Thursday, January 14, 2016

An Academic exercise

Do people hate Ridley Scott or what? The detail that leaped out at me when the Academy Award nominations were announced today was that Scott had not been nominated for Best Director, despite having made his most popular movie in ages, that had been nominated for Best Picture. Despite my sympathy for George Miller, I had expected Scott to be nominated and finally win in acknowledgment of a career that admittedly overwhelms Miller's, quantitatively at least. For that matter, I don't know if all the Mad Max films tip the balance against Alien and Blade Runner alone. And for another matter, I still haven't seen The Martian, so I can't say whether or not it's better than Fury Road, though in the category of direction I have my doubts. Scott's absence turns the Best Director race into a clash of spectacle specialists, with three underdogs waiting for the big dogs to cancel each other out. I suspect it's really a three-way race pitting Miller against defending champ A.G. Inarritu (The Revenant) and upstart Tom McCarthy (Spotlight). In the end, I think it'll be Miller and McCarthy. Only two directors have ever won Best two years in a row, John Ford in 1940-41 (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) and Joseph L.Mankiewicz (Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve), and there may be too much resentment of Inarritu's perceived mistreatment of his actors this time for him to join that club. That leaves a clash for voters between two opposed but not necessarily contradictory notions of what great direction is. The trend is on Miller's side because for the last three years Best Director has gone to a spectaclist or CGI wrangler (Inarritu for Birdman last year, Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity in 2013, Ang Lee for Life of Pai in 2012). Spotlight will be a rallying point for voters who prioritize the direction of actors over the construction of spectacle, and for those who found Fury Road pointless or repulsive. Since I consider the direction of action on the scale of Fury Road nothing to be sneered at -- the film's critics are the heirs of those who sneered at The General in its day -- and since I am inclined to see writing and acting as Spotlight's primary virtues, I hope to see Miller win Best Director if not Best Picture. In the latter category I wouldn't object to Spotlight winning, while I do object to the overly self-satisfied Spielberg/Coen Bros. collaboration Bridge of Spies getting a nomination that should have gone to Carol or The Hateful Eight.

Speaking of Tarantino, I was dismayed at the Academy's failure to nominate him for Best Original Screenplay, if only because he actually won the award for a vastly inferior film, Django Unchained.  Of the nominees I have to favor Spotlight slightly over Inside Out, though I have a bad feeling that the award will go to Straight Out Of Compton (haven't seen it) to appease those griping today over no one of color getting an acting nomination. In the Adapted Screenplay category Carol is an easy call for me, if only because that's the only nominee I've seen. What can I say? I'm a critic, not a reviewer, and I don't consider it my job as a movie blogger to see everything. There isn't enough time in a year, given that I watch too much TV and I'm reading more than ever.

I'm similarly handicapped when handicapping the acting contests. For Best Actor, DiCaprio in The Revenant is the only one I've seen, and I think him kind of overrated. I suppose I should root for Matt Damon in The Martian because his is the only completely fictional character in the running, and the Academy has to get over its recent preoccupation with real people -- they might get some more of that much-desired diversity if they would just make more stories up. In Best Actress I've seen Cate Blanchett in Carol and Jennifer Lawrence in Joy and would be satisfied to see either win, but both have won too recently for the Academy's comfort, I suspect. In Supporting Actor I've seen Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, who's very good but not so vital a support as Tom Hardy in Revenant or Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight. It's strange to see Ruffalo here since Spotlight is an ensemble film in which everyone, arguably, is a supporting actor, and yet Ruffalo has the most to do of any character and arguably deserved consideration for just plain Actor. Sylvester Stallone in Creed, playing Rocky Balboa for the first time for another writer, is a sentimental favorite, but despite having not seen it, I just can't see it. I'd be satisfied with either Hardy or Ruffalo but can see Rylance sneaking through. If he does, assume he's actually winning for Wolf Hall. The guy who's really missing here is Walton Goggins for The Hateful Eight. In Supporting Actress we have the continuing controversy of Rooney Mara in Carol and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl being relegated to this category when people consider theirs lead roles. Their rivals are Rachel McAdams, who made no really memorable contribution to Spotlight, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who's really a disgusting cipher at the heart of The Hateful Eight, and Kate Winslet, whose work in Steve Jobs I haven't seen. Of this field, I favor Mara, whether this designation is what she really deserves or not.

The Oscars prove nothing, of course, but the nominations and final awards draw out people's opinions about the relative merits and faults of the year's Hollywood movies, and those are worth debating. In particular there are people who despise Fury Road who, if they'll excuse the idiom, need to be slapped down for their reverse-philistinism. To despise George Miller's achievement because it's too violent, or because it's mere action, is tantamount to reducing cinema to a recording medium for fine writing or fine acting instead of recognizing it as a visual medium above all. There are films elevated to greatness purely by writing or acting, but they are not the greatest films, and in any event I don't see any of them competing this year with a movie that is one of the greatest action films ever made. Remember that I won't mind Spotlight winning, and I'll even take The Revenant, and I also regret Carol not getting the shot it deserved, but if George Miller doesn't get Best Director there is no justice in Hollywood. The point of talking about the Oscars is saying something like that.


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen fury road and have no intention of seeing it. I am simply sick of retreads. Mad Max was done to death in its heyday and the story, in my opinion, doesn't deserve to keep limping along. My feeling is that the decision-makers in Hollywood are no longer willing to take any kind of real risk, so rely on "ideas" which they perceive as already having a pre-sold market. What probably needs to happen is that Hollywood needs to be shut down until the current generation of decision makers have gone to their rest. By then, perhaps there will be a new generation of talented, creative and original people at the helm.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your loss. There was actually considerable doubt about a Mad Max movie being pre-sold, given that superheroes were the flavor of the month,it had been 30 years since the last one and the new one had to do without Mel Gibson. Yes, it looks like the last two films (Mad Max itself, of course, was on a lower order of fantasy)but there's still more visual originality in it than in any other action movie. I know it's probably an unfair question, but what might a "creative and original" movie look like now? It's easy to say you can't know until you see it and like it, but I suppose the real question is: what kind of stories would you like to see that aren't getting made now?