Nominations for the 87th annual Academy Awards were announced yesterday morning, and frankly, my dear, they left a lot to be desired. Oscar nominations always evince a mixture of pomp and circumstance and outrage. This year, though, the list of complaints feels longer than usual. David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler”) didn’t make the cut for “Best Actor.” “Selma” director Ava DuVernay lost out on well deserved “Best Director” recognition. And no “Best Animated Feature” nomination for “The Lego Movie”! Some argue that the Oscars are now all but irrelevant, plagued by unfair procedures and paralyzed by an out-of-touch voting bloc. Despite the glamour and raw sex appeal of categories like “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing,” the Oscars no longer captivate American audiences they way they once did. Below, a list of new, more specific Oscar categories designed to better capture the ethos of this year in cinema:
Best Awkward Phase: “Boyhood”
“Boyhood”, writer-director Richard Linklater’s 12-year project about one boy’s boyish boyhood, provides a gorgeous, real-time glimpse of the formative experiences of one boy’s life. A narrative tour de force, the film explores the full gamut of human emotion and mid-2000s haircuts. Plus, it has a timeless and inspiring message: All awkward phases must end. Eventually.
The Meryl Streep Award for Excellence in Being Meryl Streep: Meryl Streep as Whoever She Played This Year
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, will Meryl Streep still be nominated for her captivating performance as the tree? The answer, history tells us, is a resounding yes. Her recent turn as the evil, blue-haired witch in Sondheim-adapted “Into the Woods” just earned her an insane 19th career nomination, this time for “Best Supporting Actress.” Will she win? Does it matter?
Most Depressing Remake: “Annie”
A classic musical, remade with Auto-Tune, starring Cameron Diaz. Some film executive heard that pitch and said yes, or else said maybe and then sort of forgot about it long enough that a new and hideous version of “Annie” ended up in theaters. For those of us still in possession of a VHS copy of the 1999 “Annie,” this film will quickly disappear into the ether of Movies You Watched Because You Were Babysitting Your Little Cousins. But for a generation of children scarred by Cameron Diaz’s rendition of “Easy Street0”? Not even a surprise Christmas visit from FDR could undo that damage.
Least Necessary Sequel: “Dolphin Tale 2”
I haven’t seen “Dolphin Tale 2,” nor did I see the original “Dolphin Tale.” I refuse, on principle, to watch any movie that is based on a true story about dolphins who teach people about the human condition/friendship/dolphin science. “Dolphin Tale 2” has a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is impossible because the movie sounds terrible. I would feel bad about criticizing the work of history’s first dolphin actors, but I’m pretty sure dolphins can’t read. Pretty sure.
Most Necessary Sequel: A Fifth “Bring It On” Movie
Did you know that it’s been almost six years since the fourth “Bring It On” movie was released? Where has Kirsten Dunst been? And why don’t people make movies about krumping anymore? All of these questions would be answered by another “Bring It On” movie. This year really could have used a movie about rival cheerleading squads who compete but are forced to put aside their differences and work together. The lead role would be perfect for a Hollywood up-and-comer, someone like Cara Delevigne or Hilary Duff’s baby. Maybe in 2015…
Most British Performance: Benedict Cumberbatch as “Benedict Cumberbatch”
The Academy, like the rest of America, has a thing for guys with British accents. And this year’s best-known Brit is the Britishest of them all. Benedict Cumberbatch has officially received his first-ever Oscar nomination for his role as codebreaker Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” Brits did well in the “Best Actor” category this year, colonizing two of the five spots (Eddie Redmayne is the other gent, nominated for playing Steven Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”). Whether or not Cumberbatch is crowned on Oscar night, his name alone sounds like it could imperialize a foreign nation, lose that nation in an eventual war of independence and then obtain a recurring guest spot on “Downton Abbey.”
Best Cinematic Partnership: You and Netflix
Watching all of Season 3 of “Gilmore Girls” in one sitting totally counts as a movie.
With the 86th Academy Awards in just a couple days, WEEKEND film buffs Michael Lomax and Becca Edelman exchanged a few emails to get an idea what to expect this Sunday night. This is an excerpt of what they came up with.
Michael Lomax: Another year, another batch of movies. I only hope we can redeem ourselves after being so down on “Argo” in 2013. (Seriously, I loved “Argo,” but Best Picture?) So first impressions of 2014’s nine nominees: and the Oscar goes to…?
Becca Edelman: “12 Years a Slave.” Most definitely. It deserves the win and I think the academy will comply. Not only has it been sweeping the pre-Oscar award ceremonies, but I would say it’s the most important American film of the past five few years.
ML: “12 Years a Slave” is the smart pick. I remember when “Gravity” was blowing people out of the water, but let’s be real, director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley both delivered a film that is moving, lyrical and literary all at once. Both men are winning their respective awards, and the race shouldn’t be very close.
BE: I enjoyed “Gravity,” but mostly for its elements of spectacle. Although I loved the vivid beauty of Alfonso Cuaron’s world, I cannot help but compare the film to the director’s other work, particularly “Children of Men,” which I feel far surpasses Gravity in its narrative depth. Certainly “Gravity” is a beautiful film with technological significance, but it misses the deeper social significance of films like “12 Years” or “Her.”
ML: I actually liked “Her” quite a lot, and of the nominees, it was my favorite. Solid writing, phenomenal visuals, moving performances — but it just doesn’t have the timbre of an Oscar-winning movie. (Though to be fair, I said the same thing about “Argo.”) You know what does instead? “Dallas Buyers Club.”
BE: The problem with “Her” is that some will see it as a rather small film about the life and problems of a single man. But it is in fact a brilliant exploration of what it means to be in a human relationship and, frankly, what it means to be human. If not for “12 Years,” “Her” would certainly be my pick. As for “Dallas Buyers Club,” there were some unbelievable performances, particularly Jared Leto’s. But for me, this is a film that tries to be big but ends up small. It felt like a never-ending series of melodramatic buildups to cliché, unsatisfying climaxes.
ML: I completely agree with you on the merits of “Her,” but by Oscar-timbre, I mean Oscar-bait. “A man falls in love with his computer” doesn’t have the same Academy-approved buzz-worthy ring as “a homophobic Texan gets AIDS in the 80s” or “a free Northern black man is captured and sold into slavery for twelve years.” The Oscar-bait tag also applies to movies made for their performances — of which, “Dallas Buyers” is a prime example. Leto and Matthew McConaughey are probably taking home the acting Oscars.
BE: But no nomination for Oscar Isaac? He carried the entirety of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Speaking of that film, what a snub for the Coens!
ML: I’m not surprised by the “Inside Llewyn Davis” snubs, nor do I particularly care. I’ve watched it twice and been unimpressed both times. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an objectively good film, but I’ve come to expect more out of the Coens. “Llewyn Davis,” simply put, is just not all that spectacular.
BE: I don’t think the Coens did anything particularly new with “Llewyn Davis” — we’ve seen this kind of thing from them before. But the cinematography is beautiful, I found the performances compelling, and, as always from the Coens, “Llewyn Davis” is a thoughtful film, which I think has to count for something. I was certainly surprised that “Captain Phillips” was nominated instead.
ML: The cinematography in “Llewyn Davis” was about on par with any of the Coens’ other great movies, and for however thoughtful the film was, it was a relatively lazy effort from a pair of directors whose bar is already set through the roof. That being said, when we see that it was passed over in favor of “Philomena” and “Captain Phillips” — two movies clearly made to attract Oscar buzz — I can understand the outrage. But if we really think about it, does it matter who’s nominated fourth through ninth? “Llewyn Davis,” “Philomena,” “Captain Phillips,” etc. don’t stand a chance of winning big this Sunday.
BE: But isn’t being nominated an honor in itself? And what do you think of “Wolf of Wall Street?” Does it have a shot?
ML: It definitely is, but we’re talking about winners here, and speaking of which, “Wolf” won’t be winning much of anything. It’s one of my favorite Scorsese movies, but it’s proved too controversial and critically quiet to stand much of a chance at the Oscars.
BE: One of your favorite Scorsese’s? Sacrilege! On par with “Taxi Driver?” “Goodfellas?” “Raging Bull?” “Gangs of New York?” I even vastly prefer “Hugo.” In fact, my biggest problem with “Wolf” is its inability to escape the long shadow cast by “Goodfellas.” Both films watch young men rise in some sort of “industry,” quickly abandoning ethics when faced with the allure of money and power. Both films begin with a flash to the middle of the plot (interestingly, so does “American Hustle,” which also owes something to “Goodfellas”) and feature a voiceover narration from the main character. And both men eventually rat out their criminal cohorts. The problem with these similarities isn’t just that it’s repetitive. It’s that “Wolf of Wall Street” is inherently not as good a film as “Goodfellas.”
ML: I stand by what I said. It’s “one of” my favorites — not THE favorite. (Remember: Scorsese has made a lot of movies, and many of them have been duds.) I do agree that “Wolf” is probably too similar to “Goodfellas” for people to take it seriously, but for however much the two films match stylistically, they depict incredibly different worlds. That, and “Wolf” is absolutely hilarious from start to finish.
It was about this time that the email chain fell silent. Regardless, Lomax and Edelman see “12 Years a Slave” cleaning up the major awards. Tune into ABC this Sunday to find out for yourself.
Contact Michael Lomax at firstname.lastname@example.org and Becca Edelman at email@example.com .
WKND PRECAPS THE OSCARS, 2014
By Sara Jones
What are you doing Sunday night? Watching the 86th Academy Awards, if you have a soul. Honestly, though, tell me, what can you possibly have that’s any better to do, now that Sochi 2014 came and went (other than maybe mourning the fact that Sochi 2014 came and went)? On a related note, ice skating commentators extraordinaireJohnny Weir and Tara Lipinski WILL BE BACK. The dynamic duo has been signed on by Access Hollywood to do red carpet fashion commentary, which basically translates to “take the Oscars’ by storm, in all of their sequined, outfit-coordinated glory.” That’s the sound of your dreams coming true, in case you weren’t aware.
Join WEEKEND as we pregame cap the best Sunday of the year, which mostly means predict/judge the fashion choices of three of our favorite famous people ever. We always knew we’d make great celebrity stylists, anyways.
In honor of Throwback Thursday, let’s take a little walk down memory lane (carpet?). Exactly one year ago Sunday, Duvet-gate broke. The iconic fall happened. Not one, but three, Dior ad campaigns were offered up as tribute (Hunger Games reference, get it?). #WeAreAllJ.LawTonight
Luckily, none of this seems to have fazed everyone’s favorite celeb-next-door in the slightest, and Jennifer’s back, Best Supporting Actress nomination in hand, for Round 2. In our dreams, she would be rocking this Saint Laurent Spring 2014 jumpsuit-tuxedo, which has the added benefit of safeguarding against “Jen Takes a Tumble, the Second.” In reality, though, we all know she’s gonna go Dior (duh). If Weekend has any say, we really, really hope it’s this gorgeous white A-line, or this playfully polka-dotted strapless, both from the house’s Spring 2014 Couture collection.
At this point, it’s basically household knowledge that Amy Adams murdered it in American Hustle. Between her stellar performance and the sartorial magic worked by costume designer Michael Wilkinson (also up for an award…Best Costume Design, obviously), the film was a dramatic and visual feast. Who knew the 70s could look so good?
At the Golden Globes, the auburn beauty paid homage to A.H.’s aesthetic (and disco fever’s plunging necklines) in a stunning red Valentino. The real question for this weekend: will Amy opt for 70s revival one more time, or go for something a bit more understated? Whatever Adams chooses, Weekend can’t wait…to offer our 2¢. In camp #1, we want her in this sparkly, neutral-and-gold masterpiece, this billowy nude number (both Valentino Spring 2014 Couture), or this ethereal S/S ’14 Elie Saab. In camp #2, we’re partial to this high-necked (also gold, also very sparkly) Oscar de la Renta F/W ’14 column gown. Go gold or go home, we say.
Lupita Nyong’o DRA ’12
After a quick survey of the all-powerful World Wide Web, it seems that more than a few are calling Lupita the hands-down Best Supporting Actress favorite for her role in 12 Years a Slave.(Did we mention she’s a grad of the Yale Drama School?)
Whether you’ve seen the film or not, anyone who half-pays attention knows that Nyong’o is not just a rising star on the silver screen, but an emerging fashion darling off it as well. A quick run-through of some of her best looks, shall we? The teal Gucci at the SAG Awards: dying. The caped Ralph Lauren at the Golden Globes: dying. The white gown she wore at the Critics’ Choice Awards: dead. Between jewel tones, daring cutouts, and even a jumpsuit Lupita makes the red carpet green with envy.
Because Nyong’o’s never one to shy away from a pattern, our vote is for this one-shouldered Carolina Herrera (F/W 2014). Or what about this bright red Prabal Gurung (F/W 2014)? Or, actually, if Weekend has anything to say, it’s this black Alexander McQueen (S/S 2014) that takes the cake, updating the classic body-skimming, floor-length silhouette with more than a few of Lupita’s signature daring cutouts.
Contact Sara Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Different Kind of Oscar Meter
By Mason Kroll
The Oscars are a time of magic. Before a backdrop of red carpet glamour and award season hype, Hollywood’s best will arrive on Sunday to witness the 86th year of celebrating movie excellence. And whether you are a casual ceremony viewer or you have nine Oscar blogs bookmarked on your Google Chrome, you are most definitely in need of the eight limericks below to make the most of your Academy Awards experience.
With the Oscars this weekend, I put forward to you why I will shit bricks if “Let It Go” does not win Best Original Song.
I only got to watching “Frozen” for the first time last week (I know, I know, so far behind). Needless to say, I was blown away. Of course, I had heard great things about it and already knew the lyrics to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” by heart (the soundtrack had been on played on repeat by my straight male suitemate since the beginning of the semester.) But I wasn’t prepared for exactly how much I would love “Frozen.”
It helped that I watched it with my little sister, whom I happen to be extremely close with, and that I have a soft spot for reindeers (who wouldn’t want Sven as a pet?) Yet I truly believe that “Frozen” stands up against, and possibly above, the best of the classics.
I, like many others of my generation, was raised on the Disney Diet of “Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Mermaid,” etc. As a result, I have exceptionally high standards when it comes to the new slate of Disney movies.
For many years, Pixar wore the crown for best animated films, with a string of hits ranging from “Toy Story” to “Finding Nemo.” Disney Animation Studios, on the other hand, had been wilting. Numerous critics, myself included, dismissed its releases as wanting. Time after time, its films failed to catch fire in the same way the oldies-but-goodies did, and things were looking bleak for Disney. But when in 2006 they acquired Pixar, it proved just the life raft they needed.
In this dawn of a new age, Disney began to thrive again. 2010’s release of “Tangled” proved this by hearkening back to the time of musicals, capturing people’s hearts with its strong and well-developed cast of characters, catchy songs and perfect mix of adventure, fun and romance. It grossed $600 million worldwide. 2012’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” the tale of video game characters come to the life, proved another massive success. But they’ve truly hit a home run with “Frozen,” which has been universally acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.
It really is a winning formula. “Frozen” manages to combine the best parts of the Disney classics — fabulous songs and loveable characters — with the finest Pixar and Co. have offered up in more recent times: amazing advances in animation and departures from traditional storylines.
Breathtakingly beautiful CGI (that ice palace, tho) meant that “Frozen” would always have been well-received. But what made the movie for me were its strong, relatable female characters, and, in the end, its redefinition of “true love” (SPOILER ALERT!).
Some critics have argued that “Frozen” is not truly feminist and have damned the film for trying to come across as such. Though I agree that “Frozen” doesn’t promise a revolutionary new age of feminism in the world of Disney, I don’t think that the film would have been better for it.
Much of the feminist critique points to the fact that Anna always seems to be searching for a man. I take issue with this for two reasons. Firstly, though Anna’s obsession with Hans is clearly ridiculous — in fact, Disney takes a self-deprecating tone to its historical portrayal of romantic relationships — I don’t believe that being a feminist means rejecting the entire male species. If she wants to be with Kristoff, who clearly loves her, she can be with Kristoff. This should not be a big point of contention. More important is the final message that the film leaves us with.
The movie’s true meaning lies in the bond between Elsa and Anna that overcomes all. Not the “love” that exists between a man and woman who’ve just met — here, either Anna and Hans or Anna and Kristoff — but one borne of years of family, sisterhood and friendship. As a sister, I’m pretty down for this message. It’s a throwback to my favorite Disney classics, where the heroine was kickass — think Mulan and Belle — except here there are two of them, and they look out for each other. (And there’s an ICE PALACE.)
Which brings me back to why to I will shit bricks if “Let It Go” doesn’t win Best Original Song.
Let’s start with the film sequence, in which our conservative Nordic queen, the Queen of Isolation, begins with climbing the mountain. Alone, unable to contain her powers, she suddenly comes to the realization that she doesn’t need to hold back. By leaving Arendelle behind, she has freed herself of the problems that prevented her from becoming the person she was born to be.
Ultimately, what the song proclaims is a message of moving beyond convention and what is expected of you and being okay with doing that. Beyond this truism, it’s just a damn good song. Unbelievably catchy — you only have to look at the number of YouTube covers floating around to see that — and superbly performed by Broadway darling Idina Menzel. It’s about as perfect a nomination for Best Original Song as you’ll get.
So now I address the Academy: This WEEKEND columnist has spoken. Let’s make it happen.
In Russian, the word “pochemuchka” is used to describe someone who asks too many questions. I can’t think of an English equivalent, but I kept searching for one as I sat through Spike Jonze’s “Her.” Set in Los Angeles sometime in the future, the film is at its core a love story — one between a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) and his inquisitive operating system (voiced by a girl, Scarlett Johansson).
Jonze’s concept, this re-imagination of the “modern romance,” is absurd, the stuff that sounds like a poorly written pulp science fiction paperback. Viewers might describe “Her” as a film that captures the “zeitgeist,” with its thought-provoking focus on technology and our relationship to it — but this description is too easy and too empty to convey anything, really. The movie may take place in the future, but Jonze has gone great lengths to make everything just recognizable enough. Phoenix, donning horn-rimmed glasses and too-high pants, looks more like a Williamsburg-dwelling dad than the Terminator.
In its script, too, “Her” is romantic and raw, not cold and mechanical. It seems to be the year of the anti-hero in film — a cranky musician, a ruthless Wall Street banker, a pudgy combed-over con artist — and “Her” is the exception. Theodore Twombley (Phoenix) is likeable. As his co-worker describes, he’s “part man and part woman,” and, if a little mopey, still moral. He’s sad and lonely, but that’s because humans are, by default, sad and lonely.
The beauty of Jonze’s film lies in its subversion of man’s expected relationship to machine. Where technology usually suppresses our human instincts, here it reveals them. Theo loves Samantha, his operating system, and all the darker questions — How can he love a machine? Why can’t he connect with other humans? — are secondary to the sincerity of this love.
At one point, Amy Adams, who plays an old (human) friend of Theo’s, remarks, “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” If this sounds prosaic, I think that’s the point. Of course love is absurd! So why should its absurdity hinge on physical form? That’s what Jonze seems to be getting at, and that’s where he succeeds — in recreating the organic chemistry of a committed couple.
But Samantha’s physicality can only be imagined by Johansson’s husky voice. When I get nervous, I blush. This was damning as a kid, most especially when, in the second grade, I was in love with Ben Nichols and he asked me why my cheeks were red. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem for Samantha. If you are without a body, what you have left is language. Between raspy giggles and mild mockery, Theo and Samantha fall in love with each other’s words.
The implication is not that language is enough, but that language is everything: that what we say and how we say it is somehow the real key to falling in love. This is terrifying — more terrifying than whether I will fall in love with my iPhone. Because I could fall in love with a boy, now, in 2014. Maybe that one here in the library, with the horn-rimmed glasses and slightly floppy hair; I could slip myself slyly between words, hide my reddened cheeks, leave my body behind.
I might not be a member of the intended audience for Disney’s newest animated film “Frozen.” That honor goes to kids everywhere — and as one latter-day WEEKEND cover informed me, my childhood is over. As a Disney lover who still thinks of herself as a princess (definitely Mulan), I knew I had to see the film. So I borrowed my neighbor’s children — two rambunctious boys aged seven and nine — who had already seen the movie. On the drive to the theater, I listened to their unabashed, innocent if not obnoxious, chatter about the film’s songs, characters and animation. Their youth was my ticket in.
The film is the story of two sisters. Princess Elsa, the elder, possesses magical powers that allow her to create ice and snow. After she inadvertently injures her fun-loving younger sister, Princess Anna, Elsa must learn to repress her powers, while Anna is made to forget them. Within the castle gates, the two sisters are isolated from one another. Elsa lives in fear of hurting her sister again, and Anna grows up lamenting the distance between them.
The song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” arrives at precisely this crucial moment, as it expresses Anna’s attempts to connect with Elsa, who is hiding in her room. While I cry during nearly every movie I see, this song had me shedding a tear within the film’s first five minutes — something that hasn’t happened to me since “Up.”
Another highlight of the film is the song “Let it Go,” sang by Idina Menzel (the Demi Lovato cover is also recommended). This comes at a moment where Elsa has realized that she can no longer hide from the world, and so she allows her powers to be free. Menzel is generally a goddess among mortals, and she proves it once again with this performance. But the actual stars of the scene are the animation and the song’s message. The animation, in which lies the film’s real magic, is stunning as Elsa grows a castle out of ice before shaking her hair out and fashioning a sexy dress. The message, too, is powerful. Elsa laments her past repression — “conceal it, don’t feel it” — but finally learns to let it go and accept who she is. At the risk of being too political, I venture to say that this championing of self-acceptance and ending repression falls in line with Disney’s historical support of the gay rights movement.
The depiction of sisterly love in “Frozen” made me think of my own sister. More specifically, of which sibling each of us would be. A 24-year-old living in Germany, Lauren has already seen the film. We would both like to think of ourselves as the fun-loving, untroubled and spunky younger sister with hip highlights, but that can only be me. Lauren finally relented and let me take ownership of the character after I pointed out that she’s “like, older,” and also bad at talking about her feelings — so maybe she’s repressed like Elsa. And maybe it is true that I am guilty of the alternative, “over-sharing,” as she put it.
While I’m a college student, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am too smart or too old or too worldly to enjoy and learn from a film like “Frozen.” Beyond merely delighting me, the film was clever, promoted a message of acceptance and took me on an emotional journey. I probably got more out of the film now than I would have at age 7: I learned that when you “let it go,” you become much, much sexier.
Last week I wrote that if “Argo” won the Academy Award for best picture, I’d eat a brick. Well, shit. I’m floored that “Argo” took home the Oscars’ biggest prize. Do I think it deserved it? Not really. (Of the nine movies nominated, I would’ve picked three or four others before settling on “Argo.”) But hey! Who cares what I think? Ben Affleck has completed the career turnaround of which we all hoped he was capable — shrugging off his string of horrendous late-’90s/early-’00s films to reinvent himself as a potent filmmaker with wide ambitions. So maybe there’s more to “Argo” than meets the eye. (We are astoundingly quick to criticize blockbusters, to be fair.) At the very least, I’m willing to re-examine the film.
When I first saw the trailer for “Argo” last summer, I was completely unimpressed. Maybe it had something to do with the plot, which, if anything, initially turned me away from the idea of the movie altogether: A CIA operative flies to Iran to sneak out six escaped U.S. citizens during the 1979 hostage crisis. Their cover? A team of sci-fi filmmakers location scouting for their next big picture. Obviously the story gets a bit more complex than that, but the basic idea is the same. It was something seemingly ripped straight out of Hollywood, and I couldn’t have been more turned off.
It’s not that I necessarily doubted the skill of Affleck, who also plays the lead role of Tony Mendez. Nor did I have a problem with the film’s other stars: Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, all of whom provide great backup. I just figured “Argo” would fall down the same predictable throughways that define just about any other rescue movie: a Point A to Point B structure built on high stakes that are, in the end, meaningless and forgettable.
So it just doesn’t seem like the journey from Point A to Point B in this film, which admittedly was one of the best thrillers of 2012, should be so captivating. After all, if you can grasp even a smidge of U.S. history you’d know that all the hostages taken in the embassy conflict were eventually returned alive. What’s more, why would Affleck (or anyone in Hollywood for that matter) invest in such a big-name film if it wasn’t going to have a happy ending? We know everything turns out all right in the end, so the scene-to-scene tension shouldn’t be more than minimal at best. But that’s the thing: Every turn is sharp. No action is wasted. Everything has a suspenseful purpose.
I know, I know. All thrillers are supposed to work this way. But “Argo” takes it one notch higher. Found footage mixed with nostalgic camera coloring. Shots of frenzy here, shots of subdued chaos there. Screaming voices and bodies hanging from cranes. Silence in still halls just before the onslaught of a mob. Each moment is choreographed not beautifully but out of necessity, and for that you have to signal out Affleck, whose direction, while no means aesthetically genius, is nothing less than consistently smart. He understands how to throw people to the edges of their seats, and so he does precisely that right from the opening tip.
But what’s perhaps most astounding about the film is its subtle humanity, which helps navigate it away from the pitfalls of the traditional thriller. There are no hokey one-liners, no pointlessly ridiculous characterizations, and most importantly, no completely black-and-white villains. There is only Mendez, trying to rescue the six hostages, and the government trying to stop him.
If anything, the idea behind “Argo” comes down to a very basic principle found across borders: The protection of life and freedom is ultimately ordained by the good graces of good people. Everyone needs a little help to get by — real problems only arise when that help is hard to find. But the smallest acts of selflessness can still speak volumes, even if they are committed for complete and total strangers who themselves are fundamentally opposite to you in every way. And if that’s what we’re taking away from the latest Oscar winner, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised at all. Now please excuse me while I go find that brick.
I was that guy — or, at least, I wanted to be. In the theater. After the movie. The one who walked out going, “They all looked so accurate. Especially Edwin Stanton! And Salmon P. Chase. And did you notice how Lincoln’s body was slanted at the very end? That’s historically accurate!”
Last year, I took a class called “Lincoln in Thought and Action.” I went into the class a Lincoln skeptic. This was the man, after all, who suspended habeas corpus, who was a moderate on slavery, who announced his willingness to accept slavery so long as it didn’t spread. I finished the course, as did, I believe, every single one of my classmates, a Lincoln believer.
I have a friend who told me I had a “Lincoln fetish,” because I talked about Lincoln so much at lunch. And breakfast. And dinner. And parties.
For “Lincoln in Thought and Action,” I purchased two handsome, blue volumes of Lincoln’s speeches and writings. For the next several months, my classmates and I delved into Abe’s oratory, discussing, analyzing, arguing. My interpretations — pretentious and dilettante-ish — rarely held water. But every now and then, I struck gold.
Fast-forward one year. I am sitting with nine of my former classmates, watching the man, the legend, on screen. Our professor is with us. We are there to see “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s latest instant-classic, a film so well-cast and well-done that it has the Academy drooling Oscar juice already.
The film doesn’t end well for its title character. But in a blurry sort of flashback, at the end, we see Lincoln giving a rousing speech in his weirdly high and whiny voice. (Also historically accurate!) “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” I mouth along. It’s Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, usually grouped among his best speeches. My pride in the man cannot match my pride in my memory.
Alas, I am losing my Lincoln knowledge. I have attempted to rejuvenate it with supplemental readings like “Manhunt” and “The Fiery Trial” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s epic and epically long “Team of Rivals.” But I am losing my knowledge all the same. Never again will I know quite so much about an American president.
For our final in “Lincoln and Thought and Action,” we were given a list of numerous, semi-obscure Lincoln quotes, and we had to name the year, the speech, and the context. Take a dozen or so quotes, divide them by the hundreds or thousands of pages of Lincoln we read, and you’ll begin to understand the spike in my blood pressure. Never before (and never again) will I spend quite so much time studying for a test worth, I believe, 15 percent of my final grade.
But it was worth it.
For instance, I can tell you that “Lincoln” the movie gets some things wrong — a few of them major. Lincoln was not nearly as dictatorial as he is portrayed to be. A number of the film’s premises are predicated on historical possibilities, not historical fact.
Still, the movie was excellent. The class was excellent. And Lincoln remains — to me, and my classmates and Tony Kushner — transcendent. For his entire life, he harbored an abiding revulsion of slavery. Slavery, and indifference to slavery, were among the only things he ever truly loathed. It was discussing slavery and its spread that Lincoln used the word “hate,” one of very, very few times in a long political career that he did so. About indifference or “covert, real zeal for the spread of slavery,” Lincoln said, “I cannot but hate.” He was not a religious man, but he hated slavery with a righteous passion. He could not but hate it. It was not a choice.
Lincoln was not perfect, nor does “Lincoln” portray him to be perfect. But it seems to me that he was as close as we’ll ever get. Lincoln qualified his opinion on slavery in public, until, after decades of work and a Union victory to soften the blow, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” tells the next chapter of the story — the passage of a constitutional amendment banning slavery once and for all.
At dinner after the film, one of my former classmates asked our former professor, why so much hullabaloo about a former president? My professor responded with a number of reasons: we’re now in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and, soon, Lincoln’s assassination. We’re now in the middle of the presidency of Barack Obama, a man frequently likened to Lincoln (aided by Obama’s own notions of himself).
I agreed. But it’s more than that. Lincoln is relevant to any time, any age. His popularity will come in swings, but it will never truly go. It can’t. I have a notebook full of class notes and a ticket stub to prove it.
Our Man of Illinois (or, Saint Abe of the Prairie State): A Review of “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)
by Patrice Bowman
Historical figures never fail to interest us common folk. When these famous people come alive on the movie screen, we can experience their moments of greatness (and not-so-greatness) for ourselves. So it makes sense that in the right director’s hands, Abraham Lincoln’s life can be depicted with a balance of heroism and frailty that awes viewers. It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has twelve Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
But before Spielberg, another prolific director portrayed Lincoln’s life — and, no, I’m not talking about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012), because that shouldn’t have been a thing. D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln” (1930), like Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” ostensibly divides its time between some of the historical facts and what Lincoln symbolized: freedom, unity and honesty. But Griffith is so devoted to Lincoln the Symbol — even more so than Spielberg — that he doesn’t show the more engaging Lincoln the Human.
The episodic structure covers many parts of Abraham Lincoln’s (Walter Huston) life, going through his time as a shop-keeper, career as a lawyer, marriage to Mary Todd (Kay Hammond), his debates with Stephen A. Douglas (E. Alyn Warren), his presidency, the Civil War and his death. The staccato storytelling strips the entire cast, except the Lincolns, down to their barest functions in the plot. Hammond’s Mrs. Lincoln is a shrew when she should’ve been a more complicated woman. Huston is a decent Lincoln. He looks the part and speaks in an authoritative tone, which I missed in Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal; however, Huston awkwardly plops portions of Lincoln’s speeches into normal conversation. His interpretation, unlike Day-Lewis’s, is stiffly hagiographic for the most part.
I could blame the stagnant feel on the 1930s film industry’s transition from silent to sound, because the new equipment impeded the fluid movement of cameras and of actors. Sound or no sound, though, Griffith’s grasp on narrative rhythm is shakier than Hammond’s Southern accent. Lincoln’s development into a wise man is a bombardment, not a flow, of events.
Another issue is that, as Spielberg does in his “Lincoln,” Griffith ignores slavery’s horrors and pushes Blacks to the sidelines. The former ignores all of the efforts of African-Americans to abolish slavery, but the latter rarely shows them at all. Considering the buffoonery and brutishness connected to onscreen Blacks (both real and “Black-face” ones) in his legendary “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), I suppose he thought the safest option was to not take any chances.
Yet even with this precaution and the prestige of the subject, the film didn’t see huge success in the ’30s. If both films portray the same figure and share similar issues, why was Spielberg’s version received better than Griffith’s? Let’s start at the states of the filmmakers’ careers when they made the biopics. Spielberg had directed two successful films (“The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse”) in the same year that he released “Lincoln” and was at a directorial high-point. On the other hand, after “The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith’s subsequent works didn’t consistently earn him financial or critical success. He was, until his death, in something of a rut.
And apart from career highs and lows, Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the better film. It benefits from tighter narrative focus and technique—not just from advanced technology, but from a better acknowledgement of the cinematic ideas Griffith himself helped set up with “Birth of a Nation.” True, Spielberg has his moments of sentimentality. And he still portrays Lincoln as the “Great White Savior of the Slaves” when, historically, the real man was less ideal. But there’s still some moral ambiguity within “Lincoln.” With Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln,” there’s too much melodrama and not enough, well, drama.
Have you been doing your homework? Not your archaeoastronomy problem set, but YOUR MOVIE-GOING DUTIES. Did you go to the Criterion every week? Did you cry when Naomi Watts cried on screen? Did you pontificate when Daniel Day-Lewis pontificated? Did watching “Life of Pi” make you feel like you just drank a sea full of water? Well, the Oscars are being held this Sunday! Luckily, our savvy WEEKEND troopers have watched and read and digested all the information you need to catch up before Hollywood’s biggest night. Time to make the grade, kiddos.
Becca and Lomax: a dialogue
// BY BECCA EDELMAN AND MICHAEL LOMAX
Becca Edelman: I’d like to start things off with the thought that “The Master” was inexcusably ignored in this year’s nominations. While it may have been a bit inaccessible, the film was an aesthetic masterpiece, gorgeous from start to finish. And when a film’s three main actors are nominated for an award, doesn’t that say something about directorial skill? I was hoping at least for a nod to Paul Thomas Anderson.
Michael Lomax: That Paul Thomas Anderson was robbed of a best picture, best director and best writing nom is simply a travesty. “Master” was a movie with great ambition and astounding scope. What pains me the most is the fact that David O. Russell and his ballyhooed rom-dramedy might walk away with the biggest haul here.
BE: Really? I thought “Silver Linings” was a great story, with great performances. But watching the pre-Oscar buzz, I’m not ready to say that it will walk away with too many awards. Ebert described the film as “so good, it could almost be a terrific old classic.” I think “almost” is the key word here — it’s almost there. For Oscar gold, I’m looking for something with a little more substance, a little more artistry. Which brings me to the real elephant in the room: What in the world has been going on with “Argo”?
ML: “Argo” winning the Golden Globe sent a very clear message to this year’s crop of Oscar contenders: There is no favorite. All we can agree on is that “Argo” will not be winning the big one. I mean, it can’t! It’s a fantastic thriller, but it just doesn’t have the “feel” of a movie that could take home cinema’s biggest prize. But what exactly are those specific extra qualities?
BE: Some combination of the accessibility of “Argo” and the ambition of “The Master.” “Lincoln” certainly cleans up in the latter category, but I found the film to be a meandering disappointment. Perhaps “Zero Dark Thirty” fits the bill.
ML: A “meandering disappointment”? If we’re going to stamp any movie with that label, we might as well slap “ZDT” with it. Not saying it’s a bad film at all, but did it need to be 157 minutes long? Same with “Lincoln.” In fact, all the movies that have been nominated have glaring flaws that could doom them. We’re better off trying to predict the other major awards. Speaking of which, the year’s best director was…?
BE: If I ruled the world, it would be Anderson. But, as he isn’t an option, I would have to go with Spielberg. Even if “Lincoln” wasn’t his finest, I think the Academy will give him the award as a lifetime achievement acknowledgement.
ML: I don’t disagree with your reasoning. But “Lincoln” just wasn’t all that good, though I’ll admit the performances were quite incredible at times (specifically: Day-Lewis’ and Jones’). So I guess you have to honor a director for that. If not, who else?
BE: We’re also forgetting about the most interesting addition to the category: Benh Zeitlin. He’s only 30, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is his first film and he’s nominated in a category with Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee. I don’t think he’ll win, but if he did that would be pretty exciting.
ML: “Beasts” was my favorite film from 2012. It was beautifully incomprehensible and stark in its sentiments, and it’s precisely because of these facts that I don’t think Zeitlin has a chance to win. If anything, Quvenzhané Wallis (aka Hushpuppy) has a better shot of bringing home an Oscar. But we all know the best actress category is coming down to Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence. Who you got?
BE: Lawrence has a well-executed and well-managed career: She already has a nomination for a hit indie under her belt, as well as the lead in a lucrative franchise. And Chastain has made a name for herself working with prestigious directors like Malick and Bigelow. But I think the award will definitely go to Chastain. Lawrence is too young, and her part was too comedic. Then again, there’s also been a lot of hype about Emmanuelle Riva’s performance in “Amour.”
ML: Riva’s work was heart-wrenching, but I doubt enough people have seen Michael Haneke’s devastating film. Instead it really does come down to Lawrence and Chastain, and of the two, I would go with Chastain precisely because of the reasons you’ve mentioned. That doesn’t mean I’m counting out Lawrence, but her time doesn’t have to be now necessarily. At least the men’s side is a bit more clear. I’m penciling in Daniel “All Day, Every Day”-Lewis to grab his record-setting third best actor crown.
BE: My true favorite for the category would be Phoenix, but I would bet on Day-Lewis for the win, too. The really interesting race will be for best supporting actor — every actor nominated has already won an Oscar. Waltz won the Golden Globe, but I don’t think the Academy will be quick to give him an award for what some might deem a quite similar role to his turn in “Inglourious Basterds.” As I said about Lawrence, I think that, for De Niro and Arkin, their performances were too light, and Hoffman was great but overshadowed. I think the winner will/should be Tommy Lee Jones, who was responsible for a large proportion of the few shining moments in “Lincoln.”
ML: Tommy Lee deserves it, hands down. But what about best supporting actress? Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln was forgettable and hardly worth any fanfare. Same with Jacki Weaver, Amy Adams and Anne Hathaway (though I’m in love with her, all things considered). As such, I’m staking my claim that Helen Hunt deserves the Oscar. She put herself on the line in “The Sessions,” and she ought to be rewarded.
BE: Hathaway may have a shot, too, especially due to all the press she’s gotten for her role. It seems to me that this year’s awards have less obvious winners than there have been in past seasons. I guess we’ll just have to watch and see!
ML: You’re right. We will see. For the first time in years, there’s no guessable front-runner. It’s anybody’s game, though I think we can all agree that “Argo” isn’t getting lucky twice. If it does, I’ll eat a brick.
Caleb’s picks: a soliloquy
// BY CALEB MADISON
Caleb Madison: For best picture, “ARGO” — UGH I love this movie SO much. I’m so glad Ben Affleck has moved past having a sense of humor (like in “Mallrats” and “Dogma”) and also writing what he knows (like “Good Will Hunting” and “Gone Baby Gone”). “Argo” is about SO MUCH MORE than those movies. The whole time you’re like “Is America going to save them?” and then at the end you’re like “YE SSS!!!” At first Iran is like, “No Americans allowed! We hate America!” but then they realize that Hollywood is totally different from America, and that Hollywood rules! I love that. It makes you think, because the power of movies is what saves those hostages, but it’s ALSO what makes the audience like the movie! It’s about time the Academy recognized a movie about how amazing movies are. I have never seen “The Artist.”
CM: Yeah, totally! And for best actor, Daniel Day-Lewis in “LINCOLN” — YES! What a film. Daniel Day-Lewis transforms himself into Lincoln SO WELL. In the middle of the movie I took out a penny and I held it up to the screen and I was like, “WHAAAA!!!?” It made me realize that presidents have so much power. And, like, what are our presidents of today doing? Lincoln was like, “Sorry, haters, but I have to follow my beliefs.” When’s the last time Obama did that? If ONLY politicians saw and made a big deal about seeing this movie. Also Lincoln’s speeches were crazy. It was like every scene had a different moral! He would go up to a group of confused men and be like, “Hey… let me tell you a story.” Then he’d tell a story that started out totally random so everyone was like “Hunh!??!!” but then at the end you realized there was a moral that totally related to what they were talking about. It’s about time the Academy recognized Daniel Day-Lewis in a role about a conflicted larger-than-life historical figure. I have seen neither “There Will Be Blood” nor “My Left Foot.”
CM: I totally see that. And for best supporting actress, Anne Hathaway in “LES MISÉRABLES” — I dreamed a dream… that Anne Hathaway made me cry with song!!!! But it was real life!!!! I know what a lot of you are thinking. “A two-and-a-half hour musical with no dialogue? About the French?” But “Les Miz” has so many more aspects than that. Like the fact that all the singing was done live on set. When you watch Anne Hathaway sing and cry in one continuous shot, you are watching real life. And she actually cut her hair for the role too! That’s Acting. That’s dedication. We haven’t seen an actress do something so brave since Natalie Portman in that comic book movie seven years ago. It’s about time the Academy recognized the performance of an actress in a musical who uses her tender yet resilient singing voice to express her personal struggles. I have never seen “La Vie En Rose” or “Walk the Line.”
CM: Totes, man! And finally, for best supporting actor, Christoph Waltz in “DJANGO UNCHAINED” — Let me get this off my chest: I love Quentin Tarantino movies. When I saw “Pulp Fiction” for the first time in eighth grade I was like, “Yes.” I couldn’t stop quoting it for the next 10 years. I have the Bible passage that Samuel L. Jackson says before he kills people MEMORIZED. Whenever I eat a burger I’m like, “Mmm! That’s a tasty burger!” The thing I like about Tarantino movies is that, even though sometimes they’re serious, everyone talks about the most random weird things! It’s like my real life, and how my friends talk about just random things! And I imagine Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz being best friends in real life. It’s like Quentin calls him up and is like, “Hey, I’m making another movie with witty speeches, do you still have your hilarious accent?” and Christoph is like, “Y’Doy! Does my character speak way more formally than everyone else? Does he use really long words that he has to explain and go on long random wordy tangents?” and Quentin is like, “Y’Doy!” It’s about time the Academy recognized Christoph Waltz. I have never seen “Inglourious Basterds.”
An adequate ode to Jessica Chastain
// BY OLIVER PRESTON AND ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER
Unknown were the snows of Abbottabad
Before good Jessica, about as bad
As Samuel L., or J. Christ’s dad,
Stormed onto the screen, all pantsuit clad.
Jessica, you are the strong woman in consummate form,
Come Hillary, come Michelle, look on and adore!
This love child of Big’low and the good goddess Sass,
Writes boldly in red on our hearts’ shining glass…
(A much-needed digression in couplet form:
Jessica’s competitors and their patent inadequacy.)
Ms. Watts, just forget it, Chastain’s unstoppable,
This awards show will teach you the meaning of impossible.
J-Law, we love you, but this Oscar gold lacks silver lining,
Looks like behind Jessica you’ll ever be climbing.
Emmanuelle, this is AMERICA, so we suggest that you geaux.
Who even are you? No seriously, we want to know.
Quvenzhané Wallis, your name is weird.
Also, you are a child.
Jessica Chastain breaks gender binaries.
She literally breaks them.
She waterboards them.
If you haven’t seen any of the films…
// BY CYNTHIA HUA AND ANDREW WAGNER
Did you spend over 15 hours in a movie theater this year watching all the best picture nominees? Neither did we. Fortunately, we sat through all nine trailers to help you get through even the film-snobbiest Oscar party. It’s just like faking your way through section.
Let’s start with the one movie that nobody cares about —
“Amour”: It’s French and about old people (we can stop here). Every time it comes up, drop a “Mmm … intéressant” and drink. However, that won’t be necessary because we don’t think this will win any awards.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”: We were uncertain whether this was a movie trailer or a Levi’s commercial. The premise is confusing: Why does a woman have cave paintings tattooed on her leg? Why is there a monster with fangs? I thought this was a movie about Hurricane Katrina?
“Zero Dark Thirty”: It’s so dark. So political. Ugh. Literally don’t even feel like watching the trailer for this. Pass. Also, we’re pretty sure it’s actually the same thing as “Homeland.”
Don’t get this one mixed up with “Argo,” which also appears to be very political and set in the Middle East. The only reason Andrew knows about this movie is cause his high school teacher’s daughter is in it (Shout out to Mr. Bishé!).
We have nothing to say about “Silver Linings Playbook” except that the best looking actors are in it, so it gets our vote for best picture. Can’t wait to see what they wear.
“Django Unchained”: We’re not sure, but this might be about slavery. Cowboy slaves? “Lincoln” is definitely about slavery. As far as “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln” are concerned, you should treat these two as opposite ends of the political spectrum, pick a side and fight anybody who challenges you to the death. Also, both of these may or may not be racist — if either of them wins awards, best to play it safe and feign moral outrage.
Finally, there is “Les Misérables” which is everything all at once, and “Life of Pi,” which we forgot about.
Anyone at all remotely interested in films knows that the Oscars are a bit of a sham, and just to be clear, we’ve known this for a while. By 1942 — when “How Green Was My Valley” beat out “Citizen Kane” and “The Maltese Falcon” for best picture — the trend was set. Each year’s Academy Awards ceremony almost never rewards the year’s truly best film. The winner needs a killer story, an aggressive producer and the eyes of the nation. Veteran filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (with his dastardly cohort Harvey Weinstein) usually carry these factors in spades. So as usually happens, the safest and most predictable film wins. There are no controversies. There are no surprises. But there still remains that vast and almost impenetrable pre-ceremony divide between what will win and what should: baby-faced director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature “Beasts of the Southern Wild” falls in with the latter.
In this film, 5-year-old Hushpuppy lives with her imperfect and alcoholic father Wink in the Bathtub, an impoverished bayou community set squarely in the sights of both a deadly storm and a pack of recently unfrozen prehistoric creatures called Aurochs. But rather than flee their home, Hushpuppy and Wink brave the destruction and lean on the Bathtub’s other survivors to maintain their collectively penniless way of life. This is a defiance that never dies, even as time runs out on Wink’s failing heart. Eventually, it is Hushpuppy alone who must carry the torch of her ravaged and incomplete community, and it is with this imaginative little girl that the greatest triumphs of life and the living of it are revealed.
From a purely logistical standpoint, this is exactly the kind of film that could make a run at the Oscars. After all, it’s about a broken American minority family that, on some level, finds the meaning of happiness. Voters eat this kind of shit up, but only if it’s spoon-fed to them. Thankfully, Zeitlin refuses to do any such thing, much like his apparent mentor Terrence Malick.
Last year, the modern-day auteur dropped a spiritual and philosophical bombshell on our heads: “The Tree of Life” was nothing short of an atomic wasteland of moral quandaries and probing questions — of the “Is there a meaning to life?” variety. But he wrapped this expansive thematic framework onto a loose (more like plotless) narrative that, for all its pretty images, confounded moviegoers much more than it entertained them. That’s not to say it wasn’t a critically crowning achievement: It snagged numerous independent awards, including at Cannes.
“Beasts” has done much of the same thing. Critics across the spectrum have praised Zeitlin’s debut, hailing it as an astounding insight into a little Southern slice of poor but hardly downtrodden Americana. Indie awards shows (like Cannes and Sundance) have agreed. But don’t book it for one of the Academy’s golden statuettes. That’s a different arena entirely.
And while many people have in fact checked out “Beasts” in some form or fashion, you won’t find its buildup buzz roaring like Aurochs in heat. If anything, the noise has been noticeably absent. No one thinks it has a chance to win, and that’s because it doesn’t. “Beasts” is a lost cause for best picture, just like every Malick movie that’s ever been made or ever will be made.
But I want to believe that this film, which is without a doubt the most visionary little flick to come out in 2012, stands some kind of a reasonable chance. Sure, it’s not “The Godfather” or “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Casablanca.” It’s just little Hushpuppy and her father: individuals that, through some kind of humanistic miracle, resist death and decay in two remarkable blows. They live lives of passion and vitality that in the hands of anyone other than Benh Zeitlin would crumple and then combust. Instead, we get a carefully controlled explosion of sights and wonder that you have to think deserves some kind of higher recognition. If the purpose of the Oscars is to award the year’s best film, the award should go to this film. Too bad it won’t.
I would not hesitate to classify Steven Spielberg’s newest film, “Lincoln,” as epic: It is epic in its length (verging on three hours), its dramatic acting (Daniel Day-Lewis does not even attempt to hide his Oscar greed), its portrayal of a moment that some might deem the most important in America’s history (the passing of the 13th Amendment). There is no doubt, then, that if in describing “Lincoln” as epic, one means that it is “heroic or grand in scale or character,” it quite certainly fits the bill. But does this “epic” nature necessitate the film’s caliber as a cinematic piece? Does the fact that “Lincoln” is an epic make it “epic” in the word’s colloquial connotation? With 12 Academy Award nominations under its belt, including those for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, “Lincoln” seems to have won the opinion of the Academy. A. O. Scott, the head film critic for The New York Times, too praised “Lincoln,” deeming it the second-best movie of the year, eclipsed only by “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Yet, the many times I checked my watch during the first hour of “Lincoln” prompts me to wonder just how captivating of a film it really is. Although the film showcases a beautiful aesthetic permeated by a few strong performances, ultimately, I posit that the film’s flat storyline, distant characters and lack of emotional upheaval leave the film cinematically vapid, generating a bland history lesson unqualified to win the modern film industry’s most prestigious award.
A first problem with “Lincoln” is its lack of emotional development. Although I lauded the film’s resolution — I don’t think that I will spoil anyone’s viewing experience by stating that the amendment passes — my satisfaction stemmed not from the plot or characters of the prior two and a half hours, but rather my preconceived notions. I entered the theater, as I believe did most viewers, with a strong aversion to slavery and a positive image of President Lincoln as an intelligent, charismatic leader. And, not surprisingly, at the end of the film I was still ardently anti-slavery and believed Lincoln to be a pretty good guy. Therefore, I was glad to see the abolition of slavery and the victory of one of our country’s greatest heroes. Yet these emotions were pulled by pre-existing ideals rather than anything the film brought to the table.
This lack of emotional pull derives mostly from a second problem of the film: an inability to create lovable or evolving characters. Mary (Sally Field), Lincoln’s wife, is an awful, self-centered, whining woman. Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln’s secretary of state, drifts in and out of the film without enough consistency to sustain viewer interest. And weakest of all was Lincoln’s young son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), whose sugary sweet innocence proved more aggravating than endearing.
This is not to say that the film does not showcase strong performances, for it certainly does. Rather, it is not the actors, but the characters themselves who fail. Most importantly, Lincoln himself, although played with a determined intensity by Lewis, remains cold and closed off to the audience. Scott, in his review, claims that the beauty of Lincoln’s character portrayal lies in the audience’s chance to watch him decide on the issue of the amendment. I would argue, rather, that the audience watches Lincoln decided, rather than in the act of deciding — a state quite different, and far less active or interesting than the situation that Scott praises. If the viewer senses any personal struggle within Lincoln, it is simply over politics and the seeming incompetence surrounding him. A moral struggle, questioning or active decision-making would have made for a much deeper, more consuming character.
These problems stem from a larger one: the problem of adaptation. I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow film critic Michael Lomax ’14 in his opinion that, in order to succeed, an adaptation must differentiate itself from its original. Such applies particularly in the case of the adaptation of a great work: an adaptation may simply fix a poor original, but the better the original, the more the copy must differ in order to achieve its own success. For a pertinent example, one might look at Baz Luhrmann’s new “Gatsby” film. Many have criticized its trailers for their indulgent use of Luhrmann style (in the vein of “Moulin Rouge!” or “Romeo + Juliet”) and modern rap music, lamenting the film’s seeming departure from the book. Yet, if Luhrmann attempted to create a literal version of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” hailed as one of America’s best literary works, could he do anything but flounder in comparison? By adding an element to the story, by reflecting the nouveau riche of “Gatsby” through excess, Luhrmann explicitly tells his audience that his is not a direct translation. It is an adaptation — it is Luhrmann’s.
Although Spielberg may not be adapting a timeless literary classic, he is certainly adapting for the screen a classic moment in American history. And the aforementioned “epic” style does pay homage to the importance of such a moment. Unfortunately, “Lincoln” has added no extra element to the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment — no intriguing story arch, no relatable characters, no modern perspective — and therefore leaves us with a textbook, a dry re-enactment rather than an enjoyable feature film.
Scott defends “Lincoln”’s value with a proclamation that it is a story about slavery. In clothing his story in such grandeur, Spielberg seems to claim to in fact present “the” story of slavery’s abolition, rather than “a” story of slavery’s abolition. And here lies yet a fourth problem with “Lincoln”: Where are the slaves? With slavery depicted in only a few, quick allusions to the difficult lives of young black children in the South, the film skips out on the true problems of slavery to present the audience with slavery not as an issue of human rights, but rather as an important struggle for the white man’s conscience. Far from claiming this to be Spielberg’s view of the issue, I have no doubt that this was how it was presented to Congress at the time. Yet, this is an adaptation. A major benefit of a depiction in the 21st century of a struggle in the mid-19th century would be to add a modern perspective. This modern perspective could have been the ingredient that “Lincoln” was missing, an element that could have elevated the film from a mere transcription of history to a great adaptation.
In a video interview with David Carr, A. O. Scott attempts to defend his view of “Lincoln.” Yet, he comes off as meek, inarticulate and wavering — it almost makes one wonder if Spielberg is a close personal friend or if Scott has some back-end deal with DreamWorks. He harps on “how tall [Lincoln] was” and the “use of voice” to personify the historical image of Lincoln. Yes, these aspects were intriguing, and most definitely contribute to historical accuracy and the film’s grand scale. But beyond these details, Scott’s responses consist of nothing more than a sixth-grader’s whining and defensive retorts. He seems to have nothing to say about “Lincoln” rather than to admire its epicness.
Spielberg, a historical, innovative and talented director, has created a picture that screams of its own epic nature. Yet, does this a best picture make? I would argue no, and hope that the Academy will too.
Maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe it had something to do with that whole “the-world’s-gonna-end-soon-so-YOLO” thing, but for whatever reason, 2012 was an especially strong year in film. Maybe that’s why I’m especially frustrated this year with how America ranks and promotes movies. Just like my eighth-grade yearbook, our system is built on superlatives. Best this. Best that. Even worst this, worst that, thanks to the Razzie awards, which honor the worst performances of the year (by the way, Razzies, lay off my boy Nic Cage — he’s just doing his own thing).
When it comes to the Academy’s best picture of the year, there can only be one, so there’s always going to be controversy. However, given that we’re in the midst of awards season, I think it’s important to avoid the temptation to evaluate holistically. Alternatively, we can learn to appreciate certain aspects of films which make them memorable, even if we don’t love many of these films overall.
There’s a lot to admire this year. Take writing, for example. “The Dictator” will not make news at the Oscars, but thanks to the talents of Sacha Baron Cohen, it has some brilliant moments. At one point in the film, dictator Gen. Aladeen has narcissistically changed the words in his country for both “positive” and “negative” to “Aladeen.” A doctor tells a patient, “You are HIV … Aladeen,” masterfully portraying the ridiculousness of the dictatorship. Looking at “Django Unchained,” one scene features Klansmen obsessively debating the craftsmanship of the bags on their heads, with eyeholes cut by one of their wives. This is a staple of Tarantino’s style: He highlights mundane aspects of everyday life within extraordinary historical circumstances.
Take acting. Tom Hardy dominates as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” He doesn’t give one of the year’s best performances, but he conveys an impressive emotional range through the use of his physicality and his eyes, even with most of his face obscured. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica Chastain uses her blank stares to communicate everything from despondency to unparalleled confidence. In “The Sessions,” playing a paralyzed virgin, John Hawkes displays strong desires and passions through only his voice and facial expressions.
Take technical advancements. Rhythm & Hues Studios injects into “Life of Pi” a remarkable, dreamy, underwater sequence through which we become submerged in Pi’s most private thoughts. With his collaborators on the set of “Les Misérables,” director Tom Hooper succeeded in shooting most singing parts live on set. With “The Hobbit,” Peter Jackson has sparked a new debate about frame-rate standards in cinema. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” cinematographer Greig Fraser achieves a new level of realism during the night raid by shooting in near-complete darkness and utilizing night-vision camera technologies.
Finally, take new talent. Every year, some Academy Awards categories are considered less important and are disregarded by viewers. My advice: Pay attention to these categories! Some of the most honest, memorable and entertaining films come out of the best animated short film and best live action short film categories. These categories make the Academy Awards accessible to younger filmmakers who are creating shorts as opposed to features. It’s a fantastic way to provide talented rising filmmakers with the opportunity for recognition and, more importantly, the opportunity to share their original work with a much wider audience. “Logorama,” the 2009 best animated short, is a powerful reflection on commercialism, and it features director David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club”) voicing the Pringles Original. “God of Love,” the 2010 best animated live action short, is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Both of these shorts are under 20 minutes long.
There are a lot of great things happening in the world of cinema, and calling a few movies “the best” should not diminish the advancements that filmmakers have achieved all over the world. Movies are not created with the intention of being ranked, but with the hope of giving viewers something fresh to experience, whether that be a single interesting shot or a start-to-finish masterpiece.