Friday, January 15, 2016


The best thing about not getting paid to write about movies is that I don’t have to discuss the Oscars. I lost all interest in the Oscars a long time ago; if I had to pinpoint the exact moment, I would probably go with the day the nominations were announced in 1987, the year that Blue Velvet, the major breakthrough movie event of my twenties, failed to score a Best Picture nomination. Dennis Hopper, who had been out of action for years due to a combination of drugs, drink, and bad karma, gave the performance of his career in that movie, and the Academy, unable to resist a comeback story, gave him a Best Supporting Actor nomination—for Hoosiers. A crew from Entertainment Tonight had a camera pointed at his face the moment he heard the announcement. Steven Rea didn’t look that surprised in the bedroom scene in The Crying Game.
I do remember when the nominations were announced in 2013, because I was paid to write a paragraph about them that year. The premise must have been something like “Which Academy Awards Nomination Is the Happiest Surprise?” because I remember writing that I was happy to see Jennifer Lawrence nominated for Silver Linings Playbook. I wrote that it was nice to see someone get an Oscar nomination for being so funny and sexy and emotionally alive in an entertaining light comedy, though of course there was no way in hell she would win. I quickly got an email from my editor advising me that if they ran this, I’d look pretty stupid, because “everybody” knew that she was a lead pipe cinch to take the little gold nudist. She did win, though I swear it wasn’t until the morning after the ceremony that I learned, from reading the stories about who won and why, that both the movie and her performance in it were desperate pleas that we as a society do more to address the plight of the mentally ill. The upshot is that not only do the Academy and I have drastically different priorities and opinions regarding what is important and deserving of acclaim in movies, when we do appear to agree on something, it’s usually for different reasons.
I just saw a TV commercial in which the voice of God (i.e. Morgan Freeman) proclaims that there is “one night when we all dream in gold.” This did make me throw up in my mouth a little. It’s the “we” that bugs me; I don’t mind the Oscars existing and don’t want them to change to suit my tastes and interests. That would be like trying to change who gets elected Prom King. But I do mind the shared assumption that the Academy’s values are those of America, are at least those who really care about movies in the right way, and I’d rather not even bitch about them, because treating them as something worth complaining about just confirms their power. It’s not as if there won’t be plenty of people eager to show that they not only disagree with the Academy’s values and priorities but are prepared to spend the next month screaming about them online. I’ve already seen enough tweets and Facebook posts today to know that the Academy still really doesn’t give a shit if people on social media don’t think it honors diversity. I’ve also heard that Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, and Tessa Thompson didn’t get nominated for Creed but that Sylvester Stallone did, and I’m assuming that’s a typo that’s on its way to becoming an urban legend. The Oscars are full of shit, but nobody’s that full of shit.
The Oscar nominees who are easiest to slip and care about, however briefly, are the actors, because in narrative movies, actors are still the human material onscreen (and, in most animated movies, on the soundtrack) who do so much of the heavy lifting in involving the audience emotionally. A great director can use every element of moviemaking to draw us in and communicate with and even move the viewer, but a director who concentrates on perfecting a visual style or establishing total control at the expense of using the actors as full collaborators—I would name cite Kubrick and recent Malick as cautionary examples—does so at his peril. And in movies by lesser talents, the actors are the elements most likely to keep a viewer engaged, which is no small thing, given that those of us who watch a lot of movies are fated to spend most of our time in the theater watching movies that were not made by great directors. Like Marya, I find acting an especially mysterious art and tend to cut the people who perform it with honesty and imagination a certain amount of slack.
Part of the fascination of the documentary Listen to Me, Marlon is hearing Brando, in his own words spoken in his own voice, spend an adult lifetime failing to adequately explain to himself just how it is he does what he did better than any American of his generation, which seems to have made it harder for him to take any pride in it. You also get to hear Bernardo Bertolucci describe Brando as “shocked” when he saw himself in Last Tango in Paris. In that movie, Brando is not “being himself.” He is playing a character named Paul who is different than him in many ways. But Bertolucci clearly guided him to use as much of himself as he dared in the process of constructing the character, which in turn caused him to connect with Paul’s emotions with special, exciting force. The fact that Brando didn’t realize how nakedly exposed he would look in that movie—which in turn would leave many ticket-buying chowderheads to take it on faith that this charged portrait of a sometimes repellent character was a bare self-portrait—until he saw the finished product, and realized what Bertolucci had done, says a lot about the power differential between actors and directors. It also says a lot about Brando’s disengagement from his profession for much of the rest of his life. There will always be people who see the Brando of the post-1972 period as a lazy, slumming whore. But few enough people could have given anything like the performance he did in Last Tango; how many of us are qualified to imagine what it must have felt like to even consider what it might have taken to keep working at that level, especially if it meant going that deep inside himself again?
I didn’t see any Brando-level performances this year, but I do think that Jennifer Lawrence, more supernaturally alive than just about anybody onscreen, has shown an amazing gift for playing clear-eyed, passionate heroes who won’t back down, whether they’re bent on toppling a dictatorship or selling a mop, and this year she’ll turn the same age Brando was when he made his first movie. There were, as they say on the infomercials, some amazing discoveries: Daisy Ridley in you-know-what, Britt Robertson in Brad Bird’s overly maligned epic bomb Tomorrowland, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in Tangerine, Shameik Moore and the other young performers in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope. Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina and The Man from UNCLE, Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Nadia Hilker in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s genre-bending horror romance Spring, which also boasts a wonderful performance by Lou Taylor Pucci as an American in Italy whose emotional state shades gratefully from PYSD to lovestruck. (It’s sort of like Before Sunrise with tentacles.) In Brooklyn, Saorise Ronan grows up onscreen, transforming herself from a painfully shy fish out of water into a confident woman of the world; she made me feel as if I were finally seeing the performance I read about whenever Jessica Chastain plays a young earth mother. Dakota Johnson gives an irresistible star performance in Fifty Shades of Grey, without a shred of help from her material, director, or co-star. (The fact that she’s right there with them on the list of Razzies nominees is a terrible indictment of what indulging in kneejerk, unreflective mockery of officially certified bad movies does to the brain.)
In Carol, Kyle Chandler plays a character who could easily have been the mustache-twirling villain of the piece—the straight ex-husband who’d like to “cure” his wife of her desire for other women and isn’t above using their daughter as a weapon against her—and illuminates the man’s mixture of humiliation, anger, and romantic despair in a way that makes it hard not to feel for him. Emotionally, he’s the least opaque thing about the movie. John Cena is hilarious as Amy Schumer’s fuck buddy who thinks they might be something more in Trainwreck, and he manages to make the character’s dimness and sexual confusion funny without any winks to the audience to distance himself from this jerk. (He’s so good he partly derails the movie; I didn’t want the heroine to marry him, but I was disappointed that, after he got fed up and walked out with plenty of movie left to go, he stayed gone.) Rose Byrne is almost as good in Spy, playing straight woman to Melissa McCarthy without ever turning to stone.
Oscar Isaac surprised me in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’ve seen a lot of terrific performances from him, but most of them—like his work earlier this year in Ex Machina—have been variations on the basic template of a dislikable but strangely charismatic asshole. I would not have guessed that he could do the smart-mouth hero who does his best to sass the bad guys to death as if he were to the flight suit born. Jeremy Strong’s Sahara-level dryness as one of Steve Carell’s minions really shines in the context of all the hand-waving and meticulously enacted neurotic tics of The Big Short. I always cheer up whenever Ben Mendelsohn shows up, in movies like Slow West and Mississippi Grind or the Netflix series Bloodline, and starts magnetically spraying seediness around as if he were trying to pollinate the screen. Somewhere, in a world that is much like our own but that makes better sense, he and Walton Goggins have already played brothers, twice. (He has an especially lovely duet in a diner with Alfre Woodard, playing his bookie as if she were his social worker, in Mississippi Grind.)
S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk gave me more of the epic-Western-with-grindhouse-proclivities that I was expecting from The Hateful Eight—which was, hands, the big disappointment of the year for me, and a movie that, with its static, prolix self-indulgence and undistinguished visuals, did more to set back the cause of “classic” filmmaking technology than a thousand straphangers watching Lawrence of Arabia on their phones—and Zahler’s movie also makes better use of Kurt Russell. (It gives him a character to play, rather than just asking him to reheat his John Wayne impression. Amusingly, as his sidekick in Bone Tomahawk, Richard Jenkins appears to be doing Walter Brennan.) At a time when movies in general look as young as ever, Blythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams) and Michael Caine (Youth) and Ian McKellen (Mr. Holmes) managed to claim big roles for themselves and shine as brightly in them as ever.
Of course, 2015 was, first and foremost the fortieth anniversary of Jaws, the movie gave me my first hints that movies were a form with their own syntax that, when deployed with real smarts and brio, could offer something more enthralling than a couple of hours killed watching Dean Jones get his ass saved by a sentient Volkswagen. I spent one afternoon last summer watching it on a big screen again, courtesy TCM’s reissue program, and I’m here to tell you, forty years on, that son of a bitch still works like gangbusters. I would be very happy to spend another thousand words or so expounding on the reasons for that picture’s greatness, but if any of you don’t already know about it, I suppose it’s too late to talk sense to you. I would rather look to the future and imagine all the nine-year-olds who are about to have their minds blown by some thundercat who has a story to tell (or, like Spielberg at the time, at least a job to do and an ambition to show the world that no one could do it better) in such a way that the fever takes full possession of their hearts and minds. They live in a world that is better positioned than ever to feed the fever, in as many international flavors as their eager little appetites can stand. Friends, you and I may disagree on many things, and as Neil Young is reputed to have said (in a line that he may have stolen from one of the lesser ‘70s works of Robert Altman), if you and I agreed on everything, one of us would not be necessary. But I hope we can agree that however daunting the work ahead may seem, movies are too important to be left to people who would even threaten to give an acting award to Sylvester Stallone. Seriously, can I get a fucking amen!?
Phil Dyess-Nugent was a freelance writer and film critic. His work has appeared in Nerve, Hi-Lobrow,  The A.V. Club, Global Rhythm, The High Hat, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the University of New Orleans Press anthology Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina, as well as numerous personal blogs with deceptively clever titles. He is currently either retired or unemployable, depending on whether you ask him about it before he's had his coffee. 



Roger said...

Thanks, Phil. Very nice. One of us may not be necessary.

Cheers, Roger

Richard T. Jameson said...

Terrific stuff, Mr. D-N ... even if I persist in being interested in the Oscars.

P.S. At the National Society of Film Critics, Ben Mendelsohn in "Mississippi Grind" got my top vote for Best Actor.