Saturday, February 23, 2019

Best Picture? I don't think so

The 91st Academy Awards will be broadcast on February 24, 2019, and I doubt that I'll be watching. Not only is the whole self-congratulatory exercise overlong, tacky and often boring (except when it's a train wreck), but the influence on the awards of campaigning and of box office success or failure has meant that the Academy has a pretty terrible track record when it comes to honoring cinematic achievement picking winners.

Best Picture has been a category where particularly poor choices have been made. Inspired by this Guardian article, for each of the nine decades of sound films I've chosen a single year (generally among several) in which the Best Picture winner was clearly the wrong film.

Best Picture winner of 1938: You Can't Take It With You, written by Robert Riskin and directed by Frank Capra, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

You Can't Take It With You has a great cast, including Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore. But as I wrote in The Films of Jean Arthur, "A major mistake made by Capra and Riskin is to marginalize the winsome Arthur and Stewart, who disappear for long stretches while screen time is taken up by the 'zany' (i.e. gratingly irritating) antics of the other family members."

The film that should have won: Grand Illusion, written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak, directed by Renoir.*

Perhaps the greatest anti-war film ever made, Renoir's La Grande Illusion is set during World War I but is clearly intended to sound the alarm about the conflagration about to engulf the world. A group of French prisoners is held in a German camp; while confined there, the aristocratic French officer Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) discovers that he has more in common with the German commandant von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) than he does with his own enlisted men. And both men come to recognize that their code of military honor has become outdated in an age of mass slaughter.

Best Picture winner of 1944: Going My Way, written by Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, directed by Leo McCarey.

I'm not an enemy of sentiment—I think either The Bishop's Wife or Miracle on 34th Street would have been a better Best Picture of 1947 than Gentleman's Agreement—so I can't be too curmudgeonly about Going My Way. After all, it's got opera star Risë Stevens playing, well, an opera star, and Bing Crosby playing a priest whose laid-back fatherliness is just what his new parish's dead-end kids need. Jazz critic and Crosby biographer Gary Giddins calls it "funny and resonant." And, no doubt, immensely comforting for home-front audiences. But it wasn't the best picture of 1944.

The film that should have won: Double Indemnity, written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, directed by Wilder, based on the novel by James M. Cain.

Double Indemnity features the doubly indelible performances of Fred MacMurray as an unscrupulous insurance salesman and Barbara Stanwyck as a seductive siren; together they plot to murder her inconvenient husband and, of course, collect the insurance. It's also formally inventive, narrated in flashback over the course of a single night by MacMurray's character. Infidelity, murder, betrayal: far from offering comfort, Wilder's ink-black noir is distinctly unsettling.

Double Indemnity was hardly the only film noir overlooked by the Academy in the 1940s. If you were putting together a noir festival you'd undoubtedly also include The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gilda (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Out of the Past (1947), and Gun Crazy (1949). You can count on one finger the number of those films that were nominated for Best Picture (The Maltese Falcon, which, together with Citizen Kane, lost to How Green Was My Valley).

Best Picture winner of 1958: Gigi, written by Alan Lerner with music by Frederick Loewe, directed by Vincent Minnelli, based on the novel by Colette.

Even for someone who is generally a fan of movie musicals, Gigi can be hard to watch, particularly when Maurice Chevalier's smarmy Honoré is onscreen (yes, this is the film with "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"). The plot, such as it is, turns on whether the virginal but hardly innocent young Gigi (Leslie Caron) will agree to become the mistress of Honoré's nephew Gaston (Louis Jourdan). The sexual politics of the movie must have been jarringly anachronistic even in 1958. Like Chevalier, this film hasn't aged well.

The film that should have won: Vertigo, written by Samuel Taylor, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the novel D'Entre les Morts by Boileau-Narcejac.

In the first post on this blog I wrote that Vertigo, Hitchcock's masterpiece of obsession, is a film that "becomes richer with every viewing." It features Hitchcock's swirling, disorienting camera; Bernard Herrmann's sweeping, powerful score; James Stewart's tormented detective Scotty Ferguson; and Kim Novak's brilliant double role as the coolly erotic Madeline Elster and the pleading, insecure Judy Barton. On its release a box office failure, in 2012 it was chosen in the Sight and Sound Critics' Poll as the greatest film ever made.

As is well known, Hitchcock was regularly snubbed by the Academy. Among his other films from the 1950s are Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and North By Northwest (1959). Remarkably, none of these films (including Vertigo) was nominated for Best Picture.

Best Picture winner of 1968: Oliver!, written by Vernon Harris with music by Lionel Bart and John Green, directed by Carol Reed, based on the stage musical by Bart and the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

Yes, it's tuneful and has charming urchins, but that doesn't make it the best film released in 1968.

The film that should have won: 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, directed by Kubrick.

A small team of astronauts is sent on an expedition to the outer planets. Because the trip will take years, most of the crew has been placed in suspended animation. But the HAL-9000 computer running the ship has been given secret instructions to alter the ship's mission, and cannot let mere human lives interfere. . .Kubrick's film was the first to depict the possibilities of space exploration with scientific accuracy. He captured both the wonder and the fear occasioned by the vastness of the cosmos, and our anxieties about the destructive potential of our technologies. 2001 was ranked #2 in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll of the greatest films of all time.

Best Picture winner of 1979: Kramer vs. Kramer, written and directed by Robert Benton, based on the novel by Avery Corman.

Misogyny masquerading as male feminist enlightenment. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) abandons her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and their son Billy (Justin Henry) to "find herself." Over the course of the next year Ted gradually learns how to be a nurturing dad, and even has to take a lower-paying job so that he can have the time to provide care for Billy. (This is not presented as a dilemma that women are routinely compelled to face, but rather as a sign of Ted's moral superiority.) Joanna returns after a year to sue her former husband for custody of Billy, and in court reveals that (although she's been out of the workforce for a decade) she's now earning a higher salary than he is. Awarded custody, Joanna comes to the realization that Ted is a better parent than she can ever be.

The film that should have won: Apocalypse Now, written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Coppola, based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

This film is a famous mess: Marlon Brando (Colonel Kurtz) arrived on set obese and unprepared, Martin Sheen (Captain Willard) suffered a heart attack on location, and the sets were destroyed by a typhoon. Coppola took years to edit the mountains of footage and produced multiple versions of the film. In the version I saw in a repertory theater in the 1980s, Kurtz's compound is obliterated by a massive airstrike as the closing credits roll, one of the most astonishingly violent film sequences I've ever seen. (Apparently Coppola removed this footage from subsequent versions.) The French theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote that Apocalypse Now is "the extension of the war through other means, the pinnacle of this failed war, and its apotheosis." The film was ranked #6 in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll of the greatest films of all time.

Best Picture winner of 1989: Driving Miss Daisy, written by Alfred Uhry, directed by Bruce Beresford, based on the play by Uhry.

In 1989 a powerful film about racism and its continuing legacies featuring revered veteran actors was released. Only it wasn't Driving Miss Daisy.

The film that should have won: Do The Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee.

An urgent film that grips you from the first moment of the Public-Enemy-fueled title sequence and never lets go, Do The Right Thing addresses racism (of all kinds), tensions in changing communities, and police violence against black men and women. A great cast includes Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn (above), John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Roger Guenveur Smith, Martin Lawrence, Samuel Jackson, Rosie Perez and Lee himself. Unfortunately still as relevant as the day it was released, Do The Right Thing is one of the greatest American films of the past 30 years.

Best Picture winner of 1990: Dances with Wolves, written by Michael Blake, directed by Kevin Costner, based on the book by Blake.

A film that attempts to honor Native Americans, but indulges in discredited white savior and noble savage narratives.

The film that should have won: Goodfellas, written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, directed by Scorsese, based on the book Wiseguy by Pileggi.

The story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a mob hanger-on who turns informer, Goodfellas is one of Scorsese's best films. The "Do you think I'm funny?" scene, in which a seemingly offhand comment Hill makes to psychotic gangster Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) suddenly becomes a matter of deadly seriousness, is one of several brilliant set pieces in the film. Another is the sequence just before Hill's arrest, as, high on cocaine, he tries to instruct his wife in the making of a Bolognese sauce, manage a collapsing drug deal, and control his paranoia about FBI surveillance (which turns out to be justified). In the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll, Goodfellas is tied at #48 with Hitchcock's Psycho (1961) and Rear Window (1954), Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), and Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Best Picture of 1975), among others.

Best Picture winner of 2001: A Beautiful Mind, written by Akiva Goldsman, directed by Ron Howard, based on the book by Sylvia Nasar.

Aussie action hero Russell Crowe as a schizophrenic genius? As you might guess, A Beautiful Mind glamorizes, simplifies and falsifies mathematician John Nash's life story, omitting his bisexuality, his violence towards his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), and their 1963 divorce (they remarried in 2001). As usual for Hollywood biopics, the film goes for uplift over the actual complexity of the subject's life.

The film that should have won: Mulholland Drive, written and directed by David Lynch.

Set on the fringes of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive is a dreamlike neo-noir that turns nightmarish. Lynch masterfully creates an atmosphere of suspense and dread. Characters are doubled and may exist in each other's dreams or fantasies. As with any David Lynch film the narrative is non-linear and open to multiple interpretations. Mulholland Drive was ranked #28 in the 2012 Sight and Sound Critics' Poll of the greatest films of all time.

Best Picture winner of 2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), written by Alejandro Iñárritu and others (did it really take four people to produce this script?), directed by Iñárritu.

An utterly insufferable actors' and director's exercise, Birdman is an attempt to remake John Cassavetes' semi-improvisatory Opening Night (1977) using the pseudo-continuous-take technique of Hitchcock's Rope (1948). Neither the director nor the actors seem to be aware of how annoying narcissistic self-regard, inflated self-importance, and rampant self-pity can be. I defy anyone to sit through this turkey more than once.

The film that should have won: The Grand Budapest Hotel, written and directed by Wes Anderson.

Perhaps based in part on Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal's novel I Served the King of England, Anderson's film features an old hotel, a priceless painting, and a murder mystery set against the violent history of Central Europe in the 20th century. In my list of favorite films seen in 2014, I wrote that the movie, a "matrushka doll of a fairy tale, with its stories within stories, is a visual and narrative delight."

* Because there was no Best Foreign Language Film award in 1938, Grand Illusion was eligible for Best Picture (and was nominated in that category).

Sunday, February 17, 2019


Puzzle (2018; written by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, directed by Marc Turtletaub; based on the film Rompecabezas (2010), written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff)

Puzzle takes place against a background of competitive jigsaw puzzling. While watching it I was struck by the realization that the competitive versions of many activities destroy everything that's enjoyable about them. Competitive eating approaches food as a matter of volume and speed; a voluntary experience further removed from the pleasures of savoring a delicious meal with friends is hard to imagine. Competitive Scrabble is won not by playing long or clever words, but (as Stefan Fatsis' excellent Word Freak (2001) reveals) by memorizing all the permissible two- and three-letter words—and where's the fun in that?
Competitive jigsaw puzzling is a contest to finish in the shortest time. So much for the meditative enjoyment of the interaction of color, pattern, and shape, or in the slow emergence of an image. It is for people for whom the destination is more important than the journey, and for whom the freedom of leisure is oppressive.

Speaking of the freedom of leisure, it is clearly not something that Puzzle's suburban housewife Agnes (a superb Kelly Macdonald) has experienced for many years. As the film opens we see Agnes making painstaking preparations for a birthday party: hanging decorations, inflating balloons, baking a cake. But it's her own birthday that's being celebrated; neither her husband Louie (David Denham) nor her college-aged sons could be bothered to organize the party for her, or even give her a hand. Later, as she's unwrapping presents alone (one thoughtful guest has given her the book Aging with Grace, a moment a less subtle director might have lingered on) she is bemused, but also intrigued, by the gift of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The next day, after her family is out of the house, she begins working on the puzzle. Suddenly there's a jump cut to the moment when she's placing the final piece. The late-afternoon light tells us that hours have passed; Agnes has been completely unaware of the passage of time. And before the day is over and her family returns she has done the puzzle a second time. When she sits down to do the puzzle she's completely absorbed and utterly focussed, and something in her is deeply satisfied when the final piece is locked in place. The puzzle becomes a daily ritual, and she even begins timing herself to see if she can finish faster. Her response to the puzzle, together with some other clues, make us begin to suspect that Agnes may be somewhere on the very mild end of the autism spectrum.

We also begin to suspect that her pleasure in doing the puzzle has alerted Agnes to the lack of pleasure in the rest of her life. When her son's girlfriend explains that one principle of Buddhism is to recognize that suffering results from the desire for happiness, and so to end our suffering we must stop trying to be happy, Agnes' look tells us how unwelcome this idea is.

Happiness has clearly not been so abundant in Agnes' life that she's willing to give up on the very idea.

Eventually she goes to a Manhattan puzzle store (aptly called Puzzle Mania) in search of more puzzles. She is drawn to two: one a George Romney-style portrait of a mother and child, and the other Goya's voluptuous "Naked Maja." Duty versus pleasure: "I can't decide," she says to the clerk, and takes both.

At the store she sees a notice for a competitive puzzle partner, and contacts him. Robert (Irrfan Khan, who may be most familiar to American viewers from The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Namesake, among his many other films) is an inventor who has struck it rich. He lives alone in the city and has a lot of time on his hands, which he mainly seems to spend watching disaster footage on the news. (Like Agnes, he seems to find certain repetitive behaviors to be self-soothing.)

Robert introduces Agnes to the competitive puzzle-solving system: separate the pieces by color and by whether they are edge pieces or not. One partner assembles the border while the other works on sections by color. Agnes has followed a much more intuitive process, but as they work together they discover that they are very good as a team. Agnes begins to travel into the city regularly to meet Robert and work on puzzles.

You can imagine a different version of this film in which Agnes' newfound interest in puzzling takes her through a series of competitions ending with a championship victory, and where that victory brings her family to the realization that they've been taking her for granted. Earnest speeches, tearful hugs, upbeat music, fade to credits.

But Puzzle isn't that film, and doesn't want to make it that easy on us. Agnes often behaves in not entirely sympathetic ways: she serves chicken when her son's vegan girlfriend comes over for dinner; she fat-shames Louie with a look of disgust when he's undressing for bed; she lies to her family about Robert and the ever-increasing time they're spending together; and—spoiler alert!—she and Robert become romantically and sexually involved.

Agnes is a clumsy liar, of course, and as she returns home later and later it's obvious to everyone that something is going on. Louie finally asks her straight out if she's having an affair. "We've had sex one time," she tells him, and then goes on to overshare: ". . .and it wasn't good, but it wasn't bad."

When your husband asks you if you're having an affair, he's not asking for a review of your lover. Agnes' response seems unnecessarily hurtful.

—End of spoilers—

So in her pursuit of her own happiness Agnes is not always exactly admirable. And Louie is not an ogre. His great flaw is that he has thought that it's enough for him to work hard to provide for his family. Being concerned about Agnes's emotional needs, or lending a hand with raising their kids or with household chores, was in Louie's view never a part of the bargain. And Agnes seems to have accepted that bargain—until her discovery of puzzling upends her routines and reveals unsuspected capacities.

Puzzle is a thought- and conversation-provoking film which sidesteps most of the ready-made clichés of its genre. At one point Robert says to Agnes, "When you complete a puzzle you know you have made all the right choices." But one of the strengths of Puzzle is that neither Agnes nor we are sure that she is making the right choices. The ending of the film continues this ambiguity, leaving us with the feeling that there is no guarantee that she will find fulfillment. Despite that uncertainty, she's finally gained the strength to make some needed changes in her life, and that newfound strength is what gives us hope for her. No longer focussed solely on her destination, she is trying to find happiness along the way.