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.

List Madness!

February 2, 2009

Over at the LA Times, Scott Feinberg has a list of the 25 best movies of the last ten years not to get love from the Academy. These are movies that went completely unnominated, so they may be a bit low on your Netflix queue. Here’s his top 10:

  1. “Dogville” (2003, d. Lars von Trier)
  2. “Synecdoche, New York” (2008, d. Charlie Kaufman)
  3. “Thank You for Smoking” (2006, d. Jason Reitman)
  4. “The Virgin Suicides” (1999, d. Sofia Coppola)
  5. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007, d. Sidney Lumet)
  6. “The Company” (2003, d. Robert Altman)
  7. “The Upside of Anger” (2005, d. Mike Binder)
  8. “Three Kings” (1999, d. David O. Russell)
  9. “Gran Torino” (2008, d. Clint Eastwood)
  10. “The Station Agent” (2003, d. Tom McCarthy)

Use the link above to see the rest of the list.

I think The Station Agent and Three Kings are the strongest of his top 10. #14, Shattered Glass, and #21, Legally Blonde. are the other two films I’ll steal for my list. Three Kings is really an excellent movie, whose director is one of the most talented directors not working today (our thoughts on his breakout, “Spanking the Monkey”); I Heart Huckabees could probably be on this list too.

Feinberg states his omissions straight away:

Something tells me we’ll see lots of cult-faves like “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” “Inside Man,” “Zodiac,”

Yep. All three are excellent films, especially 4 Months which is one of the most devastating movies I’ve ever seen. I’m tempted to say that it shouldn’t count since it’s a foreign movie and it’s so much harder for foreign movies to be nominated, but it was truly one of the best movies of the last decade, and as the Palm D’Or winner, was significantly high-profile. Similarly, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher belongs as the winner of the Grand Prix du Festival and a BAFTA best film not in English nominee. Besides, it’s terrific.

Other movies I’d add: Ghost Dog: The way of the Samurai and The Limey.

So, the Yesterday’s Salad list of the Ten Best Movies of the Last 10 Years not nominated for anything:
1. 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days

2. The Piano Teacher

3. Three Kings

4. Zodiac

5. The Station Agent

6. Ghost Dog

7. The Limey

8. Shattered Glass

9. Legally Blonde

10. Inside Man

“Dancer in the Dark” really needs to be on this list. It was nominated for “best song” but that should hardly count since it reinforces the fact that it wasn’t nominated for anything else. If we decide to count it, Dancer slides in at  number 8 and everything else slides down one.

I should say, once you exclude (most) foreign movies from consideration, it’s actually hard to come up with a long list of excellent movies that fail to be nominated. Most of the films on the list are terribly flawed. But for all the Academy’s stupidity, they do manage to find a way to nominate most above average to excellent films.

This was the year that the Holocaust film cohered as a genre. Fifteen years after the watershed Schindler’s List, the number of films about the Holocaust has grown so large that recurrent images have turned into conventions or even tropes. NY Mag offered a helpful chart for seeing which Holocaust movie was right for you and Slate published a Taxonomy of Holocaust films, crudely laying out the occasional simplicity of the films in a way that recalls the description of a wrestling film given to Barton Fink:

“Well…usually they’re simple morality tales. There’s a good wrestler and a bad wrestler whom he confronts at the end. In between, the good wrestler has a love interest or a small child he has to protect.”

While it’s redundant to adnumber texts on the formulaic nature of films (including my own review of The Great Debaters), I chose to cite Barton Fink because of how strange the movie is, how unclassifiable. Taking place at the outset of American intervention in World War II, the Holocaust is a theme of the movie: anti-Semitism is a current throughout, with Fink regularly called “kike,” and John Goodman’s character offers a “Heil Hitler” as the movie turns utterly surreal. The film even captures the reluctance of the Hollywood Jews to talk about what may be happening in the old country.

Barton Fink is a challenging film, the type that an A.O. Scott would endorse (though he may not put it in the category of Holocaust film). For Scott, the danger of Holocaust movies is not that they’ve become a permanent fixture like Westerns, but that they’re simplistic in their moralizing

It seems right that movies about a difficult subject should themselves be difficult. But the fate of difficult movies with subtitles, usually, is to slip in and out of American theaters without leaving much of a trace. The big Holocaust movies of the big movie season will make more of an impression, allowing audiences vicarious immersion in a history that they nonetheless keep at a safe, mediated difference, even as they risk bathos and overreach in the process. We don’t have to ask what the Holocaust means to us since the movies answer that question for us. more

Scott’s treatise was well-reasoned, and insightful, and it’s not at all surprising that it cut through and made the impact that it did. No one else had come close to ever articulating the discontents we feel with the genre, with capturing the repetitive and often troubling moral reasoning that categorizes so much Holocaust film. Certainly no one had ever done it as cogently and respectfully as Scott.

Sadly, his piece promises to be as topical in a year’s time. With The Reader nominated for Best Picture, I can’t help but worry about Eternal Return.

The Reader is not a terrible movie, just a mediocre one. The premise of the movie is actually quite intriguing: the onset of adolescence is retrospectively discovered to have meant something else as we learn more about the life of the other participant. It’s also one of the rare (only?) English movies about the experience of Germans who grew up with both guilt and mystification over what had happened. Some amazing novels have been written about the topic (anything by W.G. Sebald), and there will certainly be a great film made about the vicissitude of German experiences after the War. But this isn’t it.

It’s major problem is its shocking timidity. Winslet is naked for a good portion of the film, but the scenes are neither erotic nor traumatizing. She’s simply nude. Daldry, trying not to be sensationalist, veers too far in the opposite extreme. Yes there is the delicacy of depicting a relationship between a minor and an adult, but the film plays down all emotions attached to their lovemaking. Their love affair is muted to the point that Fiennes character’s repression is incomprehensible. We may understand the premise of why he becomes traumatized, but we don’t see it on film. There is no sexual politics, simply sex. This was the part of the film that had the greatest chance of doing something new and making an impact, and it was here that it’s failure is most disappointing.

It’s another example of a film limited in its scope.

On a final, different, note Ty Burr has some good thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire over at the Globe’s Movie blog. Burr’s blog is definitely one of the best film related blogs out there. My own thoughts on Slumdog here.

Nominations are in. For the third straight year, Yesterday’s Salad goes 4/5 picking Best Picture nominees. That sounds good, but it’s also disheartening. No matter how many numbers you crunch, you can never be exactly right. The Dark Knight, what we thought was the best picture of the year, failed to be nominated. Congratulations, you’re now the 4th movie to score over 3.5 on our scale not to be nominated for Best Picture. And congrats, Academy, on having picture and director match 5/5: you’ve made things easier on me and Nate, but at the expense of an individual talent like Christopher Nolan.

I feel pretty good about identifying The Reader as the movie most likely to sneak in:

Over the last 8 years, no movie nominated for Best Picture has been outside of the top 10 in our rankings, so we’ll restrict ourselves to those movies.

So what movies in the top 10 have directors with multiple Best Director nominees?

The Reader (1.69; 7) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Daldry was on the outside looking in in 2000, but Billy Elliot was nominated for director, and he was nominated again for The Hours. The Reader got a new shot of buzz when it was nominated by BAFTA last week, and this being the year of the Kate could help it immensely.

So, when all is said and done, I feel … more confident in picking The Dark Knight for the 5 slot, but if you gave me really good odds–really good–I might bet on The Reader.

No, my confidence wasn’t rewarded, but I think we’ve struck upon a good way to pick Best Picture upsets: films in our top-10 with multiple nominee directors. It sounds pretty intuitive, but it’s not. Gran Torino was everyone’s favourite to upset and sneak in, but we knew it was too low to get the nomination. Likewise, this system keeps us from betting on critically acclaimed upstarts (The Aronofskys of the world). At Best Picture time, the life of the reactionary is the life to lead.

(I was extremely plussed by the fact the Academy nominated Richard Jenkins for The Visitor, a YS favourite that “suffered” from early release syndrome)

Over the weekend, I spent some time going through the best picture algorithm. I refined the algorithm to make sure that the values were the same for every year, and the same things were being counted. I also added a few more historical studies and more variables to each year. In short, I tried to make the numbers consistent and better. I then took a look at the last 8 years to try to learn why certain films are not nominated despite all appearances to the contrary. Here’s what I found:

31/34 movies that have a score of 3.5 are nominated for Best Picture.

32/38 movies that score higher than 3 are nominated for Best Picture.

Here are the movies that earned over 3 this year:

1. Slumdog, 7.89

2. Benjamin Button, 5.55

3. Milk, 5.241

4. Frost/Nixon, 5.09

5. The Dark Knight, 3.665

In short, things look pretty good for The Dark Knight as only 3 movies in its place have failed to be nominated in the last 8 years.

But what are the factors that cause movies over 3.5 to lose? Are there any commonalities?

Let’s look at the occasions: Read the rest of this entry »