Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker

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This is a daring and insightful speech given by Steven Soderbergh last week at SFIFF. It is one of the most perceptive and articulate commentaries on the state of cinema today and the difference between “cinema” and “movies.” For me, personally, it encapsulates so much of what I have been writing about for years and captures the very essence of why I started Off Leash Films and what I hope to achieve.

This speech comes at a perfect time for me as I have been engaged in conversation with a young filmmaker who recently commented on one of my older posts. The following is a response to several of his questions to me regarding editing choices I made on THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT and my approach and attitude toward making films and whether or not I consider the audience ahead of time:

Question: Hal, one question my friend, did you make the film for you or for the audience? That is what all filmmakers need to ask themselves. I agree with you, I need to see both films from beginning to end to judge and compare, also I’m sure the producers have taken away your characters and their emotions and made it all prokat – a recipe that works generally. I’m only saying I preferred the points where the film cut. The tightness of the shots and the fact that when it didn’t intercut it rounded up my emotional tension which is what I needed.

…I ‘m only young and learning and grown up with the fast cutting generation and think films like Amour are nerve wracking and should be respectful to the current audience and include editing – what is your view of films like Amour or Angelopoulos’s style? I love Fincher, hate Tarantino, love Attenborough, Altman, Nolan, Bergman… I love a good film, I don’t like self-indulgence and auteurs that do film only for themselves and just happen to have a good pr company behind them. I met Lars Von trier and he was horrible to us young students , full of pretentiousness and up his own. But I met Scorsese as well and he was amazing and helpful. It’s truth that I have learned from your site and take on board what you say about the intention. How do you know your intention? You shoot A and you edit B and on the way you might like C… is it always defined? Should it? If you were to do Plague again what would you do differently?

Answer: My answer is very simple: I don’t have an audience that is specific or makes any demands. I make films for myself WITH the knowledge that I am not so unique or unusual that I am going to alienate most or all of the human race. My audience are the people who will be moved and/or effected by my films and want to see more. Plain and simple. I am not a director for hire. If I were, then I would have to consider what the audience is that the producers want to reach if that is their goal. If I direct a pre-existing comic book or a James Bond film, then, yes, I must consider the audience. But if I’m making films that are an expression of who I am and tell the stories I have a need to tell and offer the experience that I want to put out there, then considering some non-existent audience makes no sense. The last thing I want to do is second-guess other people and decide what they might or might not like, what they might or might not “get.” Then I am not honoring anyone, least of all myself.

Hollywood has trained many filmmakers to think in terms of audience (males 16-25, for example). This has nothing to do with filmmaking for me. That is marketing and when marketing dictates what kind of films you make and how you are going to make them, the work itself becomes that much less personal and, as a result, that much less daring. Vittorio De Sica once said, “Art has to be severe. It cannot be commercial. It cannot be for the producer or even for the public. It has to be for oneself.” So I guess the question you need to ask is are you a director for hire or someone who has a vision they want/need to explore and share? Both are completely valid approaches. But they are not the same.

As for the directors you mentioned, AMOUR was one of my favorite films from last year. I love Haneke. I wouldn’t have changed a frame, not a beat. My other favorite from last year was the 3-hour cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET. The year before that TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA. So yes, I love Von Trier. And I don’t care whether he is a nice guy or not. That has no bearing on the effectiveness of his work for me. And you used the term “self-indulgence” negatively. Yet I think it’s a requirement for making any kind of art. Who are we supposed to indulge in making art if not ourselves? An audience? The audience finds the art, not the other way around. At least as I see it. Coppola is still one of my heroes and his approach to filmmaking now is absolutely thrilling to me. My favorite Coppola is still THE CONVERSATION. You like Bergman. He is one of my favorite filmmakers. He did NOT make films for an audience. An audience found his films. For him, it was about him and his actors telling stories. In a way that moved and excited them.

I think Theo Angelopolis’ LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST is one of the most beautiful and moving films I’ve ever seen. Yes, I get why some people find his films too slow, same with Tarkovsky films, but I adore them. They “speak” to me. They move me to tears, excite me in their artistry, in their ability to express and touch me. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, bores me now. He made 3 amazing films early on and the rest feel very empty to me. That does not mean they are empty, only empty to me. His recutting of ALIEN removed the very thing I found to be most effective and daring about his original cut. But several years ago he went back and “picked up the pace.” Shame. He didn’t even see what he had done and why it was considered so amazing by so many. He is a filmmaker whose instincts I no longer trust. I have met the man. I have had story meetings with him. He’s very nice. I enjoyed his company. But his ideas bore me, as do most of his films.

For me, THE PLAGUE needed to linger on the moments that resonated for me. That is the experience that I wanted to share. What happens in those moments and the feelings that come up for people experiencing that. However, it will not be the same experience for everyone. Another reason I do not consider the audience or allow them to dictate my creative decisions. I have no control over what individuals bring into the screening room with them. To try and second-guess that I see as a futile mission and one that has no appeal to me.

My desire, as well, with the editing of THE PLAGUE was to juxtapose certain images and themes, to suggest directly and subconsciously the connection between the kids and the adults. Every cut is made with purpose. Each has something to say, something that is nonexistent in the producers’ cut, which ONLY wanted to make a film with action and bloodshed. A killer-kid film. They wanted to answer as many questions as quickly as possible which, for me, reduces tension. That is something that I have no desire to be a part of. Nor do I find that to be effective in any meaningful way. I believe my cut is more frightening because of what it conjures up under the surface, those feelings that we don’t initially understand, but that rise to the surface nonetheless. I also believe that allows my cut to linger with its audience far longer than the other cut. But that is, as you know, also dependent on who is watching and what kind of experience they are open to. Again, something I have no control over nor do I have a desire to control.

You asked me what I would change if I could do THE PLAGUE again. Ironically, I would think less about audience reaction and more about what moved me personally. I would not have wasted precious energy on worrying about what others might think or how it fit into genre expectations. I would have made the film even more visceral, more abstract. I would have also trusted my instincts about the people I was working with and not talked myself out of taking the project elsewhere when I had the opportunity. And I would have never allowed myself to be talked (threatened) into miscasting the leads which, no matter how I cut the film, will always bog it down and dramatically lessen its impact. The film can never rise above the fact that they were miscast, that they were there to appease Sony’s marketing department despite the fact that they were not who or what we imagined in those roles, nor were they capable of pulling it off to the level that the film and story required in order to be what we intended and hoped the film would be.

There are so many quotes by so many artists that speak to me personally. They mirror my own feelings and articulate my own personal discoveries. They are also full of lessons and instigate thought. I want more from my films, both those I make and those I watch, than perhaps some others out there. That seems to be the case. But I also know that I am not “special.” There are so many people out there yearning and searching for the same artistic storytelling experiences that I am. Now maybe that’s not the majority of male 16-25 year olds (though it might be as so many films supposedly geared toward that audience still bomb), but I trust that what I want to say and how I want to say it has an audience. All I need do is be true to myself and follow my instincts and my passions. I feel no need to attract the largest audience possible. I am also not looking to make films for the studios or work with a budget of $200 million. So I have the luxury of not having to worry about such distracting things as what others might think and that someone might not like or respond positively to something I do. There are more than enough people who will have the opposite reaction, or simply their own complex reaction. I know what moves and effects me and that’s what drives me. I’ve written a fair amount about all this. You can find some of it at my production company site:

I suggest reading the list of quotes there as I have personally found so many of them to be inspiring and deeply insightful.

And some other blog posts I’ve written that may or may not be of interest to you. Either way, they do articulate in more detail what I have been trying to say above. And probably more accurately. If you want to read them, they are here:

Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker

Favorite & Least Favorite Films of 2011

As always, I wait till long after awards season to post my faves and least faves. That gives me time to see as much as possible (but, alas, never everything) so that my list is fairly well-rounded given the choices of available films out there from the selected year. Oftentimes, this means waiting for a DVD or Blu-ray release to catch up with those titles that either had a short theatrical run or no theatrical run! As with all such lists, I reserve the right to add titles as I catch up with those handful of films that I hope to see but have as yet not managed. For the moment, the films I still have to catch up with that I know of and that stand a chance of appearing somewhere on this list are: THE BEAVER, THE DEBT, LE HAVRE, A SEPARATION, UNDEFEATED. I’m sure there are others, but these are the ones that are currently on my radar.

So let’s start with the big category first. My Favorite Films released in 2011. Most categories I offer alphabetically, but this category I will offer in order of preference, starting with my absolute favorites up top. Each title is followed by year released and a rating on a scale of 0-10, 10 being the best. I also don’t limit my lists to a specific number of films. Never understood the point of that.

How do I choose favorites and least favorites? It’s a combination of things and, like all lists, it is a very personal reflection of my tastes and reactions. I base my choices on visual craftsmanship, writing, performance, mood, tone, originality, emotional poignancy, self-expression, poetry, theme, creative choices, fearlessness and honesty. It is rare that I find myself responding to the most financially successful films or even the most popular films. Not that I have anything against films that attain either one of those particular successes, but quite often my definition of what makes a film successful and effective varies greatly from the public at large. I’m a demanding audience member who knows what I like and why. That said, there is not a genre I do not embrace. All I ask is that it have a vision behind it.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Favorites Films of 2011:

TREE OF LIFE, THE (2011) 11/10
MELANCHOLIA (2011) 10/10
MARGARET (2011) 10/10
CERTIFIED COPY (2010-US release 2011) 10/10
TAKE SHELTER (2011) 9/10
SHAME (2011) 9/10
JANE EYRE (2011) 8/10
CORIOLANUS (2011) 8/10
TYRANNOSAUR (2011) 8/10
SKIN I LIVE IN, THE (2011) 8/10
MEEK’S CUTOFF (2011) 8/10
PARIAH (2011) 8/10
BEGINNERS (2011) 8/10
WARRIOR (2011) 8/10
IRON LADY, THE (2011) 8/10
DRIVE (2011) 8/10

Favorite TV Films/Mini-Series from 2011 (alphabetical):

DOWNTON ABBEY SEASON 2 (2011 – BBC Mini-series) 9/10
MILDRED PIERCE (2011) 10/10
SHADOW LINE, THE (2011 – BBC Mini-series) 10/10

Also recommend/above average from 2011 (alphabetical):
These films did not hit the necessary level to attain my favorites of the year, but they all had something above average to offer, even though they may also have shown somewhat larger flaws. Luckily, those flaws were not big enough to keep the films from standing out for me and for me to feel comfortable recommending them as “good.”

ALBERT NOBBS (2011) 7.5/10
ARTIST, THE (2011) 7/10
ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011) 7.5/10
50/50 (2011) 7/10
HELP, THE (2011) 7/10
IN A BETTER WORLD (2010 – 2011 U.S. release)  7.5/10
LIKE CRAZY (2011) 7/10
MARGIN CALL (2011) 7/10
MONEYBALL (2011) 7.5/10
OF GODS AND MEN (2010 – 2011 U.S. release) 7.5/10
POETRY (2010 – 2011 U.S. release) 7.5/10
PUTTY HILL (2011) 7.5/10
RAMPART (2011) 7/10
RUM DIARY, THE (2011)  7.5/10
THING, THE (2011) 7/10
TRUST (2010 – 2011 U.S. release) 7/10
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) 7/10

Favorite Older Films Watched For First Time (alphabetical):

BRØDRE (2004- BROTHERS) 8/10
LINEUP, THE (1958) 9/10

Most Disappointing Films of 2011 (alphabetical):
These are film that I, for one reason or another, had higher hopes for. Perhaps it’s a film by a filmmaker I have liked in the past. Or perhaps word-of-mouth among my friends was very strong. Or maybe the film was based on other material I had been fond of. Either way, these films did not live up to my expectations of what they could have been or should have been. Therefore, I left the experience disappointed and dissatisfied. In some cases, immensely so, as my ratings will dictate. 

ANOTHER EARTH (2011) 5/10
CARNAGE (2011) 5/10
DESCENDANTS, THE (2011) 4/10
SOURCE CODE (2011) 3/10
SUPER 8 (2011) 4/10

Least favorites of 2011 (alphabetical):
These are the films that I found to be truly awful. Films that, despite quite possibly the best intentions, did not work for me on any level. For the most part, these films failed on all or most of the above-mentioned qualities that I look for from any cinematic, storytelling experience. 

HANNA (2011) 2/10

I’m not going to go into detail about why I liked or disliked each and every film, but I will make comments here on some of them. Many of these comments were simply quick blurbs I posted to Facebook at the time of viewing.

Terence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE is easily the best American film I’ve seen in decades. Well, at least right up there with Malick’s other films. A filmmaker committed to his vision, to film as poetry, as music, as a sensory experience not confined by formula or a need to elucidate. It is a film of great emotional depth and the purest form of cinema. This is what I live for.

MELANCHOLIA is that rare cinematic experience that can only flourish in the hands of a filmmaker who has wholly embraced his unique vision of the world and is relentlessly invigorated by his own sense of daring exploration. MELANCHOLIA is also, oddly enough, Lars Von Trier’s most accessible film in quite some time. I’m obviously a fan of the director, even his most challenging works resonate with me. MELANCHOLIA is a staggeringly raw emotional journey that exists in a world of metaphor; the outer sci-fi elements serve the inner journey of the characters. Fearless performances alongside fearless filmmaking and Von Trier has forged a film outlining the devastating emotional impact of depression. It is both frightening and enlightening. And it is, for anyone who has ever personally experienced depression, brutally honest. What more could we ask of any filmmaker?

TAKE SHELTER is a film that has been haunting my thoughts ever since I watched it. Dreamlike, eerie, unsettling, mesmerizing. Michael Shannon has always been good at playing guys just a little “off” and he does so again here, but with a wonderfully sympathetic edge. And Jessica Chastain, who seems to have gone from anonymity to stardom in a single year, is absolutely a gem to watch. Not to mention possibly the most beautiful woman ever to grace the silver screen. I really dug this film. As always, avoid reading plot descriptions.

This newest adaptation of JANE EYRE is a stunning, moody piece of filmmaking. I was quite surprised. I had heard good things, but I am always skeptical of new adaptations of great works we’ve seen adapted to death (and oftentimes to horrendous effect). While there’s no doubt this film would have benefitted greatly from a running time of more than 120 minutes, what’s here is moody, creepy, unsettling and beautifully acted. This is NOT your sigh-inducing, romantic Hollywood interpretation of JANE EYRE. I cannot speak to its faithfulness as an adaptation as there is a lifetime passed between myself and the novel, but as a film I can say with complete assuredness that it has a hell of a lot to offer. Mia Wasikowska is fantastic and an inspired bit of casting. Michael Fassbender might be physically wrong for the part (i.e. too handsome), but he doesn’t let that stop him from delivering a passionate and tormented performance. The cinematography by Adriano Goldman is spectacular and not at all flashy or slick, but stark, atmospheric and inspired. And the sound design and score enhance the proceedings with great care and nuance. Directed with meticulous attention to detail and performance by Cary Fukunaga –who gave us the terrific film SIN NOMBRE– this interpretation of JANE EYRE is a minor revelation. One only wishes it had been a miniseries so that we could of had more of it.

Steve McQueen’s SHAME is one of those rare films that dares to take a look at sexual addiction with a raw, non-judgemental eye. It’s a film of deep anguish and Michael Fassbender’s fearless performance is at the heart of it. McQueen’s direction is incredibly confident and challenging and he conveys a world of deep inner torment both with his camera and a true understanding of the available depths of his actors. Like most NC-17 films, I question the necessity of the rating, but it may be the emotional content that pushed the ratings board over the edge.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. I loved this film. The look, the performances, the building dread… Olsen’s performance is simply terrific and heightens the proceedings quite intensely. The film also has a structure that moves back and forth in time, which is a device I love when used well (as it is here) and its uncompromising effectiveness is what makes this film such a tense, psychological journey. I’m always horrified to read critics like Roger Ebert claim that the film would have been better served had it been told linearly. Sorry Roger, this is not a film for people who can’t put two and two together and get four. The film is not a complex puzzle. It’s not confusing. It simply knows how to let the events unfold in such a manner as to create a genuine atmosphere and to up the stakes as the story progresses and more details are revealed. At the end of the day, this is a character piece and it effected me quite deeply. Not in a weepy, Hollywood sort of way, but in a “what’s this wriggling around in my gut” sort of way. And while there are elements of the storytelling that will undoubtably piss some people off (along the lines of what the director chooses NOT to show us), it’s exactly the kind of filmmaking and storytelling I admire. While some may see it as a cop-out or even a lack of storytelling, I see it as a filmmaker who knows how to get under his audience’s skin with no intention of healing any open wounds the film may leave.

How did the film WARRIOR slip through the cracks? Thankfully, Nick Nolte received a well-deserved Oscar nom and the film is back on some radars. Director Gavin O’Connor –who gave us the entertaining Kurt Russell film MIRACLE– has made a terrific film here that seems to have been met with mixed reviews. I don’t understand why. This is an incredibly effective movie, well written with powerful performances by Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nolte. In the hands of a lesser director, this film could have been schmaltzy and predictable. But in O’Connor’s hands, it’s incredibly human and driven by character and emotion while also offering insight into working-class America in a country pummeled by recession and war. And though I’m not a fan of mixed martial arts fighting, I was riveted and on the edge of my seat. This is a stellar film.

Hoyte van Hoytema, the film’s DP, describes the feel of director Tomas Alfredsson’s new work perfectly, “It is a melancholic world set in small rooms, drenched in nicotine and bureaucratic sweat.” Highly condensed compared to both miniseries and book, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a taught, moody film. It can also be immensely confusing as it twists and turns down psychological halls and untrustworthy corridors to the point where sheer frustration may set in. And that’s good, cause our characters are mostly living in a world that does not reveal itself easily. This is a film of images, of moments and looks, of people who watch and listen, but rarely talk. Not a film for those who need to feel caught up with the plot at all times. But for the rest of us, it’s rather exciting.

I love old Almodovar. You know, the pre-WOMEN ON A VERGE stuff: LAW OF DESIRE, MATADOR, WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS… There was a period post-WOMEN where I lost interest in him as a filmmaker for about 10 years. Not that the films were bad, per se, but they were missing something for me. And then, Almodovar returned to form. Or maybe something in me changed. Whatever it was, I’ve really been enjoying Almodovar again. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is no exception. And how great to see Antonio Banderas back where he belongs! SKIN is playful, twisted and dark in a way that only Almodovar could blend together so magically, so disturbingly. It’s a wonderful genre piece that has its author’s confidence and experience written all over it.

CORIOLANUS is one of Shakespeare’s works I have not read nor have I seen it performed. So I cannot comment on the adaptation. But what I can say is that I found the film gripping and the performances unique and powerful. I REALLY enjoyed this film and loved the contemporary Serbian/Rome setting and politics. Someone else will have to be the judge of whether or not it honors the original work, but this was easily one of the better films I’ve seen his year. I thought Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus was an emotionally complex character. Very rich. And, if nothing else, we get to see the impeccable, stunning-beyond-words Jessica Chastain once again (she’s in everything this year!).

All these years and roles later and Meryl Streep still manages to be a revelation. She even effected sympathy from me for a figure I consider one of the most destructive political forces in modern social politics and the birth-mother of today’s conservative malformation (with Ronald Reagan being her sinister political spouse and patriarch of this draconian movement). The other surprise THE IRON LADY had in store for me was the assured cinematic hand with which director Phyllida Lloyd tackled the subject matter. In truth, I was prepared for another star-studded made-for-TV-movie. But Lloyd’s approach was anything but. Creative and effective and never talking down to its audience, THE IRON LADY is a solid film suffering very little from the usual pitfalls and obvious machinations of the Hollywood biopic. And Streep reminds us that doing a great impersonation of a public figure is not the same thing as acting. Streep’s performance comes from a place of great depth, a craft and insight rarely offered by today’s Hollywood movie stars.

Like all Kelly Reichardt films, MEEK’S CUTOFF is a slow, methodical film that builds internally and culminates in a rich, visceral mood that brings home the life or death veracity of the story’s setting. Not for the impatient. As always, Michelle Williams is great. As is the rest of the cast, which includes the ineffable Bruce Greenwood.

BEGINNERS. Not only was it wonderful to see my friend’s son Keegan play the young Ewan McGregor, but the film itself I found to be very moving. I particularly appreciated the brevity of dialogue and the emotional landscape that was created through image, performance and the choice of engaging us in a non-linear narrative. Bravo.

Todd Haynes’ MILDRED PIERCE is an incredible piece of cinema. Thank the world for the creation of the mini-series. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Michael Curtiz-directed version of this story and I still am. Luckily, these two films are completely different animals that both hold up fantastically under close scrutiny. I’ve always been a huge fan of Haynes –every film he’s done– but this one may be his masterpiece. Or, at the very least, it’s a grand testament to a director that grows in leaps and bounds with each film he makes. And that’s saying something given Haynes’ astounding and complex body of work. The writing, directing, acting, design, cinematography, editing, score, wardrobe, hair… Everything is in top form. An edge-of-your-seat emotional cinematic experience. Very powerful stuff on so many levels.

THE SHADOW LINE, one of the best BBC mini-series I’ve ever seen. Taut, intense, scary, exciting, thrilling… All these adjectives and many more apply. Including incredibly well-written and acted. Across the board. The first episode was good, but it was the second that made it impossible for me to turn away. I watched the last 5 episodes (of 7) back to back in one sitting. I literally could not stop.

I really enjoyed ALBERT NOBBS. Glenn Close is, indeed, terrific in the lead role. It’s a touching and detailed performance. That said, the film still asks us to stretch the realm of believability a bit as neither Close nor Janet McTeer are actually believable as men. In fact, McTeer looks like your average Hollywood lesbian. Close is more of an odd bit of androgyny, though unique and infinitely human. If you can get past that one small hitch and go with the story, it’s a sweet, endearing and heartfelt ride with a very unique tone and flavor. And this continues my Mia Wasikowska film festival (JANE EYRE). As always, she’s wonderful, as is the rest of the supporting cast. The film does a nice job of setting up a world where even people who are not outwardly wearing “disguises” are still not truly showing the world who they really are or what they’re really up to. One need not dress up like the opposite sex to have societal facades.

About halfway through ANOTHER HAPPY DAY, I wasn’t sure if I was, ultimately, going to like the film. It’s uneven at times and some of the side characters (the sisters, in particular) seemed oddly cartoonish to me in a way that unbalanced the narrative. But as those characters drifted into the shadows and others emerged, I found myself effected by much (though not all) of what was taking place in this film. Part of it reminded me of my own youth in the character played by Ezra Miller. The other in the daughter surprisingly well-played by Kate Bosworth. I understood them both more than I care to admit (but just did). It was also great to see Ellen Barkin carry a film again and Ellen Burstyn is always a joy to watch. It was also nice to see George Kennedy! It’s been a while… The film has its flaws, there’s no question, and it can be (appropriately) frustrating at times, but my feelings of compassion, rage, resentment and sadness where genuine enough. With so many films out there “indicating” emotions (THE DESCENDANTS?) rather than actually experiencing and communicating them, I have to give this film credit for tapping into quite a few. Again, it’s not always successful in every moment, but the ones that work, work well. There’s a sincerity to the film that I admire and respect. ANOTHER HAPPY DAY may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it’s a theme we’ve seen before and even recently, but this particular film finds its own way into the subject matter. It would also make a very appropriate double bill with WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, also starring Ezra Miller. There are some serious thematic similarities. But make sure to have your anti-depressents standing by…

50/50. A good film. Not a masterpiece, but effective. I was worried about watching it so close after my dog Gus’ cancer-scare and I was right to be! Was probably a bit more emotional watching it than I might have been otherwise :) The film has some genuinely nice moments. And a dog named Skeletor.

A DANGEROUS METHOD is a fascinating film. I didn’t love it, but I liked it quite a bit. To witness the birth of psychoanalysis and the neurosis, complications, theories and vast attempts at comprehending how our inner thoughts and experiences manifest is beyond fascinating. At once a history lesson and a love story, neither is relayed to us as simple or pedestrian. Fassbender is terrific, as is Knightly who really put herself out there on a limb and has received some negative criticisms from folks who seem to have been incapable of separating their discomfort in watching her, from the performance she was actually giving. Sure, Knightley’s no Meryl Streep, but her performance does not deserve mockery. Based on a play (adapted from a book), the film is unusually talky and restrained for a Cronenberg film, but it’s to the director’s credit that he showed such restraint and understood that this is a film largely ABOUT talking. It’s also a film that epitomizes Cronenberg’s fascination with psychology, psychosis, sexuality, neurosis… The list goes on. It’s as if the characters in this film were studying and deciphering Cronenberg’s work while he was studying and deciphering theirs. It certainly shines a light on what has drawn Cronenberg to explore the stories he has and makes them that much richer as a result.

THE HELP. I actually liked this film. I was not sure I was going to (I have low tolerance for anything too saccharine). But the performances are too good to be ignored. Now I do have to say that I thought the last half hour of the film wrapped too many story lines up in nice little (unnecessary, obvious and pandering to the lowest common denominator) ribbons. And I thought, as good a performance as it was, that Bryce Dallas Howard’s character was a little too villainous and hackneyed for my tastes. Though I know there were, indeed, people like that and worse, they loose their power for me as characters in a story when presented in such simple, black and white terms. But the over all story held me and moved me and the conviction of the performances (yes, including Emma Stone’s) made it more than a worthwhile viewing experience. And to see Cicely Tyson again. How I love her…

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. I enjoyed this film. And yes, Michelle Williams’ perf is at the heart of it. It’s why the film works as well as it does. The director has done a lot of British TV dramas and this film feels like a solid (but not stellar) BBC film with an exceptional performance. The story is very sweet and touching. It’s enjoyable. But it’s the amazing vulnerability in Williams’ performance that elevates the film. And unlike my friend Joe, I thought Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier was spot on (sorry, Joe, I thought he nailed it). My only real complaint would be the musical numbers that bookend the film. They are the only moments when Williams is NOT convincing as Marilyn. In these scenes, it appears more obvious that she doesn’t “move” like Monroe. It’s an odd choice to open the film with such a moment as it makes the hurtle to believing her that much more difficult. Thankfully, she is incredible throughout the rest of the film until the director, again, decides to close the film on a less than convincing moment. Particularly when the film already has a wonderful ending that should have been followed by credits and, instead, goes to this extraneous musical number that feels more like a screen test than something that was meant to be seen by an audience.

Oren Moverman’s RAMPART is a terrific character study of the generations-old mentality that allowed the Rampart division of the LAPD to become as corrupt and brutal as the “criminals” which they were supposedly out to stop. Woody Harrelson’s performance is gripping, grotesque and frighteningly human. And the impressive supporting cast does more than hold their own. RAMPART is not a perfect film, but it is a very compelling one. Moverman’s visual style effectively illuminates the inner life of Harrelson’s character and the downward spiral he is on. Dedicated to the many people who suffered at the hands of LAPD’s Rampart Division.

TRUST is a very sincere film. It is also quite moving at times. And, in may ways, difficult because of its subject matter. Directed by David Schwimmer, the film looks a bit like a TV movie. That keeps the film from being a particularly interesting film from a cinematic standpoint. What the film does have going for it are some moments that feel quite authentic to some of the dilemmas, emotions and hurdles that face a family dealing with the rape of a minor. Schwimmer is apparently no stranger to the subject matter having worked with The Rape Foundation for over 15 years (as well as being on their board for 10) and I believe his experience has allowed him to make a film that comes from a very honest place. Viola Davis is wonderful (as always) in a smaller role and Liana Liberato as the daughter is truly worth watching. Clive Owen and Catherine Keener also both turn in very good performances. Might be a good idea to show this film to your teenage kids. As well as to those parents unaware of the true potential for danger their kids may face while innocently surfing the net.

Chang-dong Lee’s film POETRY is a terrific film grounded by Jeong-hie Yun’s incredible performance. The film is not particularly cinematic, but what it lacks in the visual realm it more than makes up for in story, character and consequence. While I wasn’t as bowled over by this film as many, I still found it very engaging and, at times, quite moving. It’s a fascinating portrait that appears deceptively simple at first, but grows steadily into something of considerable substance.

Steven Spielberg’s ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN is an assault on the senses. It’s like a roller coaster that just won’t stop even after you’ve thrown up and passed out. If that sounds like fun to you, have at it. For me, there were long stretches where the action was so furious and over-the-top that I forgot I was actually watching a film with a plot (such as it may be). Not only are the characters consistently ten paces behind the audience, but it’s hard to care one way or another if they succeed in their mission or not. Perhaps all this is a result of Spielberg’s desire to make the ultimate 3D action film, but the only thing he succeeded in doing for me was to convince me that 3D can hurt more than it can help. In 2D, the film is interminable and relentless. It’s an exercise in tedium.

I was worried about ANOTHER EARTH when I first heard about it. There are some thematic similarities between this film’s concept and a series I’m developing. So I found out the story of the film long before seeing it to make sure the similarities weren’t too great. They’re not. So, sadly, I knew the whole plot and ending before seeing the film. So I can’t tell you how I might have responded to this film had I not known its course. As it stands, I thought the film okay at best. Cool concept. But the performances were not quite strong enough to pull me in. And the director’s visual approach used that low-budget, hand-held, poorly-lit style that rarely ever works for me. It’s catch-as-catch-can and it often creates a distance between me and the characters and events. Even though, I assume, it’s meant to have a pseudo-documentary feel, it’s a gimmick that rarely appeals to me unless applied through the hands of a master storyteller. I found the look to be ugly in a way that didn’t serve the story. I was too aware of the actors acting and the filmmakers filmmaking. All that said, there are certainly things to like about the film. Its concept, for one. The effects shots of the other earth. Even the dilemma the characters find themselves in is interesting. I like that it’s a character piece with a science fiction element. But the sci-fi itself isn’t the story, just the catalyst. That’s a plus for me. I also like that it shows a concept/character film can be made on the fly with very little money. I wish I just liked the film itself more.

THE DESCENDANTS. I wish I liked Alexander Payne more than I do. There are certainly things I respect about him. He hires many of my friends and acquaintances, for one. And he also turned down Tom Cruise for the Paul Giamatti role in SIDEWAYS. And he tries to make films that are about something. But his films ultimately play like TV movies. They’re like pebbles skipping over water. Except that pebbles eventually break the surface and plunge in. Payne’s films never do. They just keep riding the surface until the credits roll. And the one genuine moment in the whole film (by the wonderful actress Judy Greer), is misused as an opportunity for a cheap joke. A gag. Shameful. Yes, I thought Shailene Woodley as the older daughter was also good, but Payne cut away almost every time the truth of her character threatened to emerge. With all the depths of emotion teetering on the edge of potential, Payne seems to consistently back away from the ledge. He caters to those who would like to think they went swimming, when all they did was dip their feet in to see if it was too hot or too cold. And it’s always lukewarm.

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. Wish I liked this film more than I did. Its heart’s in the right place, and it certainly has a couple of touching moments, but I ultimately felt the film to be contrived. And the score by Alexandre Desplat (a composer I usually like) doesn’t help matters by being overly magical and sentimental. At least for my tastes. And the young actor, Thomas Horn, while certainly giving it 120%, was just never convincing to me. His character felt as contrived as the film’s rather unbelievable and somewhat forced plot. Very disappointing viewing experience given the director is Stephen Daldry. This is easily his least compelling, least challenging work to date.

I wish I liked Roman Polanski’s filmed take on the play GOD OF CARNAGE. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the play itself when it was here in Los Angeles. I heard a lot of great things about it, but I cannot comment on whether or not Polanski’s adaptation/vision of that play honors it or not. What I can say is that, though I thought the film had its moments, it didn’t work for me over all. I found it to be rather obvious. It was clear where it was heading from the moment the opening credits ended. No surprises, no revelations. I also wasn’t sold on all performances, though everyone had their moments, I still thought the characters obvious and contrived. Where the film DID work for me was in the early stages where I was feeling the dread of the situation and wished someone would make a move to avoid the social train wreck the characters were blindly heading into. But motivations were forced, in my opinion, and the destination overwrought and not all that interesting. For me. CARNAGE isn’t a bad film by any stretch, it’s just not one I much cared about and it’s the kind of tale that I feel I’ve seen a dozen times before and done much better (WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?).

What’s with all the rave reviews for SUPER 8? For me, it showed us just how far we’ve fallen. It takes the flavor of early Spielberg, Dante and Donner films (which some already dislike, though I am not one of those) and reminds us just how effects-obsessed we’ve become in lieu of actual storytelling. I cringe when I read “director J.J. Abrams teamed up with legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg to create this generation’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” or “one of the most balanced films the genre has seen in quite a long time.” Really? I must be getting old cause I thought it descended quickly into unintentional absurdity and ultimately kinda sucked.

As for the abysmal RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES —perhaps one of the worst films I’ve ever seen– I would send you to my blog post devoted to that atrocity titled RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence. Normally, I don’t like to outright “bash” a film as I know what it takes to actually make one, but this particular film was an exercise in ridiculously lazy writing and shockingly uninspired acting and directing.

Despite some of my complaints and disappointments (what’s an honest list without them?), 2011 was, ultimately, a rather good year for film. However, as is the norm, few, if any, of the best films were produced by American studios. Some found distribution in that arena, but few of the best were developed or funded there. Unfortunately, where filmmaking is concerned, Hollywood is one of the last places for truly gifted and visionary directors and writers to explore their craft and do their most original work. But thankfully, despite its popularity, Hollywood is not the only place where films are made. There’s a whole wide world out there engaged in the cinematic art of storytelling. We have a lot to look forward to.

Favorite & Least Favorite Films of 2011

Oscar Noms Tepid As Usual – Part 2

Let’s start this second part off by discussing some of the films and perfs that didn’t get nominated before we move on to more of the ones that did. I already talked about the travesty that is not nominating MELANCHOLIA for any awards. So let’s talk about TAKE SHELTER next. This incredible film by director Jeff Nichols not only deserved a script nod, but noms for actors Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. Now Chastain did get a nomination for her role in THE HELP, in which she was excellent. But it always seems that the Academy is more responsive to larger-than-life roles. Subtlety of performance is rarely recognized, unless it comes from someone they only think of as usually delivering bombastic perfs. As far as Chastain is concerned, I’m thrilled she’s nominated for anything as her body of work from this past year alone is nothing short of extraordinary. If it were me, however, her performance in TREE OF LIFE topped everything else she did and I would have nominated her for that above all others. I was blown away.

But back to TAKE SHELTER for a moment. Michael Shannon is not a household name, but he’s always been a terrific actor and this film is no exception. But there was no big studio behind this effort and, despite making many top 10 lists, the film has been ignored by the Academy in its entirety. If you missed his performance and this film. do yourself a favor and see it. Academy members clearly missed it. Either that, or they didn’t recognize what they were seeing.

I mentioned the film SHAME in Part 1. Here’s one of the most daring, intense, emotionally raw films of the year starring two terrific actors, Michael Fassbender (who, like Jessica Chastain, seemed to be in everything this year) and Carey Mulligan. Both deserved Oscar noms, particularly Fassbender who put himself out there in ways very few actors dared in 2011. Is it just that no one went to see this film? Or was director Steve McQueen’s film simply too raw and honest for Academy voters who would rather not be asked to look much deeper than THE DESCENDANTS for films about human beings? To me, that’s like trying to pass off  MANNIX as a hard-hitting TV series about intercity crime and law enforcement while ignoring THE WIRE.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. Easily one of the most intense films of 2011. Incredibly well acted, written and directed. Again, not a film with studio backing. There were some people who felt pretty certain that John Hawkes would get a nomination. He didn’t. When a film like this, that moves back and forth in time with such calculated grace is overlooked for editing while the tepid DESCENDANTS takes the nomination instead… What does this say about voters? It’s been suggested that too many Academy voters let their significant others cast votes for them. This must be the case since any editor who would overlook this film for some of the ones actually nominated, does not deserve the Academy membership they currently hold.

The fact that Tilda Swinton was overlooked for WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is another great loss. And again, this was another hard-hitting film that seems to have been ignored by Academy voters for far “easier” fare.

Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier. I actually thought Branagh did a spot-on job. It didn’t occur to me that it was an Oscar-worthy performance, but I cannot fault Branagh here for that.

Jonah Hill did a great job in MONEYBALL. Again, it’s not something I thought of as Oscar-worthy, but it was an excellent perf nonetheless.

Nick Nolte absolutely deserved this nomination in what was one of the more grossly underrated films of the year. I loved WARRIOR. And I would have nominated both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton for their perfs as well.

Christoper Plummer in BEGINNERS. Terrific film, terrific performance.

Max Von Sydow. One of my all-time favorite actors. And, while he did a nice job in EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, the film itself was so silly that it was hard for me to even take von Sydow’s character seriously. Again, no fault of the actor’s. No one could have played it better.

Bérénice Bejo was wonderful in THE ARTIST. And even though I thought she looked far too modern to be believable as a starlet of the era portrayed, she nonetheless turned in a terrifically charming performance.

Jessica Chastain in THE HELP. See above comments on that.

Melissa McCarthy in BRIDESMAIDS. She was certainly the best part of this film and I applaud her in giving such a no-holds-barred performance. The film itself didn’t do much for me and I’m horrified that it received a writing nomination, but I won’t argue that no one can shit in a sink like Melissa McCarthy.

Janet McTeer in ALBERT NOBBS. This is a tough one for me cause, while I like McTeer, I never bought her character as being able to pass for a man. McTeer seemed to me to clearly be a woman pretending to be a man. It was a stretch for me to believe no one around her would have been suspicious. She seemed like any lesbian I might see walking down my street on her way to The Grove. So while it is by no means a bad performance, it wasn’t believable in the way I assume it was meant to be. In some instances, I even felt like it was more a stereotype of how women think men act, but never really do. This is a performance that, for some reason, would have worked much better for me on stage than it did on film.

Octavia Spencer in THE HELP. Absolutely deserved. She helped make this movie more than it would have been otherwise.

As for Art Direction, I was sorry to see JANE EYRE excluded.

Cinematography. Oddly, I would not have given it to THE ARTIST as, as stated in part 1, I didn’t feel the look of the film captured the silent era. Other than being in black and white.

On the other hand, I am THRILLED to see Emmanuel Lubezki recognized for TREE OF LIFE.

And though I had some problems with the film, I thought Janusz Kaminski’s work in WAR HORSE was stunning.

I would have added TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and JANE EYRE into the mix. Very few films last year could match the cinematographic talents those two films displayed.

Happy to see, however, that JANE EYRE did get recognized for Costume design. But what a shame that actor Mia Wasikowska was overlooked as best actress. It was a terrific performance and a great bit of casting.

Once again, THE DESCENDANTS being nominated for best editing confirms my fears that the Oscars is more popularity contest than anything else. In the face of such impressive works of editing as TREE OF LIFE, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, CORIOLANUS,  DRIVE, and WARRIOR… How is this even possible? Even if it was simply THE DESCENDANTS over TREE OF LIFE. How do you even compare? There should be no contest here. And yet, the Academy voters celebrate mediocrity once again while all but ignoring greatness in their own field.

It is obvious by now that I’m no fan of THE DESCENDANTS :) But I do want to clarify as I’ve singled this film out to such a degree, that I don’t actually think this is an awful film. I just think it’s painfully average and not even slightly daring. It’s the public and critical reaction to the film, holding it aloft as some great and deep piece of filmmaking, that irritates and disappoints me to no end. Particularly when compared to works far more deserving of such praise and attention. Most years, there are films just like THE DESCENDANTS that I find to be tepid works that strike a chord in audiences. But I believe that chord is struck in people who do not ask much of their films. Or, perhaps, of themselves. And that is why it irks me so and receives such intense criticism from me. Had it been recognized as a moderately entertaining film, albeit with limited dimension, I would have no argument. But, like other films of years past such as CRASH, UP IN THE AIR, DISTRICT 9, BRAVEHEART and GLADIATOR, I find myself frustrated by the act of praising unexceptional filmmaking as exceptional.

And so, as I do most years, I will watch the Oscars with a mixed sense of nostalgia and disappointment, knowing all too well that Hollywood’s biggest night ultimately adds up to being a self-congratulatory party unintentionally detailing its members’ lack of vision or daring and showing once again what a long road filmmakers have to truly being recognized as artists and not just mild entertainers.

With a few exceptions, of course.

Oscar Noms Tepid As Usual – Part 2

Oscar Noms Tepid As Usual – Part 1

Anyone who knows me or has followed my posts knows that I am no fan of Award Ceremonies. And my expectations for the Oscars is at an all-time low so there’s very little they can do to surprise me. Which is different from disappointing me as I hold out vain hope that one day Academy members will evolve to a place where they recognize daring, challenging and creative cinema for what it is and stop celebrating mediocrity. I know, I know, this is the lie I tell myself so that I can move forward while still living and working in this town committed to the lowest common denominator.


So here’s my brief reaction to this year’s noms. I’ll start now on a positive note: TREE OF LIFE. Terence Malick’s cinematic masterpiece. Probably the greatest filmic work to come out of America in a decade. Whether or not you agree with that statement, there’s no denying that this is a film by a man who makes films from his heart, from his gut, from his own subconscious all the while taking great risks and pushing the medium itself to the very edge. If you are not inspired by what Malick is doing, then you probably thought THE DESCENDANTS was a deep film. Unfortunately for Malick’s contribution to American cinema, TREE is the dark horse in this race as it received the lowest number of votes for Best Picture of the nominees (along with the revoltingly bad EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE).

Which brings me to one of my great pet peeves. Alexander Payne. Critics love this guy. The Academy loves this guy. I find him to be, while not awful, incredibly bland. His films often touch on interesting subject matter, but never, ever, dip below the surface. His films are “deep” for people who don’t actually like to go deep. THE DESCENDANTS was an incredibly contrived film in my opinion. The only performance in the entire film that rang true for me was Judy Greer. And Payne relegated her to a joke. And while I do like watching Clooney, his performance felt somewhat detached to me. And why people are amazed that Clooney could play a husband and a Dad is beyond me. Why is this a stretch? It’s not. You’d think he was passing himself off as Margaret Thatcher. To nominate him as best actor is to disregard far stronger and soul-bearing performances given this year in much better, more sincere films. Again, I’m a Clooney fan. But this is not among his best work. For me, many of the performances in THE DESCENDANTS relied more on “indicating” than on “being.” And while that may not have been the experience of the actors themselves, it was my experience as an audience member. And I do applaud Payne for his subject matter choices and often his casting choices, but his films are directed like TV movies and manage to somehow make everything look ugly and drab in a way that never serves the story or characters. He is that filmmaker whose work is applauded by a public hungry for content, but ultimately without the desire to really try anything new or daring.

Glad to see Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS get some attention. It’s a good film. But let’s face it, it’s also quite fluffy. When Allen tackles anything heavier than this, the Academy has no idea what to do with it.

THE ARTIST. I’m glad that this film is getting some attention. That said, I thought the film was enjoyable but far from great. And while it may delight audiences unfamiliar with silent film (and a few others who love silent film so much that they can’t see past the film’s imperfections), I thought THE ARTIST did a disservice to the silent film era by suggesting that most silent films were fluffy little adventure pics, serials and romances. Given that the film is called THE ARTIST, it almost comes across as an ironic joke given the lack of true artistry depicted in the film when compared to the artistry that was actually taking place during the silent era. Not to mention THE ARTIST didn’t really feel or look much like a silent-era film to me (except in the most basic ways, but those didn’t hold up for me under close scrutiny) and the film used music from later periods as its soundtrack, which didn’t help.

HUGO. Moderately entertaining. Was bored by the first half (which may have been me distracted by the 3D). As always, the Academy celebrate Scorsese’s lesser works over his masterful ones. Again, sigh…

MONEYBALL. A very solid film. The writing, acting and directing were all top notch. And while it wouldn’t be a best film of the year for me, I still found it to be incredibly well-made, smart and entertaining.

WAR HORSE. Not as horrible as I’d heard, the film still shows that Spielberg doesn’t trust his material enough to let it speak for itself. Spielberg’s direction feels forced, like he’s trying too hard and, combined with Williams’ score, topples over the edge of sentimentality and dictated emotion in such a way as to actually diminish the impact of the story for me. But this is the kind of stuff Academy members eat for dinner and call fine dining. For me, it’s closer to the Olive Garden. That said, it’s a film I would have loved as a kid and I was able to appreciate moments on that level. And the fact that I don’t need much prodding to become emotionally invested in the well-being of animals didn’t hurt either. But at the end of the day, the film felt uncertain of itself and inconsistent to me. I can only imagine what a theater/film director like Julie Taymor might have brought to the table. I would have liked to have seen that.

THE HELP. Not surprising that this was nominated. It’s a film I liked for its performances despite a script that, ironically, given the subject matter, takes very few risks and sugarcoats many of the characters, either painting them as cartoon villains or letting them off the hook by having them magically turn into compassionate heroes by film’s end. But the cast is strong and they somehow manage to weather some moments of less-than-stellar writing and a script afraid to go to the daring places some of its characters do.

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. What was Stephen Daldry thinking? There is very little that is believable about this film. Or even very interesting. It’s another forced film with its heart in the right place but the pieces just never came together for me. And though the young lead gives it 120%, I never for a moment bought him as a kid with autism. Or even as a real kid. I found the plot to be ridiculous in a “feel good” way that simply reeked of schmaltzy Hollywood films past. This one belongs in the PAY IT FORWARD class. Except that it takes itself even more seriously. Ultimately, it’s a message film where the message is written in big bold letters from frame one. And then you have to sit there while the actors go through the motions. I hate to be so harsh, especially since, like I said, the film’s heart is in the right place, but there’s an insincerity to this film that unfortunately informs almost every frame.

As for directors, thank the lord Malick made the cut because there is nary a director here or abroad that could touch the level of talent and vision he displayed with TREE OF LIFE. Which just means he won’t win.

Michel Hazanavicius for THE ARTIST is not a surprise. And I’m okay with it. I’m not anywhere near as big a fan of the film as others, but it’s still quite entertaining and, though still targeting an audience that doesn’t respond well to challenges, very respectable.

Alexander Payne. Well, he’s always a favorite of voters, but to me he’s innocuous at best. Little-to-no visual sensibilities whatsoever. And he cuts away whenever an actor or character are in danger of dipping beneath the surface and actually getting in touch with something genuine. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that he’s probably got some great films sitting on his cutting room floor. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to see it. This means he’ll probably win. And if it isn’t Payne, it will be Hazanavicius, which I’d prefer.

Scorsese for Hugo is just another example of Hollywood telling its greatest directors that they don’t have to try too hard to get their attention. In fact, if they actually put themselves out there in a big way, they’re likely to be ignored. Not that HUGO’s a bad film. It’s not. And it’s a film that meant something to Scorsese clearly, and that I respect. And that he made a film somewhat out of what I imagine is his comfort zone. All positive stuff to be applauded. But compared to his entire body of work, HUGO just isn’t that far up there for me…

Woody Allen. Again, I’m glad he’s being recognized. Allen’s a great filmmaker and a great writer. He deserves any attention he gets. Allen is constantly making films, taking risks, and staying true to himself.

Actors… George Clooney: I like him. I didn’t think this performance was anything special. Certainly not award-worthy. He’s charming. He’s sincere. He’s smart. But under the direction of Payne, he will only be allowed to go so far. And for me, it’s not far enough. Especially given that Michael Fassbender isn’t nominated for SHAME, a performance that makes Clooney’s nomination seem downright diabolical. It certainly feels more based on Clooney’s popularity and likeability than on the depth of performance given. No offense to Clooney.

Demián Bichir. Nice performance in an average film, but it wasn’t quite award-worthy for me either. The film and the role-as-written never attained that level.

Jean Dujardin. Absolutely deserved. He was the best part of the film (along with his dog). A terrific performance through and through.

Gary Oldman. Also completely deserved. To walk into Alec Guinness’s shoes and do them justice? And to give us such a nuanced, subtle performance? Beautiful. This is a film that also greatly deserved its writing nomination. To take such a complex and vast story as TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and boil it down to a two-hour film without sacrificing the integrity or complexity of the work, while not dumbing it down or making it easy, wins both my respect and admiration.

Brad Pitt. He should have been nominated for TREE OF LIFE which I think was an even better performance, but he was terrific in MONEYBALL as well. Highly deserved.

Glenn Close. Even though I didn’t completely buy her as a man, I still thought the character she created to be absolutely mesmerizing.

Viola Davis. Incredible performance that aided in this average film rising above itself.

Rooney Mara. Still have to see the film.

Meryl Streep. Hated the real Margaret Thatcher, love Meryl Streep. This performance once again shows us that very few American actors, particularly stars, ever attain the level of immersion that this woman does. She is the best there is. Deserved.

Michelle Williams. Always love her. This was a thankless role with built-in strikes against it and Williams pulled it off. If only they’d remove the musical bookends, this would be a flawless performance. Not just because she captured something innate about Marilyn, but because she brought a humanity to the role that would have remained an impersonation in the hands of a lesser actor.

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention that the biggest travesty of the awards this year in that MELANCHOLIA received absolutely no nominations. One of the most daring, insightful, honest films of this year (or any other). Lars Von Trier was snubbed. Perhaps it was his Hitler comments at Cannes that lost it for him. That would be a shame and a gross overreaction to those statements which, while both provocative and uncomfortable, seemed to have been somewhat misunderstood. To paint a picture of Hitler as a human being one can sympathize with is just too much for most people to accept or even consider. And it’s clear that Von Trier himself was uncomfortable and attempting to lighten the mood and talk his way out of an unintentional corner, only to dig himself in deeper. Add the language barrier and he was doomed from the get-go. And the harsh reality that Kirsten Dunst wasn’t nominated for her work in MELANCHOLIA only showcases Academy voters’ deep inability to truly understand what an actor can offer us of themselves. No script nom, no director nom either… This film’s absence from the nominations is a glaring signpost to just how limited Academy voters are. And why it will continue to be difficult for true film artists –both behind and in front of the camera– to ever truly get the recognition they deserve for the depths of their souls they are willing to lay out for us.

Oscar Noms Tepid As Usual – Part 1