Long-time readers know that one of our regular features is best picture predictions. This year we went 8/10, guessing that “Invictus” would be the apartheid movie nominated (it wasn’t; “District 9” was), and that “The Hangover” would be the movie picked to tell the mainstream, “Hey–we’re still cool” (it wasn’t; “The Blind Side” was). Since I just defended the melodrama yesterday, it will sound rather hypocritical of me to attack the selection of “The Blind Side,” but….there’s no reason that this movie should have been nominated for Best Picture, and its inclusion can only be considered as another attempt by dandified cosmopolitans to embrace tea party values.

Now, I like Sandra Bullock; “Speed” is easily one of the best action movies of the ’90s, and “The Net” truly captured the potential pratfalls of the internet age and our subsequent loss of privacy. I’m glad she was nominated for an Academy Award for leading actress since she clearly elevated what would have been a poor man’s “The Express” into a cultural phenomenon. But I can’t escape the feeling that one of three not-very-good-reasons led to TBS’ nomination: 1) academy members don’t watch enough movies to vote fully informed; 2) Hollywood is patting itself on the back for continuing to recycle plots and further their dominance of archetypal mythology; 3) An ill-founded embrace of populism.

Nominating “The Blind Side” is like Obama’s bank tax: you can defend it as smart policy given the circumstances, but the timing suggests an appeal to crowds for the sake of an appeal to crowds. Will more people watch the Oscars now? Probably–though the inclusion of movies like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Up,” and “Avatar” would have helped anyway. The Academy seems to be going full-press, hoping that a turn to big box-office films will salvage the midterms.

Philip Lopate‘s Notes on Sontag is one of the best works I’ve read on a literary figure. Short though muscular in its contentions, Lopate introduces us to Susan Sontag: critic/novelist/bette noir and, above all, a woman trying not to be defined as any of these things. There’s a deep ambivalence toward Sontag here, a clear belief that she was important and her work powerful, coupled with the nagging suspicion that her work might not really matter much any more; an artifact from a pre-post-modern world (Yes, I’m going to stand by that odd circumlocution).

At her best, she spoke to the 1960s, created a new language for her era. Though even here Lopate’s praise is undramatic:

“She was consistently able to diagnose the moment and prophesize the immediate future–which goes some way toward explaining her relevance as a public intellectual.” (26)

At her worst, she was blinded by ideology. Or a novelist; in the words of that great critic, Crash Davis:

Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.

(That JFK argues for an alternate Kennedy scenario is here meaningless. It’s not as if there’s some Tommy Westphall Hypothesis for Kevin Costner movies)

Lopate, too, minimizes Sontag’s fiction career. If anything, he implicitly argues, her success with The Volcano Lover and In America reveals a problematic distancing from her critical writing championing the avant garde. Her only successes are in the realist tradition she so maligned (and that Lopate champions).

As he himself has admitted, Notes on Sontag is more a defense of the essay as form than a defense of Sontag (though there’s plenty of that too). It’s a tremendous work, an excellent start to Princeton University Press’ new Writers on Writers series.   Read the rest of this entry »

I’m operating under the assumption that the few people who still check the Home Page of Yesterday’s Salad are obsessive movie-watchers eager for me to make claims about what will be nominated for best picture. This is probably a bad assumption; people checking the home page are more likely to be ibiteyoureyes completists, whose obsessions will not tolerate a missed post. To you I say: greetings!

So, herewith is our top-15, with unexplained numbers at the side.

1. The Hurt Locker, 5.933

2. Up in the Air, 4.208

3. Precious, 3.94

4. Inglourious Basterds, 3.61

5. Avatar, 2.568

6. An Education, 2.27

7. Up, 2.068

8. Invictus, 1.608

9. Nine, 1.335

10. A Serious Man, 1.33

11. Star Trek, 1.118

12. The Messenger, .84

13. District 9, .738

14. The Hangover, .643

15. (500) Days of Summer, .563

My top 10 compares pretty favourably to the ranking of experts over at Awards Daily. The big difference: I have “Nine” hanging on in the top-10 while they have “District 9.” Again, not much difference. Also, looking at the list of movies ranked below the top-10, the only ones I can see making any push to upend “Nine” are “District 9,” “The Messenger,” and “The Hangover.” My gut tells me that “The Messenger” actually has the edge, but that “Nine” will have a lot of support because of its high production value.

Either way, expanding the list to 10 has taken a lot of the fun out of trying to predict the nominees. The sad thing is, you could come up with a list of 5 really good movies this year, 5 deserved nominees. Ten really does cheapen everything.

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.

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 »