24 February 2013

Oscar Unchained

Was it really only a year ago that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences dusted off Billy Crystal and then handed its top prize to a French silent movie? I wish I could say the past 12 months had brought some clarity to the events of the 2011 awards season, but to be honest, I still don’t understand what happened last year, and I think it’s best that we just move on. Fortunately this year’s Best Picture slate is an unusually interesting one. I wouldn’t say the movies are necessarily better than usual—there’s only one film in the field of nine that I’m particularly enthusiastic about and nothing that I like as well as The Tree of Life or Hugo from last year’s group—but nearly all of them are worth talking about at some length.

It’s also been an interesting year for the Oscar horse race. Normally the Best Picture race follows a predictable pattern: the Directors Guild of America announces its nominees for Best Director in early January, during the first round of Oscar voting when the nominees are selected. The Oscar nominations then come out in late January. Generally four of the five nominees for Best Director (give or take one) match the DGA slate. The DGA then selects its winner in early February, and the vast majority of the time, the winning director goes on to take Best Director at the Oscars and the corresponding film wins Best Picture. This pattern has held in 31 of the past 39 years, including the past six in a row. But this year the Academy moved its nominations announcement up two weeks, and chaos has ensued. The major consequence of the date change was that DGA nominations were not released until after the end of the nominations period. This provided an interesting test case of a chicken-and-egg question that avid Oscar watchers have been pondering for years: Do the Oscar nominations match the DGA nominations because the DGA’s picks directly influence the nominations, or is it merely a function of both groups being part of the same population of industry professionals?

I’d always been in the latter camp, but this year’s nominations provide some evidence for the view that Oscar voters have looked to the DGA for guidance. This year only two of the five DGA nominees, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln and Ang Lee for Life of Pi, were nominated for Best Director by the Academy. Shockingly, two of the leading candidates for the award, Argo’s Ben Affleck and Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow were left out, along with Tom Hooper of Les Misérables. Instead, Lee and Spielberg were joined by Michael Haneke for Amour, David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, and first-timer Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild. All eight films were nominated for Best Picture, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

With Affleck and Bigelow out of the running, it appeared likely that Lincoln, a narrowly focused film about an embattled president engaging in questionable legislative horse trading to bring affordable health insurance to all Americans abolish slavery in the United States, would win the top prize, but then things took another turn: Argo started winning everything in sight, including Golden Globes for Picture and Director, British Academy Awards in the same categories, the Producers Guild of America award, the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble, and yes, the DGA award. No movie has ever won all these prizes and not gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, so Argo looks poised to become only the second film to win Best Picture without a nomination for Best Director since the latter category was expanded from three to five nominees in 1936. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) was the other, beating out DGA and Best Director winner Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Affleck is only the third DGA winner not to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, joining Spielberg (for 1985’s The Color Purple) and Ron Howard (for 1995’s Apollo 13). Lincoln fans can take heart from the fact that in both of those years the Academy selected a different film for Best Picture and Director (Out of Africa/Sydney Pollack and Braveheart/Mel Gibson, respectively). On the other hand, two other previous DGA winners have seen their film win Best Picture while losing Best Director, Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) in 1972, who lost to Bob Fosse (Cabaret), and Rob Marshall (Chicago) in 2002, defeated by Roman Polanski (The Pianist) in one of the few truly shocking upsets of recent years.

Argo is one of those movies that’s almost impossible to dislike—or at least it was until it became the Best Picture frontrunner and suffered the now mandatory backlash. An old-fashioned Hollywood thriller, Argo tells the story of how a CIA operative played by Affleck engineered the rescue of several American diplomats trapped in Iran during the 1979 revolution by having the group pose as a film crew. The film’s critics will complain that it’s shallow, unoriginal, and historically inaccurate—and of course, they’ll be right on all counts. But it’s an enjoyable movie that at least manages to avoid endorsing a jingoistic view of history, and it would be no worse than an average Best Picture winner. If Argo or Lincoln somehow fails to win, the likely beneficiary is Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy about mental illness that achieved the rare feat of being nominated in all four acting categories and has the campaigning might of Harvey Weinstein in its favor. It also has the advantage of being another movie with broad appeal that very few people dislike. (Except for people who comment on Oscar blogs. They hate it.) It’s hardly Russell’s best work, but it does manage to breathe some life into a troubled genre, and I won’t be upset if it wins (I’m more or less indifferent among Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook. The most fun years to follow the race are the ones where you’re not emotionally invested—either one way or the other—in any of the frontrunners). I can’t quite say the same about about Beasts of the Southern Wild, an incoherent mixture of ethnography and magical realism that didn’t do much for me. Still, I’d much rather see Beasts take the top prize than Amour, the lastest slice of human misery from the overrated Haneke. I keep swearing that each Haneke film I see will be my last, but for some reason, people keep giving the guy awards and I get suckered into another one. Ugh.

Life of Pi
and Les Mis remain unseen by me, which leaves us with the two most controversial films of the lot, Bigelow’s Bin Laden: The Movie and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in the Antebellum South. Zero Dark Thirty, as you may have heard, has attracted some criticism from journalists and politicians over its depiction of some of the events leading up to the capture of Bin Laden, specifically over whether the waterboarding of a key suspect was truly instrumental in locating Bin Laden, as the film seems to suggest. I don’t know the answer to this question, and neither do the vast majority of those opining about it. And ultimately it’s not that important: to reduce the debate over torture to the question of whether it “worked” or not is to have already ceded the moral question. And more generally, the question of historical accuracy in fictional films, like many recurring conversations, is dull and tiresome. But unlike Argo or Lincoln, or even something like Oliver Stone’s JFK, which its director explicitly positioned as a fictional “countermyth” to the bogus official version of the Kennedy assassination, Zero Dark Thirty has been defended as accurate, by both Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who have used phrases like “film as journalism” to describe their movie, thereby positioning it as the definitive account of the events that led to the killing of Bin Laden, and claimed the film is “neutral” as to the efficacy of torture (strawman arguments like “depiction is not endorsement,” etc.). I’m not sure the “film as journalism” shtick is much more than a marketing strategy gone awry, but the insistence on neutrality as if it were an intrinsic virtue is irritating at least, and seems cynically designed to lend weight to a superficial film that wants to have it both ways (see this brilliant post from the always excellent Richard Brody on Zero Dark Thirty as an example of the “dogma of ambiguity” in art cinema). So while I’m not quite willing to go the full Greenwald, the movie certainly doesn’t not endorse torture, and if I were an Academy member I’d feel a bit queasy about voting for it.

Django Unchained, on the other hand, is easily the best film in the field, and my second-favorite American movie of the year (see the bottom of the post, below the picks, for my provisional Top 10 list). Tarantino’s film has attracted some flak for its offensive language, extreme violence, and, unbelievably enough, historical inaccuracy. The language question is unlikely to be resolved here, but I will say that building a fence around offensive words merely increases their power (must we be doomed to continually have to relearn the lessons of the past? I guess we must). But the complaints about violence are misguided and those about historical accuracy are flat-out idiotic. (Yes, the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t founded until well after 1858. Also, Rick Ross hadn’t been born yet, and Hitler didn’t actually die in a French movie theater.) Both violence and anachronism are crucial to Tarantino’s aesthetic strategy in Django, which involves rearranging the tropes of the western to explode the racial underpinnings of the genre. As some of the more astute commentators have noted, the violence against slaves is depicted realistically while the violence against whites is pure genre fantasy. A definitive reading of the film would take a lot more time and space than I have today, but let it suffice to say that while Django is a messier film than Inglourious Basterds, it might ultimately be more radical in its implications.

Picks and preferences (where applicable) can be found below. This is the toughest predictions year I can remember. Of the 24 categories, I generally get somewhere between 16 and 19 right. I’ll be surprised if that number isn’t lower this year, possibly much lower. I’m reasonably confident that Argo, Daniel Day Lewis, Anne Hathaway, Adele, and Michael Haneke (for Foreign Language film) will be going home with Oscars tonight. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Best Picture

Even after the nominations were announced, it appeared that Lincoln was the prohibitive favorite, but upon finally seeing the film, I thought it might be too talky and not emotionally engaging enough for the Academy. In other words, it wasn’t Spielbergian enough.

Will win: Argo
Should win: Django Unchained

Best Director

The lack of a nomination for Affleck leaves this category wide open for once. The few precursor awards that Affleck didn’t win mostly went to Bigelow, so there’s not much to go on here. Spielberg seems like the safest pick, which would make him only the fourth director in history to win three of these, joining fellow Hollywood legends Frank Capra, William Wyler, and John Ford (the only four-time winner). Anyone except Zeitlin could win here—even the chilling possibility of a Haneke victory can't be entirely dismissed. But I’d watch out for David O. Russell.

W: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
S: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor

Daniel Day Lewis appears poised to become the first man to win three Best Actor awards. This is the toughest “should win” call on the board, but I’ll go with Day Lewis by a hair over Joaquin Phoenix.

W: Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
S: Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress

This began as a three-way contest between Jennifer Lawrence, Emmanuelle Riva, and Jessica Chastain. Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty was something of a cipher, and I don’t see that movie winning any headline awards, which leaves a two-woman race. Riva turns 86 today and would be the oldest winner of any acting Oscar ever, beating out Christopher Plummer from last year, but I think Lawrence edges her out.

W: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
S: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Supporting Actress

It occurs to me that I’ve now given Amy Adams at least three Oscars. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

W: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
S: Amy Adams, The Master

Best Supporting Actor

All five nominees in this category have won at least one acting Oscar, which I believe is unprecedented. Anyone could take this, but my guess is that Tommy Lee Jones squeezes past Robert De Niro and Alan Arkin.

W: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
S: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

Screenplay, Original
W: Django Unchained
S: Django Unchained

Screenplay, Adapted
W: Argo
S: Lincoln

Animated Feature
W: Wreck-it Ralph

Documentary Feature
W: Searching for Sugarman

Foreign Language Film
W: Amour

W: Skyfall
S: Skyfall

Production Design
W: Anna Karenina
S: Lincoln (have not seen the other four nominees)

W: Argo
S: Zero Dark Thirty

Visual Effects
W: Life of Pi

Costume Design
W: Anna Karenina
S: Lincoln (have not seen the other four nominees)

W: Les Misérables

Sound Mixing
W: Les Misérables
S: Skyfall

Sound Editing
W: Argo
S: Django Unchained

Original Score
W: Life of Pi
S: [no pick in protest of the ongoing uselessness of the AMPAS music branch]

Original Song:
W: “Skyfall,” Skyfall
S: “Skyfall,” Skyfall

Animated Short
W: Paperman

Live Action Short
W: Curfew

Documentary Short
W: Inocente

And finally, my Top 10 list for 2012. I only saw a few dozen films last year, so this will no doubt be up for revision at some point. The two films at the bottom, in particular, feel more like honorable mentions. Also, I have yet to see any of these a second time, so the order is subject to change as well.

1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.)
2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary)
3. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)
4. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, U.S.)
5. Bernie (Richard Linklater, U.S.)
6. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
7. This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
10. Skyfall (Sam Mendes, U.K.)

04 January 2013

Best Music of 2012

Well, hello again. My ever-declining blog output has slowed to a trickle over the past year, thanks in part to the demands of new fatherhood and a PhD program. But now it’s Top 10 time again, and there is work to be done. So rather than spending the first week of the new year obsessing over the latest simulated crisis coming out of Washington, I’ve produced the following for your reading pleasure. Or something resembling pleasure. This year’s production stars a rock legend, an übertalented R&B sensation, and in the lead role, a girl after my own heart. Enjoy.

1. Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
My favorite Neil Young album is Tonight’s the Night. But if someone who’d never listened to Young asked me for a recommendation, I’d advise starting with something else: After the Gold Rush, Rust Never Sleeps, even a comp like Decade. Great as it is, Tonight’s the Night is not a suitable entry point—too dark, too weird, too forbidding for most neophytes. I feel the same way about Fiona Apple’s fourth album, surely her best to date, but just as surely her strangest and least accessible. Following two albums located within hailing distance of the pop mainstream, Tidal (1996) and When the Pawn… (1999), Apple’s Extraordinary Machine (2005) was an interesting change of direction, more Broadway than Alternative Nation, suggesting that Fiona (I feel like we’re on a first-name basis at this point in our relationship) might be ready to write the Great American Atonal Musical. The Idler Wheel… (improbably not her longest album title ever, by the way) isn’t that, exactly, but does mix traditional pop idioms with decidedly contemporary lyrical content. The key thing is that it is pop, something that becomes clear around the 20th listen or so.

And about those lyrics. Fiona’s never been known as an ace wordsmith, but the new album eliminates the contorted phrasings and strained rhymes that occasionally marred her earlier work. “I stand no chance of growing up,” she sighs in “Valentine,” but clearly she has in her own way. Extraordinary Machine revealed a maturity absent from her ’90s albums, moving beyond petulance and blame toward a new self-awareness and sense of responsibility for her own problems; in short, it was the work of an adult not an adolescent. The Idler Wheel… moves even further toward spiritual maturity and even a sense of self-acceptance. Which is not to say emotional stability. “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” Fiona sings, and she’s brave enough to give us a ringside seat. The result is the year’s boldest, most original, and best album. But if you’ve never listened to Fiona, start with When the Pawn…. (“Jonathan” “Hot Knife”)

2. Frank Ocean—Channel Orange
Following last year’s promising mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, the official debut album from the prodigiously gifted 24-year-old Ocean (né Christopher Breaux) demonstrates an astonishing depth and range. Channel Orange encompasses psychedelic funk (“Pyramids”), swelling balladry (“Bad Religion”), and politically tinged soul à la Stevie (“Sweet Life”)—and those are just the highlights. Few albums of recent years have been so weighted down with expectations, from supposed clues about the artist’s autobiography (easy enough to find) to the alleged revitalization of an entire genre (we’ll see), but Channel Orange is more than good enough to bear such burdens with ease. (“Pyramids” “Sweet Life”)

3. Bruce Springsteen—Wrecking Ball

The Boss’s best album in 25 years surveys the fractured landscape of America in the early 2010s and finds some seriously pissed off people—immigrants, activists, and of course the unemployed—as well as glimmers of hope. Channeling folk and gospel influences in a way never before seen in his songwriting, Springsteen once again finds the pulse of the working-class America he’s been singing about for 40 years. (See “The Patriot,” posted April 15.) (“Wrecking Ball” “We Take Care of Our Own”)

4. Beach House—Bloom
Another triumph from the Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, Bloom improves ever so slightly on 2010’s also excellent Teen Dream with a more unified sound and a keener ear for the subtleties of longform pacing. (“Myth” “New Year”)

5. Tame Impala—Lonerism
I was a big fan of Tame Impala’s 2010 debut Innerspeaker, and their sophomore effort is an improvement in every way. Between the copious borrowings from late ’60s/early ’70s psych-rock and bandleader Kevin Parker’s Lennonesque vocals, this Australian band would seem in danger of being wrongly classified as a retro act. But make no mistake, this is thoroughly modern music, every bit as concerned with texture and flow as a record by, say, Flying Lotus. (“Keep on Lying” “Elephant”)

6. Burial—Kindred
Back in 2008, I disallowed Four Tet’s four-song EP Ringer from Top 10 consideration on the grounds that it didn’t count as a full album despite a running time over 30 minutes, a decision that contributed to my including a couple albums on my list that I’ve hardly listened to since. That was a mistake. (“Ashtray Wasp” “Kindred”)

7. Flying Lotus—Until the Quiet Comes
FlyLo’s previous album Cosmogramma (2010) is one of my favorites of the past several years, but many fans seemed to find it too dense and difficult. (Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I saw a record more criticized essentially for being too good.) As its title suggests, Until the Quiet Comes is quieter and more chilled out than that masterpiece, but it’s still adventurous enough to keep him at the leading edge of sonic innovation. As with the Burial EP and No. 10 below, we’ll be seeing its singular sounds percolating into the mainstream in the coming years. (“Getting There” “Pretty Boy Strut”)

8. Killer Mike—R.A.P. Music
The best hip-hop album of the year punches you in the nose with the opening “Big Beast,” then sneaks up on your woozy ass with its impressive variety, both musical and vocal. R.A.P. Music (that’s Rebellious African People) supplements Mike’s literate tough-guy persona with guest shots from the likes of T.I. (reliably better on other people’s records than on his own) and ace production from El-P (ditto). As for the album’s signature song about a certain dead president, my heart and my best intentions tell me it’s unduly harsh. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. (“Reagan” “Big Beast”)

9. Bob Mould—Silver Age

Let’s face it: even in his youth, Bob Mould was always well suited for the role of crotchety old man, and the cleverly titled Silver Age finds the now 52-year-old postpunk legend well on his way to claiming that mantle. And he’s not ready for fossilization yet. “Stupid little kid wanna hate my game/I don’t need a spot in your hall of fame,” he snarls on the title track. This year marked the 20th anniversary of Sugar’s Copper Blue, arguably Mould’s best work, and this tight 10-song collection largely reprises the sound of that milestone. Mould’s solo career has been filled with experiments, yielding mixed results, but there’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. (“The Descent” “Silver Age”)

10. Actress—R.I.P.
The third album from British producer Darren Cunningham falls somewhere under the rubric of “ambient techno.” At times reminiscent of the work of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, R.I.P. is laid-back enough to work as background music but sonically precise enough to reward close listening. (“Jardin” “Tree of Knowledge”)

Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)

Bob Dylan—Tempest
By my count, this is the master’s 35th studio album, and it may well be his weirdest. As with Wrecking Ball, the reception of Tempest was hurt by the shameless ageism of rock critics (although helped by the reverse ageism of Rolling Stone). (“Long and Wasted Years” “Tin Angel”)

Goat—World Music
This Swedish band arrives complete with some elaborate backstory involving, naturally enough, voodoo rituals that I’m pretty sure is total b.s. But their album is good: hard, funky rock leavened with just the right amount of ’70s cheese (metal, disco) as well as…um, world music. (“Let It Bleed” “Disco Fever”)

Kendrick Lamar—Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City
It’s a bit overlong and the pacing drags toward the middle, but the year’s most celebrated hip-hop album largely deserves its massive critical acclaim. (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” “Swimming Pools (Drank)”)

Andy Stott—Luxury Problems

More British ambient techno, simultaneously cavernous and intimate. (“Luxury Problems” “Hatch the Plan”)

The xx—Coexist
After hearing the self-titled first album by this young British trio back in 2009, I briefly had faith in the future of humanity, which I’m sure must have lasted at least until the next time I logged on to Facebook or turned on my TV. The follow-up doesn’t have quite as many standout songs but continues co-lead-vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims’s quiet explorations of the pleasures and perils of intimacy, with appropriately insular production from Jamie xx. (“Chained” “Fiction”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

1. Taylor Swift—“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Country-pop star reaches for the mainstream, sends up fan base, expresses insecurity about perceived lack of coolness.

2. Cloud Nothings—“Wasted Days”

3. Japandroids—“The House That Heaven Built”

4. Four Tet—“Jupiters”
The tracks collected on Kieran Hebden’s self-released compilation Pink suggest a turn toward a more dancefloor-oriented sensibility, with the two-minute ambient synth intro here providing perhaps the most explicit connection to his previous work. As always, I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

5. Kanye West (feat. Jay-Z and Big Sean)—“Clique”
Even his superficial raps is super official.