All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

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Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

Oscar Elitist

The Academy Awards are this Sunday.  If you’re not excited, it’s your own damn fault.

The Oscars are perennially the most-viewed TV entertainment event of the year—more popular than the Grammys, Emmys or VMAs—yet they are also, unfailingly, the most criticized.  People carp about who was “snubbed” the moment the nominations are announced.  The show itself is derided for its bloated length and nauseating air of self-importance.

And again and again, the Academy is scorned for being out-of-touch with the typical American moviegoer, ignoring most (if not all) of the year’s biggest blockbusters in favor of low-grossing independent films that, in many cases, never even open in theaters outside major U.S. cities.

Rarely has this been truer than this year, and never have I been happier for it.  This has been a great year for the Oscars.  It’s just a shame more Americans don’t have the good sense to realize it.

It is very curious, indeed—and more than a little depressing—that 2014’s eight Best Picture nominees comprise one of the strongest fields in memory, yet also one of the least-seen.  Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is far and away the most lucrative in the group, having grossed more than $300 million in the United States alone.  However, the remaining seven nominees have earned less than $300 million put together, dragging the per-film average in this category down to its lowest figure in nearly a decade.

In truth, this economic fact does not bother me all that much.  To be honest, I hadn’t the slightest idea how any of the Oscar movies have done at the box office until I looked them up.  Except to write this column, I really couldn’t care less.

And why is that, ladies and gents?  Because there is absolutely no correlation between how much money a movie makes and whether that movie is any good.  I’ve never once inferred a movie’s quality based on how many people go to see it.  I don’t understand why anybody would.  As a strategy, it would only begin to make sense if all of America had similar tastes and could distinguish, as a group, between worthwhile entertainment and utter dreck.

It’s an absurdity on its face.  It would be like conducting a nationwide poll to determine which type of salsa to put on your tacos, or asking ten random strangers at the mall what you should get your wife for her birthday.  Are you really that susceptible to the whims of the masses?

This is not to suggest that gazillion-dollar commercial behemoths can’t also be excellent films from time to time.  Nor would I ever want to deny someone an enjoyable evening at the movies.  After all, it is equally true that a great many small-budget art house offerings are every bit as boring and stupid as they look.  When I say there is no relationship between money and quality, I mean exactly that.

All I want is to rebuke this idea that the Academy’s apparent disinterest in box office success is inherently a bad thing.  It’s not.  I’m positively thrilled that the Oscars take themselves seriously enough not to care whether all—or any—of America agrees with them about what constitutes great cinema.  I’m delighted that this has made the Oscars as “irrelevant” as they’ve ever been.  If it means honoring a slew of films like the ones under consideration this Sunday, I hope the trend continues indefinitely.

For instance, buried among the more talked-about works on this year’s roster is a little movie called Whiplash.  It was filmed in 19 days on a $3.3 million budget by a little-known 29-year-old director named Damien Chazelle, and it’s one of the most exhilarating movies I’ve seen in years.  It’s a simple story about a teenage conservatory student who wants to be the greatest jazz drummer in the world, and a teacher who knows virtuoso talent when he sees it.

The twist—and the film’s mad stroke of genius—is that the instructor is a raging psychopath who conducts band practices like the CIA conducts interrogations.  He is played by J.K. Simmons as a petty tyrant who justifies his extreme behavior as a way to weed out the true, committed artists from those who “don’t have what it takes.”

But what really makes Whiplash so exciting and so frightening is how the drummer, played by Miles Teller, shows that he may well be the diamond in the rough that Simmons has been searching for, and is prepared to endure the abuse—physical and psychological—that is required to prove it.  The movie’s final sequence—a compression of raw kinetic energy of jaw-dropping skill and intensity—brings all its threads together in a manner that is simultaneously funny, absurd and altogether electrifying.

Whiplash is clearly one of the gems of 2014 cinema, yet hardly anyone has seen the damned thing.  It’s as satisfying a theatergoing experience as one can hope for, yet precious few are even aware of its existence.

What a shame that a movie with such potentially broad and deep appeal has been relegated to the fringes of the national consciousness.  And what a tremendous relief that Academy voters nominated it for Best Picture anyway, thereby assuring it a considerably higher visibility in the long run than it otherwise would have had.

In a just world, Whiplash would not need an Oscar boost in order to garner the wide popular acclaim that it deserves.  Nor would Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, an utterly delightful confection whose lead performance by Ralph Fiennes is one of the funniest you’ll see.  Nor would Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which deftly and compellingly shows how the particular racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., can be traced at least as far back as the Deep South in 1965, leaving us to wonder how we will resolve our present conflicts without a figure like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the way.

But we don’t live in a just world, so instead we depend on the Academy to tell everyone which movies they should seek out.  (We also depend on critics and bloggers, but who ever listens to them?)

The Academy does not always do this job well.  Those who are still sour about this year’s omissions of, say, DuVernay for director or The Lego Movie for animation can rest assured that worthy films and performances have been overlooked every year since the dawn of cinema, often inexplicably.  As widely noted, this year’s nominations contain an appallingly low number of non-white people, but then again, this has pretty much always been the case.

But on the curve on which Hollywood must always be graded, this year’s Oscar harvest is markedly stronger than usual, and a validation of the Academy’s worth in anointing the year’s best movies, even if the rest of the country disagrees with them.

The purpose of the Oscars is not to be popular.  It’s to be right.

Political Sniping

Warning:  The following contains spoilers about the movie American Sniper.  Proceed with caution.

Reading the various reactions to Clint Eastwood’s new movie American Sniper, two facts immediately leap out.

First:  No one can seem to agree on the movie’s point of view vis-à-vis the Iraq War.  Some say it’s neutral or apolitical, while others consider it a full-throated endorsement of the theory that American involvement in Mesopotamia was (and is) a good idea.

And second:  In nearly every analysis of what American Sniper is about—and whether it’s any good—the conclusion perfectly matches the politics of the person making the analysis.  Generally speaking, those who opposed the Iraq War also dislike the film, while those who considered the war necessary and just think the movie is great.  Those whose politics are ambivalent, private or nonexistent fall somewhere in between.

Joined with the debate about the movie’s version of Iraq is the depiction of its protagonist, Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL who killed more Iraqis than any other sniper and, as a consequence, spent the rest of his life struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder.  That is, until he was killed by a fellow veteran who was, himself, stricken with PTSD.

Does American Sniper portray Kyle as a pure All-American Hero and—far more interestingly—should it have?  Here, too, individual answers seem to track with whatever people happened to already think about these subjects.

What is clear, in any case, is that Kyle is given highly sympathetic treatment by Eastwood and is meant to be shown, in the end, as a Good Guy.  What is more, the movie is ultimately meant to be about Kyle and Kyle alone—his experience, his struggles—and is not necessarily interested in the world that is going on around him.

Is this a valid approach to filmmaking?  Can a movie like this be truly apolitical, as so many critics say it is?

In a fiery column in Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi says no.  Referring to “the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain” as “the real villains in this movie,” Taibbi argues, “Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’  Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”

Taking this theory a step further, I think it’s worth considering whether any movie can lay claim to being completely removed from politics of one sort or another.  Or, indeed, whether there is any point in trying.  My inkling is that it can’t and there isn’t, and it’s just as well that this is so.

As it happens, this is not the first time that an ostensibly “personal” Clint Eastwood project has been attacked for having a secret political agenda.

In 2004, Eastwood made a movie called Million Dollar Baby, about a woman who believes her sole purpose in life is to be a professional boxer.  (Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead!)  When she is sucker-punched by an opponent and left paralyzed below the neck, she decides she has no further reason to live, and pleads with her trainer and only friend (played by Eastwood) to unplug her life support and allow her to die.  After a period of struggle and a talk with a local priest, he does just that.

Because both the boxer (played by Hilary Swank) and the trainer are shown as sympathetic characters, the movie was considered by some to be an “endorsement” of assisted suicide, leading to a brief but intense national debate about both the movie and the issue itself.  How irresponsible, many said, for a serious film to portray assisted suicide in a sort-of positive light.

Against this wave of condemnation, the critic Roger Ebert offered the following rebuke“Million Dollar Baby raises fundamental moral issues.  At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision.  I do not agree with their decision.  But here is the crucial point:  I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film.  It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them.”

In other words, movies are about individuals, not causes.  Directors are free to have their characters behave however is natural to them, and it is up to us, the audience, to make moral judgments.  In all cases, however, we should understand such behavior as being specific to those characters—Chris Kyle included—and not infer them to be representative of any larger philosophy of life.

The problem, though, is that we just can’t help ourselves.  As Taibbi points out vis-à-vis American Sniper, movies do not exist in a vacuum.  It’s silly and naïve to think otherwise.

The truth is that everything is political, whether we realize it or not.  Politics is life.  The word itself, in its original Greek form, means “relating to citizens,” meaning every one of us is on the hook.  So long as you’re alive and occasionally leave the house to interact with the rest of humanity (tiresome as it can often be), then you are engaging in the art of politics.

As such, once a movie presumes to be about anything at all, it becomes a political document, and we are free—encouraged, even—to wade through any possible larger meanings it might hold, whatever the director’s intent.

In the current Oscar race, for instance, the big pre-Sniper controversy concerned whether Ava DuVernay’s Selma is unfair in its depiction of Lyndon Johnson circa 1965.  Because it’s about the Civil Rights Movement and its present-day parallels, Selma is political to its core.  (Its theme song, “Glory,” even includes a reference to Ferguson, Mo.)

However, take a deeper look and you’ll find politics intruding upon every last entry on the Oscar shortlist.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is ostensibly about nothing more than the experience of growing up in 21st century America.  But it’s also about single mothers, deadbeat fathers, alcoholic stepfathers, inspiring teachers, and the virtues of hard work.  Do you mean to tell me those are not political issues?  Open a newspaper:  When have they ever not been on the front page?

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a dark comedy about a washed-up movie star attempting to resurrect himself by putting on a Broadway show.  As such, it’s also about the nature of celebrity and fame, the integrity of art and (again) what it means to be a good father.  All political matters.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is about an aspiring drummer and the terrifying music teacher who pushes him to within an inch of his life.  Which means it’s really about the costs of ambition and the lengths that some people will go to achieve greatness and immortality.  In America’s hyper-competitive culture, coupled with our meritocratic national work ethic, what could be more political than that?

And so forth.

So when people say that American Sniper is not a political movie, they are wrong twice.  First, in the view that the movie has no opinion about America’s adventures in Iraq (to wit:  could it really be a coincidence that the one soldier who questions the war’s purpose ends up getting shot in the face?).  And second, in the implication that a Navy sniper’s psychological profile has no political dimension.  As if killing Arabs for a living were a purely personal matter.

Indeed, if American Sniper were truly non-political, we would not be arguing about it at all.  We wouldn’t need to.  And what a boring, worthless movie it would be.

No, the film’s inherent relevance to our national conversation about foreign affairs is what makes it so valuable and compelling.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t a deeply personal story as well.  Of course it is.  That’s what the cliché “the personal is political” is all about.  Chris Kyle’s suffering is real, but it has a context that we must acknowledge in order for it to make any sense.  We can only heed Eastwood’s central message—America must take better care of its veterans—by understanding what makes their return to civilian life so difficult.  There’s no way to do that without returning, sooner or later, to the policies that sent people like Kyle to Iraq in the first place.

Eastwood has been rightly criticized for simplifying this narrative into an old-fashioned “good guys vs. bad guys” story (every Iraqi in the film serves no purpose except to be killed), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should follow his lead.  Judging from the contentious response it has garnered thus far, we haven’t.  However unwittingly, American Sniper has re-ignited one of the most important debates in contemporary American life—namely, have the past dozen years of U.S. foreign policy been one giant dead end?

To that extent, the movie has served a useful purpose.  Through the profile of one person, however lionized, it has provoked people to think more seriously about a subject of global importance they would just as well ignore.

Not bad for a movie that isn’t interested in politics.