“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” — William Faulkner
We’re always in a rush to judgment about movies: hit/flop, success/failure, best picture winner/loser. Spurred on by the impulse to check insta-polls in 2012, we’ve been in such a hurry to reach snap verdicts that we often don’t bother to take the time we need to digest the films we’ve seen. We tweet our first impressions as fast as our thumbs can tap, as soon as the lights come up. Those opinions then go on record, they get spread and read across the country and around the world, helping to shape other opinions, and so and so on. Gut reaction chain reaction. Even if a film somehow manages to run the gauntlet and hit every possible check box to define its greatness, it still has to rise above dozens of catchy headlines, off-the-cuff remarks, and articles as the inevitable backlash sets in. Smart marketers keep expectations low enough so they can reach the masses every time. Dangling the low hanging fruit, as it were, is the reason McDonald’s is so successful. Don’t risk enough and the collective jury will shrug. Risk too much to please the critics? The fans? Good luck with that. Success is measured in money and praise. But to make bank and earn cred filmmakers need to please both the high-minded and the lowbrow. Problem is, those two types don’t usually hook up for date night on opening weekend. All the same, against all odds, a few bold filmmakers are still willing to try what’s never been done, to take daring leaps of faith that could make or break their careers.
The Oscars don’t necessarily reward risk because why should they? They are in the business of picking what the Academy members liked best, though they like to pretend they represent the “highest achievements in filmmaking.” Voters are no longer influenced by public reception — because decisions are mostly made in private screenings rooms, on blogs and in film reviews before many of those films even hit theaters. The one exception to that trajectory right now is Argo. It has gone the traditional route of moving through film festivals, past the critics and briskly onto the public, where word of mouth is now driving it towards $100 million. So where’s the risk in Argo, you might ask? Didn’t Ben Affleck make a great movie simply by sticking to conventional plot structure and never drawing outside the lines? To some degree, yes. But consider this. That Affleck is making major films at all is quite a reach and risk in itself. He had to overcome a lot of public ridicule after being dismissed by the industry. He ignored the naysayers who had him pegged wrong. He stepped out on a precarious ledge at a dizzying creative height to make three interesting films in a row, Argo easily besting his previous efforts.
A debate erupted on Twitter recently about the potential effect of box-office and mixed reviews for Cloud Atlas, and whether the numbers meant Hollywood would be gun-shy about making these kinds of films in the future. Movies that take bold risks are watched closely to gauge critical acclaim or box office appeal. A risky movie needs one or the other. If for some reason a film earns neither, many will consider it a failure. Groupthink often goes along too easily with that anointing, only to discover many years later that groupthink was wrong. Anne Thompson said she worried the bad reviews of Cloud Atlas could kill other studios’ desire to take on such a massive risk again. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody chimed in saying that filmmakers should take risks that don’t cost that much money — his prescription for artistic risk would require artists conduct their experiments on a shoestring budget. And indeed, several breakthrough films this year have been made on a wing and a prayer. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which has been winning awards right and left, was made with practically nothing, and Ava Duvernay’s Middle of Nowhere cost less than a typical studio movie’s Oscar campaign. Both have done well with critics and both got their start at Sundance this year.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is another hit with critics that’s received similar complaints about the money — for some, it’s thought be too costly a gamble for the fickle tastes of the critics and public. Oscar, too, likes to keep budgets low. The Academy is happy when a movie like The King’s Speech costs around $15 million and generates $150 million in ticket sales. That movie took no risks, particularly, but it was well made and moving. But, really, industry people like to watch the money so for the purpose of an industry award, profitability is a big factor for most Best Picture wins.
In order to judge the success or failure of a movie, why not factor in the level of difficulty? There is no way the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer could have made Cloud Atlas on the cheap. There is simply no way they could have made a multi-century period film/sci-fi sweeping romantic epic that took you so deep into so many worlds. The money made the art possible. No studio wanted to fund it so the Wachowskis put their own houses up to help finance their dreams. They mortgage their homes, they take a leap of faith and the critics shrug. Meh, they say. How easy for them to write it off. To paraphrase Anton Ego in Ratatouille, there is no risk in watching a film and giving your opinion. A critic’s job is to objectively analyze a film and give you his best assessment. Although there were few of them who factored in the level of difficulty, very few of them really got what kind of risk these filmmakers and Hollywood were taking. But who cares, right? Just another story on twitter. Just another day in Hollywood. Just another title scratched off on busy writer’s to-do list… Just another delicate butterfly roughly thumb-tacked to the specimen board.
In the end, true movie-lovers are the ones who suffer the aftermath of this ongoing battle between the critics, box-office and that ever elusive green light that flickers in a corner office. Success is measured differently over time. You only need to read the New York Times review of Vertigo from 1958 to understand how drastically opinions can shift as time goes by. Hitchcock was a hell of a risk taker and his choices didn’t always please the critics. We know they didn’t please the Academy; Hitch was nominated for five Oscars for directing and never won. Vertigo was nominated for two, count ‘em, two Oscars – Art Direction and Sound. Who could have said in 1958 what would become of Vertigo — apparently nobody.
So here’s to the risk-takers of 2012. The balls-out, shameless, driven brave ones who nodded to convention and then blew it up.
Joe Wright ought to be applauded for having cut open a vein to make his odd Anna Karenina. He put Keira Knightley in another romantic period film and then completely upended expectations. Theatrical, detached, frozen and yet, the last direction you’d expect him to take as a director. So maybe we shouldn’t have to suffer so that he can evolve as an artist. On the other hand, maybe the extreme folly of his unconventional take on Anna Karenina is part of the point. Maybe younger audiences can watch it and get a little education in classic literature. The film didn’t quite work for me but the first thing I would say about it is, hats off to Wright for taking that kind of risk.
Ava DuVernay for creating a protagonist rarely seen on American screens — a young black female trying figure out where her life is going and somehow finding peace in not quite knowing. DuVernay discarded the formula Hollywood has prescribed for a tried and true hit with the black community. If she had taken a more familiar path, the movie would be selling more tickets. As it is she wanted to do something different so she emptied her own bank account and maybe nudged an immovable object on the fringes of US cinema ever so slightly closer to the front row.
Paul Thomas Anderson for making an expensive film that doesn’t bow to formula. Many people angrily walked out because they couldn’t see how it made any sense. Its an artful mirror but one that perhaps reflects back to us too much truth. Do we really want to know just how precariously we dangle from the edge of our primitive instincts? Do we really want to own the meaningless absurdity of human existence? Never going for the easy out, Anderson remained true to his own vision. Turns out, this one mostly lit the critics on fire, which may preserve his reputation if Hollywood wants to start talking money. A few Oscar nominations will surely help to solidify that investment.
Wes Anderson mounted a whole world cut from felt to bring Moonrise Kingdom to the big screen. He cast the supporting roles with stars but for the leads her found two unknowns. An odd brightly colored microcosm of the limitless horizons of the young, untarnished brain. Maybe they have nowhere to go, really, maybe their growing up is as inevitable as their minds ever so slowly cranking shut. But to make that world, to invite us into it? Wow.
Benh Zeitlin decided to do what no one ever before thought possible to do — make a film about a black girl who thinks in poetic verse. Shamelessly sentimental, not politically correct, hard on liberals who find themselves conflicted about the film’s ideas, an easy target for some critics who derided it as “poverty porn,” mistaking the vibrant imaginings of a very talented artist for a literal take on life in bayou. Poetry is alive in film once again — dirty, violent, forbidding and altogether dazzling is Beasts of the Southern Wild. I bow down to Zeitlin just as the beasts bow down to Hushpuppy, with praise, admiration and awe.
Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi is a 3-D epic depicting the inner world of a religious young man who elects to open his mind to boundless possibilities. No known stars, unconventional structure, and the absurd notion of a whole film about a boy and a tiger stuck in a boat. But oh, the revelation at the end. It is worth every minute to get there. And yet, this film does not follow any formula for success. It isn’t a remake or a sequel. It doesn’t have a mass-marketing hook or a catch phrase. Nothing blows up. There are no heroes, particularly. This is a 3-D special effects movie about spirituality. Imagine that. What a gift for bored audiences. And yet, the film already has its detractors who were apparently looking for more conventional structure. The problem with many of those who have the privilege of seeing movies before anyone else does is that we are relying on their taste. And their taste is informed by who they are. Everyone seeing a film brings to it their own baggage. We have to know that baggage to know that opinion. We rely on the critics to be seers but all too often their take on a movie is far more disappointing than the movie could ever be.
Robert Zemeckis’ Flight could have easily been a formula film. It could have been cast with all-white actors because those actors are major box office draws. He could have just cast it with Denzel Washington, who is a proven box office draw. But Zemeckis casts it with what will turn out to be the most diverse cast of the year besides Cloud Atlas. I was taken aback by that. Torn completely away from what I was expecting, I sat there stunned. Moreover, the plane crash happens at the beginning of the film, rather than at the film’s climax. This is a movie about a man’s internal life, with Washington’s exceptional performance leading the way. It’s risky because audiences are far more used to Washington playing the hero, the guy who gets everyone else out of the mess. But this time, he’s the mess.
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln might be one of the biggest risks taken this year. Instead of making a splashy Civil War epic, Spielberg, and writer Tony Kushner made it a political procedural, a movie about ideas and discussions rather than battle scenes and plantation raids. This is a movie about people talking through their differences to make history. There is nothing easy about this movie and there is no telling how the public will respond to something where they really have to sit and pay attention. Daniel Day-Lewis decided to give Lincoln a slightly high-pitched voice, another huge risk that caused the chattering collective to briefly lose their minds. Maybe his voice always will be a “thing” but Day-Lewis uses voice as his key to authenticity and Speilberg gave him free rein. If there is any movie right now that challenges Argo it’s Lincoln, and that is because Spielberg took such a big risk — and so far, it has paid off.
Nick Jarecki whose Arbitrage is about a pretty bad guy. Making a whole film about an anti-hero is never easy. We want our bad guys to pay and we want our good guys to prevail. But what if the bad guys never do pay? What if the bad guys prevail? Such is the world we’re living in in 2012, especially as our country’s future is under threat of being taken over by the 1% who already all but control our government. Richard Gere has played both good and bad characters but here he is so slippery, so charming, so clever you forget what he is in the end, and that is the point.
Tom Hooper and Les Miserables — of course no one has really seen the movie but how else but daring can we describe a movie made with actors singing live? Talk about a huge gamble that may or may not pay off. Without having yet seen the film we bow down to the very notion of not playing it safe and are eager to see the results.
Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty — Imagine, a female director making a movie about catching one of the most hated enemies in American history who was venerated by a culture that mostly treats women as second class citizens or worse. It is, to me, the ultimate payback. But Bigelow’s biggest career risk (because no one will ever agree that her making this movie is an artistic risk since they all seem to think it’s going to be just like The Hurt Locker) is that she is getting blowback from the wall of noise on the Right. They keep flinging shit at her and she just keeps on making her movie. Hopefully the film itself will finally make them shut their collective pie-holes.
Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight Rises. I have to wonder if one big, crazy risk doesn’t beget another. Did the Wachowskis’ earlier work with The Matrix open up previously closed doors to allow Christopher Nolan to step through them with the likes of Memento and Inception? Working within the strict confines of the comic book genre, the sequel AND the remake, Nolan reached for new heights nonetheless. Though he’ll probably never get enough Academy respect for his exceptional work with this trilogy, there is no denying what kind of impact it has had on Hollywood, on fan’s expectations and on cinema. How easy it would have been to make The Dark Knight Rises as a formula movie that pays off as expected. Sure, Batman still saves the day but the reality of his triumph isn’t that he puts on a bat suit and kills a bunch of bad guys; it’s that as Bruce Wayne he loses everything but gains a bigger understanding of what the world needs. That subtle transformation, in our world, means everything. Though it was a risk to end it that way, to take it where he took it, it worth it.
And finally, my unbridled admiration to Lana and Andy Wachowski and to Tom Tykwer for mortgaging their own homes to finance Cloud Atlas — a film that I’ve already seen three times and plan to see many times over the years. The film that might end up being my favorite of 2012. It feels as though I’ve bought a ticket to an alternate universe, watching that movie. Every dollar spent is on the screen. At almost three hours you get far more than you pay for. Despite some hokey stuff set in a post-apocalyptic future in another part of the solar system, the film is a lot more elegantly put together than the critics apparently give it credit for. Once you’ve seen it twice and then go back for a third viewing everything makes so much more sense and you find yourself going even deeper into this story, which has been so carefully, meticulously laid out. But it isn’t an easy sell. It either sweeps you away or it doesn’t. During my third viewing, right at the end, the most beautiful moment in the whole film, three audience members in front of us burst out laughing. Sure, that’s the easier way to take Cloud Atlas in. Laugh at anything you’re unaccustomed to taking seriously. But if you do that you have opened only one door. And that, my friends, won’t do. The brazen spectacular daring of Cloud Atlas is worthy of our praise.
Risk-taking is usually left up to filmmakers in other countries where the dollar is not the bottom line. How surprising, then, to see so much of here in the US this year. Hopefully the audiences and the critics can keep up.
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Long shots/For Your Consideration:
Middle of Nowhere
Ben Affleck, Argo
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Tom Hooper, Les Miz
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Dark horses: Ang Lee, Life of Pi, Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained, , Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ava DuVernay, Middle of Nowhere
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Dark Horses: Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock, Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook, Tom Holland, The Impossible
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Marion Cotillard, Rust & Bone
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Dark Horses: Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises, Judi Dench, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Meryl Streep, Hope Springs Emanuelle Riva, Amour, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere, Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Alan Arin, Argo
Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Don Cheadle or John Goodman, Flight
Dark Horse – Bill Nighy, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, someone from Les Miserables
For your consideration: Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas
Sally Field, Lincoln
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Amy Adams, The Master
Maggie Smith, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Dark Horse: Ann Dowd, Compliance, someone from Hitchcock
For your consideration: Doona Bae, Cloud Atlas, Lorraine Toussaint, Middle of Nowhere
Middle of Nowhere
Dark Horse: Looper
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Beasts of the Southern Wild