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2016 Rising, Actus Tertius: Reflections

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It’s time to close the door on 2015. Past time, even. But I wanted to round off this awards season, as patchy as my coverage of it may have been, with a poll (seen above), some statistical fun, and some reflection on my awards past.

Since this the 5th year I’ve been doing my own awards, and the 5th year (though that first year was only a partial year) in which I ranked the films of a given year, I thought it might be cool to see how the Oscar choices over the last five years compared to my own picks.

  • 2011:
    • Best Picture: The Artist
      • My #14 film of the year (NOTE: I did not begin ranking the films of 2011 until late in the year, and had not begun assigning numerical scores to films until late July of that year. So my rankings and scores for this year are imperfect.)
      • My score: 85/100
      • My 3rd ranked Best Picture nominee of the year
      • My scores/ranks for the Best Picture nominees (no ranks beyond my top 20): 87/#7, 86/#11, 85/#14, 83/#N/A, 81/#N/A, 79/#N/A, 76/#N/A, 59/#N/A, 46/#N/A
        • Average score/rank: 75.8/N/A
  • 2012:
    • Best Picture: Argo
      • My #58 film of the year
      • My score: 76/100
      • My 5th ranked Best Picture nominee of the year
      • My scores/ranks for the Best Picture nominees: 91/#3, 83/#36, 81/#43, 80/#47, 79/#48, 76/#58, 75/#60, 64/#73, 61/#76
        • Average score/rank: 76.6/49.3
  • 2013:
    • Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
      • My #2 film of the year
      • My score: 92/100
      • My 1st ranked Best Picture nominee of the year
      • My scores/ranks for the Best Picture nominees: 92/#2, 89/#4, 88/#6, 88/#7, 88/#8, 84/#23, 83/#30, 82/#32, 74/#49
        • Average score/rank: 85.3/17.9
  • 2014:
    • Best Picture: Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
      • My #6 film of the year
      • My score: 88/100
      • My 1st ranked Best Picture nominee of the year
      • My scores/ranks for the Best Picture nominees: 88/#6, 88/#8, 86/#19, 85/#25, 83/#35, 79/#49, 74/#71, 72/#75
        • Average score/rank: 81.9/36
  • 2015:
    • Best Picture: Spotlight
      • My #41 film of the year
      • My score: 79/100
      • My 8th ranked Best Picture nominee of the year
      • My scores/ranks for the Best Picture nominees: 93/#1, 88/#2, 87/#7, 87/#8, 86/#12, 85/#14, 85/#16, 79/#41
        • Average score/rank: 86.2/12.6
  • 2011-15
    • Average yearly rank of the winner: 24.2
    • Average score of the winner: 84/100
    • Average rank among the nominees: 3.6
    • Average score among all nominees: 81.2
    • Average rank among all nominees: 28.95 (only for the four years for which I have full rankings)

Two excellent choices (2013 and 2014), one very good choice (2011), one boring but acceptable choice (2015), and one not-great* choice (2012). All things considered, that’s not so bad for the establishment. (*Really, Argo isn’t such a bad film, I just don’t think it made for a strong winner.)

As for the overall categories, you have two I really like (2013 and 2015), one I have mixed but generally positive feelings about (2014), and two I have definite issues with (2011 and 2012). Some of that might be chalked up to my maturing tastes–for example, would I now condemn Midnight in Paris or Life of Pi as harshly as I once did? Would I see more virtue in films I once dismissed, and more faults in films I once embraced? Quite likely.

But the stats fascinate me nonetheless, and it’s cool to see how 2013, which I had held to be the high-water mark of the Academy in this decade, is actually not quite as good a year as 2015 was. That only one of the nominees for 2015 was outside my top 20, and was still a fairly decent film in its own right, may have helped; in 2013, 5 of the nominees made my top 10, but the other four averaged a 33.5 ranking.

In the first two years, only one nominee in either year made my top 10 or even earned **** from me (they were The Tree of Life and Django Unchained, FYI), and the rest of each list represented a decline, either gradual or severe, in my estimation. It’s also worth noting that two first two years bore by far the weakest nominees of the period: Midnight in Paris (**½) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (**) in 2011 and Les Miserables and Life of Pi (both **½) in 2012.

Is this because I saw myself as a reaction to the prestigious dullness of the Academy? Is there a greater significance to the fact that I gave Lincoln 79/100 and Bridge of Spies 87/100 than my simply liking the latter film more? I don’t really know.

I look at my rankings for year as a whole and realize how strange they really are, how I could see 90-100 films in a year (to be precise, 103 in 2012, 95 in 2013, 106 in 2014, and 90 in 2015) and have the vast majority of them earn *** or more from me. I almost wonder if the lower half of my scale has any meaning, since I so rarely use so much of it (I’ve only scored 7 films in the range from 40-49 in the last 4 years).

I also wonder how many of the films I once praised (or even merely liked) I would still treasure, if I returned to them. Would Seven Psychopaths still be so funny? Would The Dance of Reality still be so magical? Would Once Upon a Time in Anatolia still be so hypnotic? I shudder to think of losing favorite films, yet I have never given any of these three films a full second viewing. Would they hold up? Logan’s Run and Destination Moon, classics of my youth, now look rather cheesy indeed.

Since I’ve gone over the Academy’s choices, I think I’ll go over my own Best Picture choices and reflect.

Melancholia finale

One of the greatest endings I’ve ever seen. (Source)

2011: Melancholia

Awards: Picture, Director, Actress (Kirsten Dunst), Supporting Actor (Kiefer Sutherland), Original Screenplay, Cinematography

Nominations: Supporting Actress (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Production Design, Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Sound Effects* (*former winner)

I can’t imagine any other film will take its place for this year. von Trier may have found it to be “too beautiful, too easy”, and I won’t argue that it’s one of his most accessible films, but I can think of few films which tackle so macro a subject (the end of the world) on so micro a scale (a family – and primarily three members of it, at least in the second half – on a country estate) so well. In von Trier’s best fashion, he blends idiosyncracy (“How many holes does our golf course have?”) and tragedy (“It tastes like ashes”) beautifully, telling a story which, for all the agony it encompasses, is ultimately life-affirming.

But not, mind you, in any cheap or sentimental sense. It is fully aware of the suffering of life and the inevitability of death. But when Justine (Kirsten Dunst, truly magnificent) and her nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr) build a “magic cave” to greet the end of the world in, von Trier illustrates the endurance of the human spirit in the face of certain oblivion, and his own capacity for making brilliant cinema out of what would be absurd in any other hands. There’s so much about the film I could praise, from the acting to the writing to the cinematography, but for me it all comes to that final moment, as Wagner blares on the soundtrack, as the Earth is pulverized into dust, as this final gesture of love and unity is enveloped in apocalyptic flames.

The Master Freddie

One of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. (Source)

2012: The Master

Awards: Picture, Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Score

Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography* (*former winner)

Unlike the year before, there was not a clear best film of 2012 for me. There was Seven Psychopaths, the amazing black meta-comedy by Martin McDonagh; there was Django Unchained, with Tarantino delivering yet another masterwork; there was Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s awesomely indefinable showcase for Denis Lavant’s versatility (more on that in a second); and there was The Master.

So why did The Master come out on top, at least for the time being? Maybe because it felt right. Maybe because it showcased two stunningly good performances from two of the greatest American actors of our generation: Joaquin Phoenix as the unspeakably dissipated Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the enigmatically manipulative Lancaster Dodd. They both deserved Oscars; they won my Actor and Supporting Actor awards, and I’m not sure they wouldn’t do the same in pretty much any subsequent year.

But there’s more to The Master than just the brilliant acting. There’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision, his dreamlike direction and sympathetic screenplay, Mihai Mălaimare Jr.’s rich cinematography (much of it in 65mm), Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, and the supporting cast, none of whom can quite measure up to Phoenix and Hoffman (not even Amy Adams, who doesn’t get quite enough to do), but all of whom add to the overall greatness of this tragic story, of a man who lost the only love he ever had, a man who gets a taste of belonging and stability and cannot handle it, prompting Dodd to respond with equal parts mockery and pity:

“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

Spring Breakers cast

“Just pretend like it’s a video game.” (Source)

2013: Spring Breakers

Awards: Picture, Supporting Actor (James Franco), Cinematography, Editing

Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects

Spring Breakers came out in the early months of 2013 and remained by far my favorite film of the year until that fall, when I saw 12 Years a Slave, by objective standards as good a film if not better. But come awards time, it seemed to me the thing to do was to split the difference and give Best Director to Steve McQueen for 12 Years (and richly deserved it is, too), and Best Picture to the film which resonated the most with me, personally.

That Spring Breakers exists at all is a delight. That teen idols like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens deigned to appear in Harmony Korine’s hyper-stylized bacchanalia – a film scarcely more commercially palatable than those he had been making for the previous 16 years – and that their presence could secure the wide release of so beautifully insane a film is to me a very personal joy.

It is a film which should in years to come be as much a generational signpost for the 2010s as Rebel Without a Cause was for the 1950s – an eerily spot-on depiction of the unwitting nihilism of youthful hedonism, a mindset which drives some away (like Faith (Gomez)) and draws others in (like Candy (Hudgens)), and how those who are drawn in can hardly comprehend how such chaos terrifies those who are driven away.

The evil genius of said chaos is Alien (James Franco, giving for me the performance of his career), who bares his greedy little soul for the benefit of the young women he’s just bailed out of jail in one of the great monologues of the last decade:

This is the fuckin’ American dream. This is my fuckin’ dream, y’all! All this shit! Look at my shit! I got…I got shorts! Every fuckin’ color. I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin’ vampires. I got Scarface. On repeat. Scarface on repeat – constant, y’all! I got Escape! Calvin Klein Escape! Mix it up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice? I smell nice! That ain’t a fuckin’ bed; that’s a fuckin’ art piece. My fuckin’ spaceship! U.S.S. Enterprise on this shit. I go to different planets on this motherfucker! Me and my fuckin’ Franklins here, we take off. Take off! Look at my shit. Look at my shit! I got my blue Kool-Aid. I got my fuckin’ nun-chuks. I got shurikens; I got different flavors. I got them sais. Look at that shit, I got sais. I got blades! Look at my sheeyit! This ain’t nuttin’, I got rooms of this shit! I got my dark tannin’ oil… lay out by the pool, put on my dark tanning oil…I got machine guns…look at this, look at this motherfucker here! Look at this motherfucker! Huh? A fucking army up in this shit!

But perhaps the most important line in the film is recited just before the robbery in the first act (committed to finance the girls’ spring break trip to Florida), and echoed in the climactic shoot-out: “Just pretend like it’s a video game.” The disconnect from reality evoked in these words sustains our characters, from crime to debauchery and back to crime again, sustains them through an improbable finale and sends them off on a gentle ocean breeze – a final satirical jolt made all the more impactful by how straight it is played.

It’s a film many seem not to have gotten; its critical reception is far more mixed than that of any other film to win my top prize. But it’s a film which, for me, cuts deeper than any other in dealing with the madness of our generation.

Dear White People Sam

“Racism is over in America. The only people who are thinking about it are, I dunno, Mexicans probably.” (Source)

2014: Dear White People

Awards: Picture, Original Screenplay

  • Comedy/Drama Awards: Picture – Musical/Comedy, Actress – Musical/Comedy (Tessa Thompson), Original Screenplay – Musical/Comedy

Nominations: Actress (Tessa Thompson), Cinematography

  • Comedy/Drama Nominations: Director – Musical/Comedy, Actress – Musical/Comedy (Teyonah Parris)

Like Melancholia, this was indisputably my #1 film of the year. That said, it’s the weakest of my Best Picture winners to date, and received fewer nominations than any other, winning just two (or three, depending on which iteration of my 2014 awards you prefer). It’s a film whose greatness rests more in its screenplay than in its technical qualities (not to dismiss the technical side out of hand; the cinematography in particular is cunningly framed to enhance the characters’ self-consciousness). It’s a film which was mostly overlooked by the awards groups outside of the dreaded “First Feature” and “First Screenplay” categories.

But it is a great film with a great script, and that it is a first film makes it all the more impressive. It is a look at modern racism and how it forces our four black protagonists, in various ways, to deny their true selves, either in their choice of lover, career, or even their manner of self-definition:

  • Sam (Tessa Thompson) forms a black student union power couple with Reggie (Marque Richardson), but is really in love with white student Gabe (Justin Dobies), and struggles to come to terms with her own biraciality.
  • Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is gay and has offbeat tastes (“Mumford & Sons and Robert Altman movies”) and tries to disclaim labels for himself, but he and we come to realize how much our society relies on them.
  • Coco (Teyonah Parris), seeking a spot on a reality show, tries to boost the viewership of her web series by “[getting] real black with you for a second”, and ultimately agrees to M.C. a horrendous stereotype party (blackface abounds), before realizing the limits of what she will put up with to achieve her goals. We learn also that her real name is Colandrea, a name she derides her parents for giving her.
  • Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the Dean of Admissions (Dennis Haysbert), is being groomed by his father for a political career, but his real passion is comedy. He also is dating the white Sophia (Brittany Curran), who seems fixated on his race, but then forms a relationship with Coco.

As hilarious as Dear White People is, and it very often is, it’s the poignancy of its characters’ struggles and the marvelous ensemble which brings it all to life which make it truly great. Thompson comes out on top, earning a nomination from me, but Parris, Williams, and Bell are all quite excellent in their own right, and the script by director Justin Simien gives them the perfect foundation for their performances.

Now word has come that there will be a Netflix series of the same name, the first set of episodes to be written by Simien. It is to be hoped that the series raises the profile of this excellent film and further boosts the careers of its marvelous cast.

Mad Max road war

“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road.” (Source)

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road

Awards: Picture, Director, Editing, Makeup, Score, Visual Effects, Sound Effects

Nominations: Actress (Charlize Theron), Supporting Actor (Nicholas Hoult), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound Mixing

I don’t know precisely how Fury Road will fare with me in the years to come. I first saw it at a preview and liked it, but didn’t love it. Then I saw it again – having seen the praise lavished upon it by critics – and deemed it the best film I had seen since Melancholia. I saw it a third time, this time in 3D (which I generally eschew) and was a bit less impressed, though I’m not prepared to say it was the film’s fault.

But it did get me wondering: which is my true opinion? Should I expect my opinion to be consistent, or is it only normal for my feelings about a given film to go back and forth, making my reliance on numerical scores (I currently have Max at a 93) all the sillier?

But at the same time, I have Max a full five points ahead of my #2 film (The Big Short), the biggest gap to date; no other year has a gap of more than two. So it seems not terribly likely that Max will lose its position as my #1 of 2015, however high or low it rates.

As for the film itself, it’s hard to say more after raving about it for the last year. It is a blockbuster of rare imagination and rarer accomplishment, weaving in a feminist subtext which feels truly organic in a franchise where the apocalypse serves a perfect showcase for human evil and degradation – which makes the climactic triumph all the more rewarding.

It won 6 Oscars and deserved three outright, being the best of the nominees for two more (I only disagree with its win for Costume Design, but Jenny Beavan is awesome, so I’m all right with it), and it wins seven awards from me, the most of any film to date. It is a technical achievement and a realization of George Miller’s vision to dwarf any blockbuster in recent memory.

But it’s the script, nominated by me but ignored by virtually everyone else, which should be discussed. There’s the debate as to whether it’s Original or Adapted (I say it’s very much Adapted – the ways in which it draws on the previous three films are quite fascinating), and moreover the argument as to whether or not it’s a good script, given the simple plot (though not much simpler than, say, The Road Warrior) and spartan (though not as spartan as you might think) dialogue.

But the story is magnificently constructed (though a great deal of the credit must go to Margaret Sixel’s astounding editing) and the dialogue is quite strong when it comes; there is scarcely a word out of place. Above all, for me, is how much of a Mad Max film it is; despite the massive budget and 30-year interim, it remains true to its series and, as far as I’m concerned, brings it to its greatest heights.

The future belongs to the mad.

***

As to what 2016 may bring us, well…I’ll leave that for next time.

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