Posts Tagged ‘oscars’

Apollo’s Girl

February 8, 2015

apollo and lyre
NYFF52: Red Carpet Crystal Ball–
A Little Cloudy…

film societyJanuary 11 was the deadline for my annual whine about who—first seen at the New York Film Festivalgets which Oscar. It’s getting to be a tradition in these pages; a long, hard look back at NYFF after the mind has cleared and the dust has settled and before the statuettes have actually changed hands. But watching the shattering events in France, and the lions linking arms with the lambs (if charlie1not actually lying down with them) as they marched over a million strong through Paris, it was hard to leave television’s realities (at home and abroad) to concentrate on what was showing on the big screen. And to contemplate the crystal ball. So I waited a while.charlie2

It was especially difficult this year becausewith the full deployment of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Centerthere was non-stop action every single day at NYFF for a month. But now that most of the films are finally out and about let the choices begin!

Despite the virtues of the Festival’s three big ones with pride of place (Gone Girl; Inherent Vice; and Birdman), it wasn’t until almost the end of the press screening weeks that Foxcatcher was unveiled. And what an unveiling it was! Unlike even the best films, foxcatcher2Foxcatcher didn’t unspoolit unfolded, like a latter-day Greek tragedy, defined by ever-escalating tension built into the unfolding and the performances Bennett Miller drew from Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum. Theirs was a perfect trifecta, always in balance, winning a Gotham Award for ensemble performance. In fact, I’d walked out on two of Carrell’s previous films (they were, honestly, just too dumb to sit through and, of course, wildly successful). Not on this one, though. Attention must be paid to that kind of revelation.

With his role as the psychopathic scion of an old and very wealthy foxcatcher1family and a by-now infamous prosthetic nose, Carrell deserves to take home the statuette, no matter how intense the competition. But there’s more: the cinematography by Greig Fraser and the editing by another trifecta (Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill) fill in the colors and connect the dots. Will it win? Well, I complained a lot about Social Network losing to The King’s Speech ( suspect that the buzz around Boyhood and Birdman may outweigh anything I can plead on Foxcatcher’s behalf; it isn’t even foxcatcher3nominated for Best Film. But just to sum up: I saw it a second time right after the NYFF press screening; every seat was filled, and the audience barely breathed for two hours and nine minutes. No one took a break or texted, either. These days, that’s a colossal endorsement. With luck, Miller will end up as Best Director. (And who can forget that his golden portfolio includes both Moneyball and Capote?)

Then there was the shock of Whiplash. whiplash poster2Watching it was like being at the epicenter of a tornado. In addition to its many glories, it’s the first film I can remember since Ray that’s truly inside musicnot some Hollywood executive’s idea of what music might be. The conflicts and characters are the stuff of great storytelling, but the music itself is performed by actual musicians, and/or by actors who have had considerable experience at playing. Miles Teller’s final drum solo is so intense it wihplash2made me cry Whiplash (2014) -- Screengrab from exclusive clip.(and believe me, I wasn’t unhappy!). J.K. Simmons has already, like a magnetized locomotive, been collecting awards for best supporting actor.
But let’s look at
Damien Chazelle for a minute: chazelle2
he’s only made one other feature (
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench),
He has, thank God, music in his blood, and he is generous with it. And he also shot Whiplash in 19 days and edited it in two months. Where I come from, that’s called a miracle.

The sad thing is that these two films, each great in its own way, have both been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Film (Whiplash) and Best Achievement in Directing (Foxcatcher). It’s not only apples and oranges, but the Apollo of Foxcatcher vs. the Dionysus of Whiplash.

sissakoTimbuktu, created by Abderrahmane Sissako, is a front-runner for Best Foreign Film, and the first ever contender from Mali. Sissako is part Malian and part Mauritanian, learned his considerable craft at a Russian film school, and has lived primarily in France. For centuries Timbuktu was a crossroads of trade and the timbuktu3melting pot of northwest Africa, until its annexation by extremists in recent years. Sissako knows the territory and the traditions, but filters them through highly sophisticated sensibilities and technique to tell his storya dreamlike tragedy which begins with references to the region’s Edenic, multicultural past and ends with the horror of its present and likely destiny. There’s only one problem: the oranges and apples in this Oscar category are complicated by the presence ida2of Ida, another serious contender. As austere in black-and-white as Timbuktu is sensual in color, Ida (seen at Lincoln Center early last year at the Jewish Film Festival) is all the more powerful for its minimalism. How can we possibly choose between them?

Finally, when it comes to documentaries, NYFF’s Citizen Four is a front-runner for the statue, and with good reason. It’s hard to top either the extreme intelligence and discipline of director Laura Poitress, or her subject, Edward Snowden, as they gradually reveal the extent to which our government has been citizen foursurveilling most of its citizens, or what may come of it in the not-too-distant future. And, of course, its very understatement is what creates its impact. However: its strengths provide one more serving of apples and oranges: the style and content of Gabe Polsky’s Red Army: no less intelligent and disciplined, definitely more raucous and outrageous, andhow did this happen?—not even on the Oscar shortlist, let alone one of its nominees. Red Army, in 76 well-stacked and packed minutes, manages to even-handedly condense fetisovthe complex history of the Cold War through the rollicking tale of the Russian hockey team that ended up playing for New Jersey and then Toronto. As if this weren’t enough, its mighty protagonist Slava Fetisov all but walks off with the movie as he embraces his cellphone, the joys of both conspicuous capitalism and warm collectivism, and his own bigger-than-life force that powers the film.

Full disclosure of personal theory: it has become evident that you can tell a lot from the press conferences that often follow press screenings. The casts and crews of Foxcatcher, Whiplash, and Red Army were pumped beyond any flackery. They knew they had a very, very good thing, and you knew that they knew. It’s all about the energy, and it never lies.

P.S.: A word of thanks for the NYFF’s choice of retrospectives: 21 of Joseph Mankiewicz’s films representing his outsize palette (including Cleopatra, All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa, and that people will talkhard-to-find civilized gem, People Will Talk). And welcome backward glances at This is Spinal Tap, plus a gloriously restored print of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour.hiroshima2


Cogito: John Branch

February 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Let the Light In!

JB photo-painting by RC 2Few people have been nonplussed by Zero Dark Thirty. I haven’t done a survey, but as far as I can tell, its viewers have fallen into one of two camps. There are those who see it in terms of the art of film, most of whom admire it, and those who view it in terms of journalism or history, by which standards it seems universally to fail, mainly on the torture issue. I think they’re both wrong, for a combination of reasons. (Be warned: spoilers ahead.)

Point 1 on torture: the facts of the matter aren’t clear. Journalist Steve Coll, in a long discussion for The New York Review of Books (, states that “most of the record about the CIA’s interrogation program remains secret.” Coll also reports that officials with access to the classified record disagree on the role that torture played in the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. Given such vast uncertainty about what actually happened, it’s hard to see how anyone can be sure (as Coll is, despite his own admissions) that Zero Dark Thirty is wrong or even misleading.

chastainPoint 2 on torture: the movie isn’t clear either. In one sequence, we see a prisoner named Ammar being tortured without revealing anything. In a later sequence, the central character (Maya, played by Jessica Chastain) and her partner drop the torture, treat Ammar to lunch, and falsely tell him he gave them information that helped foil an attack; he then reveals a handful of names pertaining to something else. This information leads ultimately to bin Laden’s courier—the key to locating bin Laden himself—but the movie is ambiguous on why Ammar talked. Was it because the torture loosened him up? Because he’s willing to help once he’s had a square meal?Because he was tricked? We can’t be sure. Later, a man named al-Libi is tortured but reveals nothing; Maya assumes that means he’s hiding something important. In those cases and others, the movie makes clear that torture was employed by the CIA (until it was decisively banned), but it’s ambiguous on whether torture directly produced useful information.

It’s only a movie. A former CIA employee named Nada Bakos complained at length in Pacific Standard online ( about the many ways Zero Dark Thirty deviates from her knowledge and experience of how the CIA worked during the bin Laden search. Steve Coll encapsulated many of her objections in one sentence when he wrote that the film “[tells] the story of the decade-long bin Laden hunt, which involved many hundreds of CIA officers and military personnel, primarily through the experience of a single analyst.” This is the same kind of condensing done by countless TV and film dramas about medicine, trial law, and police work. Does a hospital doctor watch House and then gripe that diagnosticians don’t also run MRIs, take fluid or tissue samples, or do lab work? Not if (s)he is smart. Nor should any of us mistake Zero Dark Thirty for history or journalism.

DIR_500_lede_Zero-Dark-Thirty3 • It fails not as fact but as fiction. Director Kathryn Bigelow said, in a December 17, 2012, Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker (, “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” That’s just the problem with what she and screenwriter Mark Boal created. Critic Richard Brody, writing for the magazine’s Front Row blog (, described Boal and bigelow_timeBigelow’s method this way: “The movie’s pseudo-objectivity is a willful ambiguity of a very distinct sort; its willful rejection of the inner life is a posturing stance of cool, an attitude of no attitude.” (Brody goes on to say this stance “may be the fault of André Bazin”; film-theory adepts may enjoy that part of his essay.) The film’s attitude of no attitude, its refusal to judge, set viewers adrift in a tide of mere facts. In a manner of speaking, the characters don’t care about what they’re doing—we know little of what they think or feel, except that they’re dedicated to their jobs—so it’s hard for us to care either.

In this respect, Zero Dark Thirty suffers in comparison with a film such as Hostel, which I saw on TV recently. Writer-director Eli Roth’s “shabby  Hostel 1-8little shocker” (a term once applied to the opera Tosca and just as true here) opens with a title that reads “Quentin Tarantino Presents,” which led me to expect stylized violence that’s not to be taken very seriously. But Hostel gives you something that Boal and Bigelow’s magnum opus doesn’t: an angle on the characters. The men who wield instruments of torture in Hostel go about their business with varieties of sadistic glee. That’s nothing great in terms of an inner life, but at least they have one, and you can react to it. By contrast, the first thing my filmgoing friend and I decided about Zero Dark Thirty is something neither of us expected for such an admired and talked-about film: it was very boring, followed by less boring.

A 2010 book by David Shields proposed the concept of “reality hunger.” That’s a subject for another discussion, except for this: we ought to know what kind of reality we’re hungry for. What kind of life are we hoping to grasp in our books, movies, TV shows, and plays? Despite the issues involved, Zero Dark Thirty is pretty exclusively concerned with mechanical life, material life, the life of bodies and bullets and bombs. There’s more to life than that.
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Apollo’s Girl

February 25, 2012


With a bow in the general direction of L.A., it’s always fun to look back at the NYFF to see how many of its entries are cinematic pointers to Oscar’s final cuts. Call it the Nostradamus effect…

With no jet lag, it’s been the most interesting and least expensive grand tour around since 1962: think 2009’s White Ribbon (Germany) and Precious. And 2010’s Social Network and Of Gods and Men (France) Well, the 2011 slate was no exception. We got The Artist (US/France), A Separation (Iran), and some memorable multi-nationals. 

The Artist had scored at Cannes; since word on the festival circuit travels quickly, the press screening was packed, the air crackled. Afterwards, the Q & A featured both producer and director, and six cast members—all visibly pumped. One of the initial queries, from a senior critic, began with ”Before I ask a question, let me thank you for bringing us the best film at the festival!” It was a first, and got a huge round of applause. All subsequent hype aside, is there anybody who doesn’t actually love this film? Apart from its many pleasures, it’s got that tap dancing and a dog (yes, named Uggie). Director/writer Hazanavicius knew exactly the film he wanted to make, and he had all the technical skill necessary to make it. And to get, and keep, his cast and crew on the same page. Trust the Weinstein company to know what to do with it. Consider it done. To a turn.


A Separation. Penetrating, heartbreaking—and universal. The unresolvable conflicts between a husband and wife deeply in love, yet torn apart by their separate needs. Even the minor characters are artfully drawn, their points of view and intersections made clear. The lady-or-the-tiger ending really does damage where you least want it to.

There were, as always, many excellent films and many surprises from every corner of the world, long and short, deep and quirky, thought-provoking and entertaining, but always marked by their perspective on what life is like somewhere else, and what’s being made there that mirrors it.

Lars von Trier was back with Melancholia, exonerating himself from last years Antichrist, but not, apparently from his bad press and bad taste at Cannes.

Pedro Almodovar was back, too, with The Skin I Live In. A dark, complex scenario, with great performances from Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya (who can wear a bodysuit better than anyone), it was both creepy and fascinating, and pulled together as only Almodovar could possibly do it. Brilliantly.

The Descendants. This was a rich, fascinating story, set in Hawaii. Technically, part of the United States, but so different in its culture and heritage. If only it had been made by, say, Peter Weir, or a European, it would have been even richer. Much as I’ve enjoyed George Clooney in Up in the Air, (see  December, 2009 post), Michael Clayton, and especially in Syriana, I was not convinced by Alexander Payne that Clooney (or Beau Bridges) were fourth-generation Hawaiian royalty. A less Hollywood-y spotlight would have illuminated its character-driven plot to advantage. Still, it’s a contender, has that rich story, and some really serious scenery.

      Le Havre (Finland/France/) A lovely, retrospective look at French films of the 1930s. Think l’Atalante, Zero de Conduite, Jean Gabin. And Aki Kaurismaki really pulled off its nostalgic look at today’s characters pretending to be in the long-ago.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Slow and droll, in the same emotional key as Romania’s Police, Adjective (see October 6, 2009 post). Its deliberate pace gave us plenty of time to contemplate the vistas and small-town mindset of today’s (or really yesterday’s) Turkey, and relish the delicious flaws and virtues revealed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s script and sly direction.

The Turin Horse. Everyone has hailed this as a masterpiece. But I found it increasingly unbearable, and left after the first hour. My heart went out to the horse, and to the actors, who had to bear the wind, the rain, the cold, and a lot of hot potatoes. Did well at last year’s Berlinale, but didn’t make the final cut for this year’s Oscars.

This is Not a Film  Apparently the Iranians simply cannot make a bad film. And this one really is a masterpiece. It’s cinematic stone soup, made in despair by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been forbidden to make any more movies for 20 years and has lived under house arrest for more than six; it’s as deep as it is fiendishly clever. Simply a day in his life (recorded by a filmmaker friend) as he talks into the camera, deals with his neighbors, and reproaches his iguana (yes, named Iggie), revealing his pain at being cut off from what he does best and cannot do. There are some moments of black comedy, but its scope and imagination, and Panahi’s strength are breathtaking. At film forum from February 29 – March 13; don’t miss it!

Well, you get the idea. And, if you’re smart, you’ll get tickets as far in advance as possible for the 2012 edition of NYFF. It’s the festival’s 50th anniversary, and Richard Peña’s 25th (and final) season as the festival’s director. Expect to be astonished with the slate, especially since there are now three more theaters for screening the mix.

Meantime, my heart’s pinned on Uggie for Sunday night.

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