Thursday, January 14, 2016


You know, we’ve lost an awful lot of important artists in the world of film and music in the past few weeks— brilliant cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond made their passage mere days from each other.  And then David Bowie, whose pop imagination in the ‘70s and prescient thinking about technology and racial inequities in the corporate music industry in the ‘80s, which accompanied the peak of his popularity just when he was making, arguably, his least interesting music, succumbed to cancer last weekend at the age of 69. Bowie had just released what would be his final album, a work which appears to have integrated themes of his own death into its fabric, and it’ll probably go to #1, a likelihood that would have been absurd to contemplate had he the audacious good fortune to have actually lived to see it swimming in the marketplace.

Number one or no, he was a huge figure in pop culture who cut across formats, styles and even art forms. There are those for whom Bowie was less important as a musician than he was as a film actor—his indelible appearances in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Uli Edel’s Christiane F. (1981), Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), did as much to cement an image as a serious, insinuating, apparent effortless presence in cinema that was easily the equal of Ziggy Stardust’s glittering, alienated influence emanating from a concert stage. These contributions to our sense of who we are and how we can manage, in the face of overwhelming sadness and brutality and 1,001 permutations of daily nonsense will live on, and yet the man himself is gone, mercifully released to his own peace while the rest of us deal with his absence. And now today, news of the death of beloved actor Alan Rickman, also dead at age 69, also from cancer. Pardon me if it all just feels like a bit too much right now.
Yeah, it’s been a bad day, topped off by a ride home in hellish traffic accompanied by the bluster and fearmongering of yet another Republican presidential debate. Forgive me if the prospect of one of these deep thinkers being elected what we used to call the Leader of the Free World has done nothing to leaven my perspective. And it didn’t get any better when I turned it on in the kitchen and continued to listen as I shifted directly into household chore mode, although I have to admit hearing Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson simplify issues like gun violence and the influence of Isil into a matter of “just catching the bad guys” while trashing Hillary Clinton as a “disaster” and Bernie Sanders as a “joke” seems all too appropriate audio accompaniment to shoveling massive amounts of cat shit out of a double decker litter box.
Didn’t really start out that way though. For Christ’s sake, I got up at 4:00 in the morning and the first thing I got to do was read and edit Marya’s latest piece for this little Treehouse project we’re starting to wrap up, which was about the best way to start a day I’ve come across since Christmas morning. And after that, why, I poured a cup of tea, did a little blanket snuggle and did something I haven’t done in maybe 10 years, since I began relying on the Internet to funnel me the info and allow me to sleep in—I watched the announcement of the Oscar nominations as they radiated from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wilshire Boulevard, right here in this little Mayberry I call home.
I know that the Oscars aren’t really worth talking about, that the only people who really seem to have a stake in what they are and what they mean are professional Oscar prognosticators and the people for whom the movies themselves don’t really seem to mean as much as they do to you guys or me. And, of course, the filmmakers who doll themselves up every year in pursuit of their moment on stage. Yes, it’s meaningless because it’s basically a popularity contest in which, unlike, say, a presidential election, no one outside of Price Waterhouse is allowed the slightest awareness of the percentages, the real level of popular competition. The losers say it’s the nomination that matters, but hell, the whole thing means so damn much we have a hard time remembering who won, let alone who was nominated from year to year. Yet we continue to squawk about the disposable Oscars, just another distraction, our grandest annual one-off episode of reality TV. And that very disposability is probably why I can find my way to having some measure of fun with them every year. I don’t despair anymore, as I have for many years past, about the prospect of leaving the movies at the mercy of folks for whom the movies themselves are disposable. Their votes and their fascinations are feverishly tallied with every point-by-point analysis of every weekend box office report—a gaudy spectacle like the Oscars seems like relief in comparison.
I despair far more when I glance out over the vast plains of the Internet and see the diminishing level of discourse among what feels like a majority of film fans whose narrow focus and lack of interest in the history of the medium feels like just another version of fiddling while Rome, or Hollywood, burns. And conversely, even as the viability of film criticism as a paying endeavor is more endangered than ever, I can’t help but take heart—a lot of heart— at the discourse made possible by the many writers and enthusiasts who I have become familiar with in the last going-on 12 years since I began blogging and finding my own voice, men and women who have made a place for themselves at the round table of Internet discussion and continue to make a sliver of the virtual world an encouraging place to be. I certainly count you Treehousers among those happy few.
So there I was this morning at 5:30 a.m., tucked under my blankie, pretending for a few minutes anyway that all these nominations meant something. As the list was read, there seemed to be a few things worth noting—some expected inclusions, some unexpected inclusions, some developments that seemed inevitable and some that made absolutely no sense at all. What’s new, amirite?
Once the dust had settled, The Revenant topped the pack with 12 nominations. Given its box office tally and its relative run on the Golden Globes last Sunday (or, as our pal Larry Aydlette suggested we should start calling them, the Golan Globus Awards, in honor of their transparency and relative trashiness), plus its relative glum seriousness and grueling demand on its quite willing audience, where is the surprise in that? I actually thought the movie was startlingly effective, an endurance test, to be sure, but not one entirely devoid of pleasures in, say, the Gaspar Noe mode or considerations of humanity like its geographical inverse, the Hateful Eight. 
And I guess I’m resigned to its newly minted front-runner status at the expense of Spotlight, this year’s Boyhood to last year’s Inarritu-infused spectacle Birdman (another movie I liked). I’d vote for Spotlight, or Brooklyn, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or Bridge of Spies, or Room (my favorite of the year), or maybe even The Martian (maybe), all before I’d cast a glance The Revenant’s way. Yet these are the movies Oscar has presented its voters for Best Picture consideration. Despite some grumbling to the contrary, and not having seen The Big Short yet, I really don’t understand the thinking that this is in any way a disgraceful crop from which to have to choose. Yes, “they” may have left Star Wars: The Force Awakens off the ballot, which many believe represents the industry’s best face from both the art and commerce sides of the debate. But for Christ’s sake, at least “they” didn’t bite down on the Carol bait.
I think I'm more surprised about Harrison Ford missing the cut here than Star Wars: The Force Awakens not getting a Best Picture nod-- all the foofaw about the breadth of support for individual movies resulting in a smaller list of films with any real consensus makes sense to me as a semi-explanation for that oversight (if that’s what you wanna call it). Maybe in leaving it off the ballot the Academy has once again shot itself in the foot by favoring smaller, independent productions like Room that you apparently can’t even pay audiences to go see, over big productions like Star Wars that will guarantee the big interest and the big TV tune-in on Oscar night. (What, no confidence in Chris Rock?) But the reality is, the Academy gonna get hammered either way, whether they deserve it or not, so what difference does it make, really?
I totally get the passion for Mad Max: Fury Road and I'm glad it's up there-- they cheered like crazy the 10 times George Miller’s internal combustion passion play was mentioned, those fiends who were sitting in the seats watching Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee and John Krasinzski and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs live from the Academy. But it doesn't have any better chance of actually winning than Star Wars would have had it been nominated. I can't comment on Steve Jobs going missing as I haven't seen it yet, but I was surprised that it didn't sneak in there too-- it's a movie the industry seems to have appreciated maybe more than the general public, and certainly Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet are feeling some residual love while Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin twist in the wind. 
As for The Martian, I thought it was perfectly terrific, even though, unlike Marya, I appreciated the book more for its ability to let me soak in geeky interstellar MacGyverisms I could only pretend to fully understand while giving me a stronger sense of the grueling length of time its main character spent in peril while the mental gears were forced to desperately kept spinning. It's the first Ridley Scott movie I've liked since Thelma and Louise, but I have to admit that, in a sort-of reverse career achievement award, I was kinda tickled that Scott was overlooked, if only so that he might further perpetuate and further relish his hardening image as the Sourest, Most Put-upon Uncoronated Genius in Hollywood. (For those of you who follow Game of Thrones, actor Owen Teale as Alisser Thorne, Lord High Commander of the Night Watch, he who orchestrates the death of beloved hottie Jon Snow, has always functioned best for me as a surly Scott stand-in.)
Leaving Spielberg out of Best Director consideration is a much more troubling matter, especially as classically strong as Bridge of Spies was, but I was prepared, especially after his no-show in the DGA nominations, to see him left out. That said, outside of McKay, whose movie The Big Short again I have not yet seen-- I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this now Oscar-nominated director's last movie was Anchorman 2: -- it’s hard for me to complain about George Miller being included, whoever he might have bumped aside. Tom McCarthy’s directorial style might be in a more minor key than Miller’s or Inarritu’s, but he’s hardly on the awards-pandering level of a Tom Hooper. And by God, I am resolutely, unambiguously happy as a clam in a sand bank about Lenny Abrahamson’s nomination. He’ll never win, but right now I just don’t care. It’s definitely a nod in the right direction for the right director.
As much as I (unexpectedly) enjoyed his performance, Sylvester Stallone’s supporting actor nomination, incredibly Creed’s sole recognition, has to register as bittersweet. No Ryan Coogler? No Michael B. Jordan? No Creed for Best Picture, something I thought up until about 5:40 a.m. was as sure a thing as could be anticipated? But nothing. And on Carl Weathers’ 68th birthday too. I get that Creed’s reception by the Academy, the nameless, faceless, lacking-in-actual-corporeality “they,” has been up to this point and continues to be largely a pretext for the coronation of Stallone’s Balboa character, one that began in earnest in 1976 and got derailed by the actor’s cosmos-dwarfing ego, ghastly tendency to mold and relentlessly ride the political zeitgeist of Reagan-era jingoism and subterranean storytelling skills over the last 38 years.

But the lack of recognition for the movie, in the screenplay category at the very least, speaks more tellingly to an overall tendency of the Academy to muffle considerations of race, even when it’s an integral part of the story of a film they seemed primed to celebrate, 12 Years a Slave being the exception to the rule that most easily pacifies those who choose not to acknowledge the bigger, more troubling picture. (Of course, the year’s best, prickliest, most challenging movie on race and American society, Chi-raq, never stood a chance of getting within a 10-mile perimeter surrounding the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.) In this light, Straight Outta Compton’s lone nomination, for its Caucasian screenwriters, by the way, unfortunately ends up looking more like tokenism than tribute. A peek at the way the votes actually tallied might dispel at least some of the unease. But in a year that featured Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Teyvonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Benicio Del Toro and Chiwetel Ejiofor in high-profile roles, to name only a few, the fact that the closest any actor of color came to a nomination was Jordan and Thompson hanging out somewhere in the vicinity of Stallone’s admittedly effective turn, or Samuel L. Jackson sweating it out in the same big, wide, claustrophobic  room as Jennifer Jason Leigh while she snarled the N-word, is a bit harder to swallow than it might have been otherwise.   
I felt an involuntary and disbelieving arch of the eyebrow upon the announcement of the Best Score category too, and it wasn’t inspired by John Williams’ 267th nomination, this time for a score that gets m most of its juice by revisiting sure-thing themes and never coming up with worthy successors to his previous space-bound symphonic glories. No, considering that Ennio Morricone has never won anything other than an honorary Oscar, and that he wasn’t even nominated for such evocative, landmark movie music as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America or (insert your favorite worthy Morricone score here), I’m not too surprised he managed a nomination for The Hateful Eight. Of all the day’s nods, this one smells most like a career achievement award. (The competition is too vital in the Cinematography category to consider a possible Roger Deakins win as a pat on the back, “Nice job overall, Rog.”) 
Morricone’s overture for The Hateful Eight is indeed a thing of beauty, harkening back to past glories without a hint of condescension or laurel-resting. But the rest of the work apparently consists of large swaths of music the composer deleted from his score for The Thing, as well as actual sample from the scores for The Thing and Exorcist II: The Heretic. Odd, especially when you realize that the score written for The Revenant, by Ryuichi Sakamato and Alva Noto was deemed ineligible because Sakamoto’s contributions to the score could not be separated out from that of his collaborator. Was this a problem back in 1987, the year Sakamoto and David Byrne and Cong Su actually won for their score for The Last Emperor? Morricone will probably win (though I doubt he’ll show up), and I’ll be happy for a man who has created so much great, iconoclastic, singular music for so many movies that I love, but I won’t be able to shake the feeling that it’ll be for a score that is standing in for a lifetime of better work.
Some other observations: No Best Documentary love for Meru, the most astonishing movie in its genre to play all year? Jesus, what the hell does a fella have to do to get a goddamn Oscar nomination, climb an impossible-to-climb mountain while filming the whole thing or something? On the other hand, way to go, Mustang, a very strong pick in the Best Foreign Film category. Congratulations too to Charlotte Rampling, whom I completely forgot about when making my bleary-eyed, 4:00 a.m. Oscar predictions. (Have any of my fellow Treehousers—I almost, in my late-night delirium, typed “Treehosers”—seen 45 Years? I gonna try to see it this weekend, though I must admit I’m a little scared of it.) And yeah, doesn’t it seem time to just nuke that fucking Best Song category?
I’ll finish (stop cheering, dammit!) with my favorite mispronunciations overheard during this morning’s announcement broadcast, and none of them courtesy of Guillermo Del Toro. (In fact, Del Toro could have effortlessly rescued the most embarrassing one.) KTLA’s peerlessly breathless entertainment reporter Sam Rubin—the guy who last year famously mistook Samuel L. Jackson for Laurence Fishburne during a live TV interview—was coming off a classic Rubin-esque expression of shock and disbelief that the song from Furious 7 was somehow not nominated. (“A stunner!” he trembled into the camera.) Already rattled, he huddled outside the door to the Academy auditorium, recapping the big nominations, and was so flush with excitement that he informed his audience that someone named “Alicia… V-Vi- Vinegar” had received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Danish Girl. But Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs left Our Dear Sammy in the dust, and secured for herself sole possession (so far) of this year’s John Travolta/”Adele Dazeem” Verbal Blunder Award right out of the box, by announcing Best Director nominee Alejandro G. Inarritu as Alejandro G. Ay-TOTI-too. Some people just shouldn’t be on TV, especially at 5:30 in the morning.

I gotta go to bed now. But before I do, in anticipation of the final round of posts in what have been the best, most enjoyable and certainly the most eloquent, compelling and sheerly pleasurable sessions of the SLIFR Movie Treehouse yet convened, let me pose some points for final consideration as we start to bring things to a close.
1) We’ve been talking so much about what moved us this year. But what about your candidates for the worst of the year, or the major disappointments, if you're not into that whole negative thing?
2) What were your favorite moments on screen in 2015?
3) What was your favorite movie-going experience of the year?
4) Forget Oscar. If you had one award to hand out, what movie or performance or other feat of filmmaking would get it?
5) And finally, what’s the one movie from your list, perhaps lesser known or celebrated than the others, you would like to specifically recommend or proselytize on behalf of?

I can’t wait to read the answers to these questions and everything else you guys have in store. And here’s to a better day tomorrow.
Your favorite moviegoing experience of 2015
4) The one movie, perhaps one of the less familiar titles on your list or off, that you would like to specifically recommend and/or proselytize for
5) If you had an award, what performance/movie would you single out for it?
3) Your favorite moviegoing experience of 2015
4) The one movie, perhaps one of the less familiar titles on your list or off, that you would like to specifically recommend and/or proselytize for
5) If you had an award, what performance/movie would you single out for it?


1 comment:

xterminal said...

1) We’ve been talking so much about what moved us this year. But what about your candidates for the worst of the year, or the major disappointments, if you're not into that whole negative thing?

No question: The Human Centipede 3: The Final Sequence. That I knew this was a distinct possibility when I started watching in no way mitigates how bleary-eyed awful it is.

2) What were your favorite moments on screen in 2015?

Pretty much any moment that happened onscreen (a) in a Pixar film or (b) in Spring, which of course got no notice from anyone anywhere.

3) What was your favorite movie-going experience of the year?

The Good Dinosaur beats Inside Out by a nose. Pixar getting in some fresh directorial blood was a VERY good idea.

4) Forget Oscar. If you had one award to hand out, what movie or performance or other feat of filmmaking would get it?

Tom DeNucci would get the "most improved director" award (one day Ti West will shuffle off this mortal coil, and I will be able to call it the Ti West Memorial Most Improved Director award) for Almost Mercy, the movie I've known he had it in him to make since I saw his first fumbling excuses for suspense pictures.

5) And finally, what’s the one movie from your list, perhaps lesser known or celebrated than the others, you would like to specifically recommend or proselytize on behalf of?

In case I haven't said it enough in this comment: Spring. Benson and Moorhead (who got no love for their wonderful bone-black-satire Resolution, either, one of my favorites of 2012) take on the south Asian non-horror subgenre of the supernatural drama, something very few Western directors have even attempted, and no one west of the GMT line has figured out how to market (when you get Tartan releasing 4 Inyong Shiktak, which is at its heart a tender, intimate love story, under the Asia Extreme banner...). And they nailed it.

Bonus points to Kim Farrant for Best Picture No One Saw Nicole Kidman in.