It’s always a bit tough to see films you just didn’t like or admire nominated for awards. This year’s Writers Guild Nominees almost made me want to revoke my membership out of shame and embarrassment. I used to believe that it was Hollywood that was keeping good writers down; that great scripts were being raped and rewritten and solid writers who knew better were scripting pablum at the behest of those signing their checks.
But this year’s nominees, writers voting on writers, proved to me that even our guilded scribes no longer recognize good writing. With one exception: I thought A SERIOUS MAN was a great film and a great script. But clearly WGA members just THINK they’re supposed to like the Coen Brothers and vote for them each year regardless because, with that exception, most everything else here is mediocre at best.
THE HANGOVER? Really? That’s not a joke? Writers voted for that? Writers? WRITERS? While this film may be one of the “better” of the new wave of frat boy films, it’s still a piece of mediocrity at best. But of all the films released this year to choose from, Writers narrowed their choices down to this.
THE HURT LOCKER? Okay, this one is not embarrassing. I was not as “wowed” by it as many others and I thought the HBO miniseries GENERATION KILL did a much better job of tackling a similar subject matter, but this was not a dumb film or a simple film. I still found it a bit contrived at times, but at least it was adult. I didn’t love it, but I do admire it. So this one gets a free pass from me.
PRECIOUS? Out of all the Adapted Screenplay choices, I almost voted for this one. I ended up not casting a vote for any. Because, though I actually enjoyed the film and thought it was pretty decent and, at times, hard-hitting, I found some of the “speeches’ to be a bit more writer-centric and not completely believable; they were almost too self-aware for me to buy coming out of the mouths of the characters. But nonetheless, it was a good film and it wasn’t trying to make everybody happy. It took some risks. I can live with this one. I just can’t vote for it.
CRAZY HEART? People, the performances were impressive and the T-Bone Burnett songs were great, but the material was a retread and the characters somewhat under-motivated. Learn to separate. And the tacked-on ending was embarrassing and almost entirely undermined any of the good stuff that came before it.
AVATAR? Where’s the hidden camera, because this can’t be real? Take off the 3-D glasses guys! The effects were impressive and the movie fun, but it was a formula 101 script with real roll-your-eyes moments. Not to mention a complete lack of subtlety. Did anyone not see every moment coming? Did someone actually think the dialogue was good? Apparently, writers did. Almost all complaints about this film have been script-based. So how did it end up on this list? Beats me. The film was enjoyable DESPITE its script!
JULIE AND JULIA? It’s Nora Ephron! She’s not a good writer! Granted, this is easily the best film she’s ever made, but most of that is thanks to Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s terrific perfs. Not Ephron’s “brilliant” script. Remember the Amy Adams portion of the film? She wrote that, too!
STAR TREK? Sorry kids. It may have been fun, and even mildly witty and inventive at times, but it’s also incredibly lazy. They jettison Kirk off the ship onto an ice planet for no other reason than to pull together two plot points! Writers backed into a corner and coming up with a lazy solution. It’s not feature film award-worthy! It’s above-average network television writing!
500 DAYS OF SUMMER? Really? I’ll say it again. Really? And l enjoyed this film. It was charming and had some touching, well-structured moments. But it’s still a pretty surface-level film. With a terrible final sequence. A real “nice” little conclusion to make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy. No risk, no daring. Someone called it the ANNIE HALL for a new generation. HAVE YOU ALL GONE MAD!? Go back and watch ANNIE HALL, for the love of god! It’s like comparing CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS to, say, THE HANGOVER?
UP IN THE AIR? I know tons of people loved this picture and thought it was deep. It’s not. Maybe by today’s standards of “deep,” but not in any sane world. CRASH was deeper and that film took its audience to be a bunch of children who needed everything spelled out in big, block letters. While UP IN THE AIR certainly doesn’t suck, it’s another sloppy script where the characters are not true to themselves. And there’s four musical montages. FOUR! That’s not feature film writing, that’s a music video! And Vera Farmiga’s character betrays her own development. There is nothing believable, as fine an actress and Farmiga is, when her character turns into an oblivious woman shocked at Clooney’s genuine admiration for her. It’s a scripted moment that defies all that’s come before it. There’s a difference between putting in lines of dialogue to “explain” motivation, and actually having characters that are believably motivated. This one may fall on the shoulders of director Reitman, but nonetheless, it ends up being a failure of the script as well.
And I’m sorry, but Clooney’s character is the result of play-it-safe writing. He’s a sweet, likable guy, who fucks people over for a living. Too scared to make him actually unlikable, he floats somewhere in that safe place where we don’t really know why he’s separated himself from true human contact. And it doesn’t matter. So long as he’s handsome and charming and learns a valuable lesson and most all the people he fired are actually better off and happy in the end. The script has them tell us so themselves. Because we don’t want the audience leaving the theater worried about anyone or anything. Because we’re too afraid to make movies that actually say something or take a real stand! This is to films what Libertarians are to politics!
How can we ever get good films made or gain some measure of respect if we, ourselves, honor mediocrity at every turn? Where are the good writers? The daring writers? The writers who challenge us? The writers that take risks? Look deep? Explore the human condition? Or at least bring some intelligence and real wit to those things that make us laugh? Have we forgotten the very basics of our craft? Are we artists or simply entertainers? And if we’re both, can we at least learn to recognize it when we see it?
Now let’s turn to the Academy Awards. For years now the Academy has been a disappointment. The shows themselves are more like episodes of Entertainment Tonight than a respectable Awards show. And this year degrades it even more by offering 10 Best Picture slots so that they can include more “popular” fare (it’s all about ratings at the end of the day).
I have many of the same complaints here that I’ve already stated above. And though I do love George Clooney as an actor, I thought his perf in UP IN THE AIR was one of his weaker moments. Despite always being a class-act, Clooney’s portrayal of this guy just didn’t elevate the character above the script. The film seemed to ride more on Clooney’s charm than on the inner-workings of the character itself. Case in point, I never for a moment believed his “back-pack” lectures. Had I attended that lecture, I would have demanded my money back within minutes. Was this performance really better than Michael Stuhlbarg’s in A SERIOUS MAN? Problem is, no one knows Stuhlbarg so… No nomination. Or how about Sam Rockwells’ tour de force perf in MOON, a film completely ignored by the Academy? No, I would have much preferred to see Clooney nominated for THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX where his acting talents were on full display with the challenge of using only his voice.
As for Vera Farmiga’s performance, had her character stayed true to itself, I would have bought it. But it didn’t and no amount of good acting could save it. I’m a fan of Farmiga and was glad to see her here. But it simply wasn’t, for me, one of her best performances. Again, this feels more like a popularity contest for the film than it is actual admiration for the acting in it.
Which brings us to Anna Kendrick in UP IN THE AIR. Again, this is clearly a popularity vote. While Ms. Kendrick was very good, it is not an award-worthy perf. It’s simply a nice role well-acted. Charming and safe.
And the trend continues with Mr. Reitman’s nom as best director. As stated above, any director who relies on four musical montages to tell his story has a ways to go before he earns himself an Academy Award nomination. Oh wait, I’m clearly wrong here as the nominations will attest. A lazy script with a somewhat lazy director = nomination. Is anyone getting the idea that I wasn’t crazy about this film and that all the hype and accolades surrounding it has frustrated me? Or have I been too subtle in my derision?
And while I love Stanley Tucci, I would rather have seen him get a Best Supporting Nom for JULIE AND JULIA. I found his murderous pedophile in THE LOVELY BONES to be a bit spot on. He just seemed to be a stereotype of the creepy pedophile neighbor. I would have suspected him even if nothing had happened! I suppose the fact that Tucci was almost unrecognizable is what nominating members are responding to. I thought the subtlety he exhibited alongside Meryl Streep was far more deserving.
As for Best Picture, well, this category has now become a joke. And throwing DISTRICT 9 in there, while no surprise, is another grand disappointment to me. What? You didn’t like DISTRICT 9 either, Hal?
Nope. I thought it was a terrific premise that was never explored in any depth and the entire film deteriorated quickly into a video game with one-dimensional, over-the-top, black-and-white characters. Cool effects, original setting, weak script. Setting a film in Johannesburg and comparing the treatment of aliens to apartheid is not enough if you don’t follow through with an actual story. It was the Emperor’s New Clothes for 2009 (for more thoughts on this, go HERE).
But on the bright side, I was glad to see films like A SINGLE MAN, AN EDUCATION, A SERIOUS MAN, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, UP, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (though, sadly, only for the obvious Best Animated Film category), THE WHITE RIBBON, and THE LAST STATION get some attention.
As always, so many great films are ignored come Awards season. And I am rarely satisfied. But I suppose the good part to that is I am rarely surprised to be disappointed. And it feeds my love of complaining. And it motivates me to want to do better, to dig deeper, to be more creative. Even if it means never getting nominated for an award.