That “The Hurt Locker” is only marginally better than “Point Break” is a fact that becomes clearer on repeat viewings of both films. This is not a knock against “The Hurt Locker,” the Best Picture contender for which Kathryn Bigelow is justifiably considered the favorite to win Best Director; rather, consider it a vote of confidence in “Point Break,” a cult film most famous for having bank robbers don rubber masks of ex-presidents (Patrick Swayze’s Reagan is particularly chilling).

The theme of both movies is “to thine own self be true.” Jeremy Renner’s character in “The Hurt Locker” needs to arrive at a greater understanding of his self in order to be at peace, never mind the social consequences, and both Reeves’ Johnny Utah and Swayze’s Bodhi (short, of course, for Bodhisattva) need to reach their inner selves in order to find enlightenment. Reeves’ search for his self is expressed on film via his love for Lori Petty’s Tyler. The two are made to look nearly identical, and the romance shifts from an expression of Utah’s narcissism to an embrace of a totally different persona. Meanwhile, Bodhi’s spirituality is increasingly contrasted with his destructive actions.

The presidents masks, then, are not just rejections of consumerism and pithy critiques of politics, but invitations to look below the beautiful exteriors. Bodhi lives up to the symbolism of his name, though perhaps not in the ways we expect. Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves wears no mask while undercover. He hides in plain sight, behind his old identity. Like Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”, he rejects the mask or giant protective suit. Theirs is a sort of open-key encryption. Read the rest of this entry »

Best Picture Standings

January 21, 2010

With the BAFTA nominees just announced, it’s time to update our Best Picture rankings.

1. The Hurt Locker, 8.867

2. Up in the Air, 5.682

3. Avatar, 5.502

4. Precious, 4.984

5. Inglourious Basterds, 4.07

6. An Education, 2.964

7. A Serious Man, 2.816

8. Invictus, 2.664

9. Up, 2.068

10. The Hangover, 1.923

11. Star Trek, 1.898

12. Nine, 1.795

13. (500) Days of Summer, 1.343

14. District 9, 1.168

15. Julia and Julia, .963

Things are generally unchanged from our last update, and there isn’t anything big on the horizon to shake up the race. This current version includes our “prestige” bonus, newly added to try to identify the next “The Reader,” and accounts for “The Hangover”‘s GG-Comedy/Musical win. I don’t see anything sneaking into the top-10 at this point.

Except….as Sasha Stern reports, nobody has any clue what ten movies to nominate! Academy members are struggling to come up with ten movies! Non-schocker of the day. Given that the Academy regularly had trouble finding 5 very-good-to-great movies to nominate, why did we think they’d find 10? Why not just add a 6th nominee? As it is, Best Picture and Best Director generally match 4/5, meaning that one of the 5 (supposedly) best directed movies isn’t nominated for the biggest prize. Ten just cheapens things.

Unless it makes this totally unpredictable. Maybe a movie like “The White Ribbon” comes out of nowhere to be nominated for best picture. I wouldn’t be totally shocked, and I’d be pretty amused. It’s unlikely, but it did win the Palm D’Or, giving it some prestige.

Here’s hoping that my rankings are totally wrong.

Months after seeing The Dark Knight I’m still trying to figure out some of its philosophical nuances, still trying to tease out the ways with which Nolan plays with our expectations, making us think he’s confirming them while all the while turning them inside out, burning them from the within like the firetruck blocking the road, forcing the police truck holding Harvey Dent below to Lower 5th street. It’s a potent symbol of the movie’s goal of reversals. In comic book mythology, Superheros generally represent agents of order while the villains are the agents of chaos, disrupting. But in The Dark Knight, the Joker is the true agent of order. He claims that everyone else is scheming and planning, when he’s the one who really needs things to go according to plan, who needs always to be four or five steps ahead of everyone else. It’s here that we see the brilliance of Ledger’s performance: he so smoothly speaks what we “know” going into the film that we end up adopting a Joker-esque or, if you will, Jaulknerian approach to the movie and fall into his hands like every else. Only on repeat viewings do we see the fissures in what he says, the implausibilities and incongruities of his words and thoughts. Only on repeat viewings do we notice the subtle foreshadowing of performances and mis-en-scene, hints of what’s going to happen buried deep within the film, things that appear one way on first viewing, but really signify something else. There’s some debate about whether or not Nolan is a great action director, and he may not be: the climactic battle is a blur, disorienting, and Batman’s first appearance isn’t anything special. But he’s the true master of the psychology of action, recognizing what it would actually mean, while capturing its beauty in pauses. The sweeping fall through Hong Kong is the year’s most wonderful image, and The Dark Knight the year’s best movie.

It faces some steep competition from The Wrestler. Darren Aronofsky famously developed an adaptation of Batman: Year One for many years before his Batman project was passed over in favor of Nolan’s. The Wrestler is the anti-Fountain, Aronofsky’s bloated, effects laden metaphysical investigation. Entertainment Weekly said that The Wrestler is “like Rocky made by the Scorsese of Mean Streets,” and that’s the most perfect encapsulation of Aronosky’s film that I can find. Like The Dark Knight, The Wrestler is about the tender humanity hiding behind larger than life figures. Rourke’s performance stays with you, the sound of his voice lingering behind, while his face shows the remnants of another more beautiful life. The Wrestler is also a brutal film. What Aronofsky actually shows you is tame by contemporary movie standards, but the tension he builds is almost unbearable. Requiem for a Dream is dominated by trick photography, to the point that a good friend of mine wondered aloud whether or not McG would have done as good a job. But now, with the cinema tricks (largely) pushed away, and the sensationalism of Requiem also rejected in favor of more intimate sufferings, Aronofsky has shown that he is one of the best directors in the world, and I don’t think it’s possible to even mention Aronofsky and McG without saying “lehavdl.”

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Although literary critics will tell you that thematizing (to make thematic; to organize into themes) is often a bad idea, I’ve nonetheless been trying to thematize the Best Picture and Director nominees of 1986. It’s an odd-assortment of movies, to say the least. Two far-historical pictures (A Room with a View, The Mission), one set in the recent past (Platoon), two contemporary films (Children of a Lesser God, and Hannah and her Siters), and the most famous Lynch film, that (“the word I’m thinking of is”) Dickensian exploration of small-city U.S.A and its’ seedy underbelly. Undoubtedly one of my biggest problems is the 2-3 month break between seeing 5 of the movies and the last one this past weekend, but even without temporal considerations, 1986 remains a thematic challenge. Will one emerge as we evaluate the movies individually?

Wild Card:

Blue Velvet: I said most of what I wanted to say here in my post on Isabella Rosselini’s “Green Porno.” I’ll only add a few words about Dennis Hopper’s performance. Lynch and Hopper managed to create one of cinema’s greatest villains in this movie, on a par with Nicholson’s Joker or McDowell’s Alex DeLarge. But while those characters exist in worlds of pure imagination (to borrow Willy Wonka’s apt phrase), Hopper’s Frank is all the more terrifying because of its realistic tendencies. Though no-one would ever accuse Lynch of playing by the rules of verisimilitude or David Simon level realism, Frank very well could exist. He’s the perfect combination of the mundane and outlandish, vividly realized through Hopper’s divination of his own demons. Also one of cinema’s greatest explorations of the question, nay, theme of voyeurism. A-

Best Picture Nominees:

A Room with a View: I don’t know if I’d ever seen anything take itself so seriously as the beginning of this film, when all the characters discuss the need and meaning of the titular room. The comedy of manners is certainly all the funnier for it. It’s a shame that the movie can’t sustain the tone, succumbing to more pedestrian levity. Like Blue Velvet the movie can be seen as having a theme of exploration: the novelist played by Judi Dench disavows guide books and encourages real exploration, advice that many of the characters pick up. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Cecil is the antithesis of this principle, instead preferring to read books and experience the life of the mind with passive experiences of the real world. I wasn’t too impressed with this movie after the first 30 minutes when its tone reverted to a standard comedy of manners. B

Children of a Lesser God: The great run of William Hurt movies continues! Hurt plays a teacher drifter (an explorer!) who, after teaching speech therapy at all the top schools, has settled in what wikipedia tells me is New England (It was filmed in New Brunswick). I don’t believe that the movie is ever explicit on this point, and I prefer to think of it taking place in the Puget Sound. This movie suffers from the same problems as all 80’s William Hurt extravaganzas: sheer we-get-the-pointness (I apologize for my use of obscure academic jargon). Hurt’s 80’s movies are telegraphed from the get-go with nary a surprise. Still, Marlee Matlin is exceptional and deserving of her best actress award, and Hurt is William Hurt. And then there’s boomerang, what this website calls, “a more energetic gaudy pop tune” (we completely disagree on Children of a Lesser God and The Accidental Tourist, btw) and others have called the best movie musical scene ever. That would be “Singing in the Rain” in Singing in the Rain, but BA-BA-BA-Boomerang does inject some much needed energy into an often elegiac film. B- Read the rest of this entry »

1987: The Year in Pictures

November 14, 2007

One of the areas in which Yesterday’s Salad surely excels is verisimilitude. Not only do we feature commentary on the issues of the day (the strike, Anne Hathaway, pretty feet, and cereal) and have scads of saladeers covering all that is good with society, we also occasionally feature reviews of the best picture/best director nominees as the awards occasionally dominate my life like nothing else. Still, somewhere between 17 and 20 awards years into my project (and Nate’s project) of watching every nominee for these categories, it is safe to say that there have been very few years like 1987. It was a year when Hollywood came of age, found romance, embraced the passive, and did so mostly in the form of light comedies. In fact, I’m still mystified at just how bizarre the year actually was. For the purposes of my sanity, I’m kind of glad that it’s not 1987 all the time.

Wildcard:

My Life as a Dog: As I mentioned in the 1988 review, the best way to describe most of the movies on this list is with the adje178_feature_350x180.jpgctives “light-hearted” and “charming.” And is there a movie more light-hearted and charming than My Life as a Dog? A coming of age story told against the backdrop of early cold war, semi-industrial Sweden, My Life as a Dog has been called one of the greatest movies ever made about children. In the Criterion essay, Michael Atkinson singled the movie out for its representations of “the contentious struggle to understand or at least withstand the bulldozing machinations of the adult world.” (see here) One of the ways this comes through is in the film’s structure, or rather it’s anti-structure. Like an anti-novel, the movie toys with the conventions of the act structure. Recognizable conflicts are avoided, and exchanged for other, more tangible struggles. The mother’s illness, which is in many ways the expected main conflict, is more of a pretense, a reason to explore the real conflict of displacement and fitting in. This theme is then further developed through the tomboy character, struggling with her emerging sexuality and its effect on her boyish life. Jacqueline Rose once said that Peter Pan, “shows innocence not as a property of childhood but as a portion of adult desire,” and the same mostly holds for My Life as a Dog. I say mostly because our protagonist’s innocence comes from his trust of others, an innocence that does not necessarily disappear with age, and his love of animals (see: Tony Soprano). Rose is right, in a sense; the childhood of My Life as a Dog is certainly an adult desire. Grade: A/A-

Nominees:

Fatal Attraction: There is some fa.gifdebate as to whether or not a director is the author of the movie (the auteur theory) or whether the writer should most correctly be termed the film’s author; as I’ve mentioned before, no-one gives credit to actors. In an article discussing this question, A Sanford and Michelle Wolf come to the conclusion that the director is at best a stylist, imparting a particular mis-en-scene and look on her film (source) and little more. If that is true, Fatal Attraction has pitch perfect direction. The movie is wonderfully executed: well acted, well set, and expertly paced. Adrian Lyne does an outstanding job with the pacing of this movie. It’s particularly impressive that many of these scenes still jolt us today, even after we’ve seen them mocked on some iteration of “I Love the 80’s.” But the most impressive thing about the movie is the way it walks the line between thriller and love story–which it is at heart. No matter how crazy Glenn Close gets, the palpability of her love is still present. A-

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1988: The Year in Pictures

November 5, 2007

With Nate’s visit to scenic Somerville now one for the books, another year of Academy Award reviews can be added to the YS’ archives. In fact, 2 years can now be added, but given the bizarre absence of a record for 1990 (contra 1991 and 1989), I’ll hold off hyping the 1987 list until it has somehow made its way from my computer screen to yours. And, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, as I promised in the 1991 post, I’ll one day get around to adding grades for the other years.

But let us now praise famous films and take a look into the not-too-recent-or-useable past.

Wildcards:

A Fish Called Wanda: Rather unlike today, the academy of wanda_200_200.jpgyesteryear used to regularly nominate two, or even three comedies, for the major awards. Perhaps things were just simpler in a world with history, without great conflicts that necessitated drama after drama. Either way, A Fish Called Wanda is really funny. Not just lighthearted or charming (adjectives that will come to dominate the 1987 list), but legitimately funny. John Cleese and Kevin Kline standout in a cast of standouts, and Charles Crichton was justly nominated for managing the cast and coaxing the best out of his actors. But what’s truly interesting about Fish is the timelessness of its humour. The best jokes and set-ups would be funny in any generation; almost nothing is dependent on immediate cultural references, and, if it is, the joke is immediately transparent. Justly on everyone’s mothers list of top comedies. Grade: A

The Last Temptation of Christ…has not aged well. Willem Dafoe is still excellent, and David Bowie’s Pilate is far superior to Jeff Ament’s. But Harvey Keitel is horribly miscast as Judas and the movie at times feels as if it’s going through the motions, portraying one biblical scene after another solely for the sake of having them in the movie (this predictability is really the problem encountered by all Jesus movies). Still, it’s hard not to appreciate Peter Gabriel’s score, and Scorsese’s gusto is evident. B/B+

Best Picture Nominees:

Working Girl: The second comedy on the list, 000980_13.jpgWorking Girl tells the story of a plucky secretary’s (invented) rise to dealmaker. Think The Secret of My Success with the girl-power of Veronica Mars. Actually, I’m not sure what WG (no Robinson) is trying to say about the place of women in the workplace. Tess’ boss (the excellent Sigourney Weaver) is the only female executive in sight and she tries to steal Melanie Griffith’s idea, lest she too succeed. Though the movie would seem to be acclaiming equality there is still the bizarre suggestion that only one woman can succeed at a time, or that the only way for a woman to succeed in business is to be conniving and manipulative. Perhaps I’m reading into the movie, but perhaps not. Then again, the movie may be a mirror and not a lamp, reflecting commonly held ideas while arguing against the culture that would pit two obviously qualified women against one another. Also, Harrison Ford makes even Mr. Hammerskjold’s heart go a flutter–quite a feat considering his alleged Asian fetish. A- Read the rest of this entry »