Some genuinely brilliant, some good, and one absolutely astonishingly dire. Now we just need to wait a few hours and see what wins.

2 comments:

Ethan Tucker said...

Like you, I really enjoyed A Serious Man. In my case I watched it while flying over the wilds of Siberia en route back to London. I completely agree about the quality of Michael Stuhlbarg's performance - he really is totally believable in the role and succeeds in making the pathetic character likeable and authentic. I'd also like to put a word in for the absolutely great promo poster too, depicting Gopnik as he'd like to be seen, the capable, problem-solving man in charge of his own life. Of once you've seen the film you know that aside from TV aerial-fixing errands, Gopnik was also engaged in a bit of peeping-tom behaviour up there too, so it nicely undercuts the proud, manly stance.

The film still puzzled me in a way. I wasn't certain if we were meant to be rooting for Gopnik, if the increasingly far-fetched series of calamities that befell him were meant to indicate that he was truly cursed, or if we were meant to pity but also disdain him for failing to assert himself to sort his life out while everyone around him used and abused him. Would Gopnik stand up for himself and become a true mensch, or was he destined to remain a useless nebbish?

Of course it was a comedy, so presumably Gopnik's hopelessness was the point, whether or not you believe that it was foreordained by the hand of the Almighty or by the lingering strands of an ancestral curse, as seen in the opening scene in Yiddish. Perhaps the last scene, when paired with the news Gopnik received on the telephone in the penultimate scene, indicates that fate is playing yet another in a series of bleak jokes on Gopnik. In any case, I admired the inscrutability of the ending. It certainly makes you think.

Matthew L said...

Looking at the film as being inspired to a degree by the book of Job, the big thing is that Job's trials were basically a test, but a test that only the readers know about - Job never learns why this all happens to him. Job spends the entire book asking why all this is happening to him, and when God answers Job (out of the whirlwind), God's answer is basically "Who do you think you are asking me that question. I'm God, who are you?" (Job is probably my favourite book of the Bible, for many reasons including the fact that I think God's reply is (quite literally) awesome.)

So looking at the film from that point of view, Larry's trials were a test. When put under these pressures, would he stand tall and be a good honest man, or would he fail? And in the end, he does fail the test - it is no coincidence that his doctor calls him (with what can only be a baaad diagosis) two seconds after he changes the grade. In changing the F grade, Larry himself earns an F grade.

But there is a degree to which I think you're right - Larry's ultimate failing is that he's kind of pathetic. Yes, he's going through a lot of problems, yes, he feels overburdened by them. But most of them are really minor problems, and even the major ones are problems that people go through every day (divorce and so on). When you compare that to Job, who lost all his children, all his wealth, and who ends up covered in boils sitting in ashes scratching himself with a piece of broken pottery, surrounded by people who blamed him for what he was going through - that is suffering. Getting phone calls from the Columbia Record Company or having your son hassle you to fix the aerial - that's not suffering, that's an irritation. And so the fact that he let all that get to him does reflect how pathetic he really is.

But it also raises an interesting moral question - would it be immoral to keep the money and not change the grade? After all, he doesn't know that the money was a bribe - the guy he thinks left it strongly states repeatedly that he doesn't know anything about the money. For all he knows, it could have been left by a generous co-worker who wants to help Larry but remain anonymous. If he was told, here's money, give me a good grade, that would be wrong to take the money. But if the briber says "I don't know anything about it," is it wrong to take them at their word, and assume the money comes from another source, someone who doesn't want to be identified?

And you're absolutely right about the poster - such a simple image on its own, but in context of the film that same image has such a wildly different tone. Having seen the film, it's hard to remember what a strong image of Larry it seems to present, just because that's not how Larry is.