Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscars 2009: An Alternate Best Picture Ballot

The Oscars have come and gone with no real surprises. (Come on, is anyone really surprised that the Rourke comeback narrative was toppled by Hollywood's Sean Penn fixation?) It was a strange year--on the surface, the nominations and winners were fine enough, and commendable films were honored, but most of the most interesting films were passed over for the awards, and even nominations, that they really deserved.

The Best Picture category, in particular, might have been completely redone and honored five more interesting, more ambitious, more diverse, and just plain better films. Consider the actual nominees:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button racked up the most nominations, despite being no one's idea of the year's best picture. Well-made, and often gorgeous, but a bit overlong, and not a film to revisit. (The Gump comparisons didn't help, either.)

Frost/Nixon was superbly acted, but seemed to inflate the importance of its events while simultaneously forgetting that the interviews themselves are the most compelling piece of the story, focusing instead on superfluous background and absolutely useless and confusing psuedo-documentary talking head interview scenes.

Milk was well-crafted, but Gus Van Sant directing a biopic about a gay, liberal San Francisco politician? This movie wasn't written, it was hatched in the Guaranteed Oscar Genetic Engineering Lab.

The Reader finally gave Kate Winslet's her Best Actress Oscar, but it was essentially recognizing her entire career--Revolutionary Road was the better Winslet performance and the better film overall, but the Holocaust Chamber is next to the Oppressed Minority Room back at the Oscar Lab.

Slumdog Millionaire? Yeah, that was pretty good, but it already won, so what's the fun of including it in our thought experiment?

Instead, I present five other 2008 films for Best Picture consideration. Read, watch, and think about which set sounds more interesting to have in regular DVD rotation ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road.

The Dark Knight
Why is the Academy so reluctant to acknowledge that blockbuster popcorn films sometimes deserve a Best Picture nod? Talk that Heath Ledger would not have gotten a nomination were he alive is true, but few stop to reflect that he actually deserves the award, dead or alive, but would have been held back by the genre of the film. And, as I've written before, The Dark Knight transcends its genre and offers just as much subtext and character development to dwell on as any of the so-called Best Picture nominees, but, hey, comics are for kids, right? I guess my question for the Academy is: why so serious?

In a lot of ways, this is the film that Frost/Nixon wanted to be: a tightly written, small cast, character-driven play adaptation. There are only four actors with significant speaking roles, and all four of them were (deservedly) nominated for Oscars. What does that tell you? Pound-for-pound, Doubt was one of the leanest, best films of 2008. Unlike any of the films actually nominated, there are no clear good guys or bad guys here, only moral ambiguity. It's not a traditionally satisfying film, which might be why the picture as a whole wasn't nominated. And, sure, the nun outfits and the "issue" feel of the movie might make it seem too Oscar-baity, but it's really about people and their perceptions, and Doubt remains a much-nominated film, yet one of the most underappreciated of 2008.

In Bruges
What the hell happened here? Out of nowhere drops a funny, dark, fantastical, violent film that suddenly makes Colin Farrell relevant again. Farrell got the Golden Globe, and as happens in partner movies only one half got the glory. His counterpart, Brendan Gleeson, was nominated but went home with nothing. Strange that it got nominated in the Comedy half, though, but maybe the Globes didn't know what to do with it. At least they did something with it, though, unlike the Oscars which gave it a token screenplay nod and moved on. A movie that veers off in so many unexpected directions you don't want to summarize it for fear of spoiling it, and for knowledge that it wouldn't make sense out of context no matter how hard you tried. A hell of a feature film directorial debut from playwright Martin McDonagh. Here's hoping the indifference to a brilliant film doesn't send him scurrying back to the stage.

The Visitor
Richard Jenkins had no shot against a resurrected Rourke or the perennial Penn, but Jenkins quietly gave the most commanding performance of the year. The Visitor was a character study and a social issue study all at once, and touches on fundamental questions about immigration, prejudice, and homeland security without being preachy or giving any easy answers. Even Jenkins' obvious Oscar clip, in which he shouts down a customs officer about how "it isn't fair" and "you can't just take people away" is curiously stifled and restrained, an impotent outburst by a man who's been stirred enough to care about something he can't change. But he still cares, and I think the film's final scene is an act of protest that has probably moved many of the film's few viewers as much as it moved his character. Quiet, but funny, but thoughtful, but heartbreaking, The Visitor didn't get a wide audience, but I'd bet it sticks with anyone who did see it longer than Benjamin Button will.

The Best Animated Feature Film is a token prize, basically keeping a highly imaginative adventure tale at the kiddie table so the "adult" films can play. Except Wall-E was a lusher, more engrossing treat for the eyes than the kaleidoscopic colors of Slumdog Millionaire or the historical CGI travels of Benjamin Button, which hogged the visual awards. It was the rare kids' movie that remembers that kids don't just like broad jokes, bright colors and silly voices, but movies that take you to another world and have a real sense of wonder. It was only when Wall-E got to the space station and human characters were involved that the movie lost a little steam, but the silent charm of the first half or so was among the best storytelling in years.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Grammys, huh?

What is it about the Grammys that inspires so much writing about their continued irrelevance? Six years ago, I wrote my first Grammy bitchfest. Surely if some high school junior knew in '03 that the awards were useless, everyone else should have figured it out by now, too. But here I am writing yet more Grammy observations, and numerous preview articles and live-blogging efforts detailed the show, from the annual disappointment at the nominations to the play-by-play chronicles of boredom.

Why does it seem like a constant surprise that the Grammys are out of step? Here's a quick experiment: take just 2-3 minutes to think about this decade in music. Think about what artists, songs, albums, genres, will be remembered as the defining sounds lf the era from 2000 until 2010. When the '00s joins the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, what sounds will these years conjure up? Think on that for a moment, then see how your own shortlist compares to the past decade's worth of Grammy Album of the Year Selections:

2000: Supernatural by Santana
2001: Two Against Nature by Steely Dan
2002: Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
2003: Come Away with Me by Norah Jones
2004: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast
2005: Genius Loves Company by Ray Charles
2006: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2
2007: Taking the Long Way by the Dixie Chicks
2008: River: The Joni Letters by Herbie Hancock
2009: Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

Ahh, yes, how could I forget enjoying a Joni Mitchell covers album throughout President Obama's campaign, the sweet relief a posthumous Ray Charles album brought in the midst of the Iraq War, and the way Steely Dan served as the national soundtrack after Sept. 11?

So why do we care? It's in the way they string music fans along, I guess. There are just enough cool nominations and performers listed to fool you into thinking it's worth watching, until you get ten minutes in and realize it's going to be three hours of Jonas Brothers/Stevie Wonder duets.

A third Album of the Year nomination for Radiohead is one such hook that gets viewers (like this one) to tune in, but given that OK Computer and Kid A both lost already--Kid A to the aforementioned Steely Dan--it's doubtful that anyone really held out hope. At least we did get a pretty neat Thom/Jonny/marching band take on "15 Step," even though it was killed by the muddy sound that drowned the whole show. (Tip: If you have no more than ten minutes to set up each performance, and live TV has notoriously awful sound quality anyway, maybe packing drumlines, choirs, and string sections into every single song is unwise.)

At least we got the indelible image of a pregnant M.I.A. wobbling in black and white alongside T.I., Kanye, Jigga and Weezy, but every semi-hip moment was buoyed by a dozen more that were hopelessly outdated, like Neil Diamond sleepwalking "Sweet Caroline" through the 40th anniversary of it's release--probably to coincide with the last year the Grammys were relevant.

And God, even if it's going to be a back-patting contest by aging musicians, does it have to be such a bore? It was obvious the fix was in for Krauss and Plant when they got the coveted "we'll perform right before an award we're up for is given out, strategically putting us on-stage already" slot, and they got the win to a dearth of fanfare. Interestingly, their speech was cut short--by the Grammys own standards, Krauss and Plant recorded the best album of the year, but have to be played off-stage during their acceptance speech for... well, what, exactly? A 90-second snippet of Stevie Wonder playing for a second time tonight? Apparently not even the Grammys care about their winners.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Kids These Days!": brokeNCYDE

The "ironic" rock take on a dumb rap single is an old concept, almost exclusively perpetrated by the type of band that likes their rock Pro Tooled and pitch-corrected til it's as dangerous a baby-bumper, but think they're making real music just because it has guitars. And so get misguided covers like brokeNCYDE's screamo rendition of "Low," which entirely misses the fact that you can't make fun of music that was meant to be dumb fun in the first place. The cover is cute and all, but given the premise any listen could pretty much imagine how it might sound to 100 percent accuracy in his or her mind. ("Apple-bottom jeans, and them boots with the FUUUUURS! (backing vocal: WITH THE FFFFFFHUUUUUURRRHRRRSSSS!"))

Harmless enough, but these guys are apparently milking an entire career out of their limited shtik, churning out the same joke over and over and over again in their original material. What do you even call four dipshits from Albuquerque winking and smirking their way through their worst approximation of hip-hop beats and their best efforts at emo shrieks? Their tags offer some suggestions: plain old "screamo"? No, these lads have traded their guitars for a synth. "fashioncore"? I don't care what today's 14-year-olds tell me, a bleached streak in five-inch bangs with a scarf and girls' jeans will never be fashionable. "crunkcore"? The genres are there, but it doesn't quite capture their essence... are, yes, there we are: "myspaceshit."

brokeNCYDE is somewhat funny for five-to-ten minutes, but absolutely intolerable in larger doses--they're the musical equivalent of a third-tier recurring SNL character being fluffed out to fill an 80-minute movie. Yet they've got over a million plays on

Kids these days!