BEST DIRECTOR

gone-girl-5-3

I feel like I’m probably trying to make fetch happen with Gone Girl and Best Picture. It should come as no surprise to you readers that I loved the movie. It’s my favorite film of the year, followed very closely by Selma, Boyhood and Inherent Vice. So many of the movies this year are themes about men and though it’s fun to cheer them on from the sidelines and enjoy these wonderful films about them, Gone Girl, Selma, Inherent Vice and Boyhood are really the films that offered me personally a deeper, richer experience.  I understand that the Oscar race is about predicting what they’ll do – and they are not single mothers like me, mostly, but rather men. Still, this feels like one of the most wide open and confusing Oscar races in memory. Whether Gone Girl gets in or not seems to be the only suspense it has to offer at this point in time.

Why is that, well, most of the Oscar movies according to pundits happened already, way way back in September at Telluride. Not a lot has changed since then except Gone Girl and Selma.  While everyone waits for the two unseen films, Unbroken and Into the Woods, Best Picture seems to once again swirl around a few titles, if the pundits are to be believed.

Gone Girl might not have hit the target with critics but it certainly hit with Maureen Down at the New York Times and Linda Holmes at NPR, not to mention the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. But it’s a tough sell, if you ask any of the pundits or critics for two reasons. The first, it has an ambiguous ending that leaves you feeling uncomfortable. The second, it’s accused of being “airport novel” material and not high fallootin’ enough. And then there is the occasional asshole who chimes in with silly comments like “It isn’t an Oscar movie” or some such – an Oscar movie only means it’s one of the best films of the year and Gone Girl most certainly is that.

Either way, I would like to just point out the disconnect between the Oscar world and the regular world where Gone Girl, and the other films, are concerned. It feels like something is really off if a film is beloved on the one hand and disregarded on the other.  We’ll be checking back with this as the year progresses. For one thing, The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher have not yet opened, nor earned enough ratings at any websites to be included in the chart.  But if you count the public at all, this is how it’s shaping up so far.

First, the Gurus of Gold at Movie City News queried before Selma and American Sniper and after. Here is how they look side by side:

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 12.22.36 PM

Now let’s look at the stats.

Usually Best Picture can be mostly determined by how the major guilds vote. To figure out a Best Picture contender I usually look at the the likelihood of the guilds to nominate the movie. For Gone Girl I feel like Producers Guild and Directors Guild are probably safe bets. For Screen Actors Guild an ensemble nod would not be out of the question, as the film has one of the best ensembles of the year.

The DGA is really a pretty good determiner for Best Picture, even though they will announce after Oscar ballots have been turned in.

Right now, I feel like the DGA five are:
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Alejandro Inarritu, Birdman
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar or Morton Tyldum, Imitation Game
Ava DuVernay, Selma

In the end, I am not sure what to think of this year. It feels very weird and kind of thin, like many of the films that were supposed to be stronger bets aren’t quite there.

Where Christopher Nolan and David Fincher might make the DGA’s list, the Academy might not pick them and might instead go for Damien Chazelle for Whiplash, and Mike Leigh for Mr. Turner.

In 2012, the DGA went for Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper but the Academy went with Michael Haneke, David O. Russell and Benh Zeitlin.

Angelina Jolie and Rob Marshall’s fate are as yet unknown but a couple of dark horse contenders should shake up the race a bit and those include:
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
James Marsh for The Theory of Everything
JC Chandor for A Most Violent Year
Clint Eastwood for American Sniper

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 1.45.50 PM

Scott Feinberg hosted a roundtable with actors and filmmakers for Oscars 2014 – but honestly? Tilda Swinton’s hair for the win.

Each of the eight panelists were associated with top-notch 2014 indies: writer-director J.C. Chandor (AFI Fest opener A Most Violent Year); writer-director Damien Chazelle (Sundance grand jury and audience award winner Whiplash); Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard (Belgian Oscar submission Two Days, One Night, as well as 2013 Cannes selection The Immigrant); Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal (Toronto selections Nightcrawler and, from 2013, Enemy); actor Bill Hader (a best actor Gotham Award nominee for Sundance selection The Skeleton Twins); actress Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss); actress Kristen Stewart (Toronto selection Still Alice, as well as Sundance selection Camp X-Ray and Cannes selection The Clouds of Sils Maria); and Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer, as well as 2013 Cannes selection Only Lovers Left Alive and Berlin selection The Grand Budapest Hotel).

Read the full piece at Hollywood Reporter.

_1412562465

Clint Eastwood’s best war film is Letters from Iwo Jima. Its partner film, Flags of our Fathers is also very good though more sentimental, less precise, and less revered. American Sniper is far more like the latter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have brilliance to it. It just means that it’s not the sweeping statement of war, or even the Iraq war, that people might be thinking it is. In fact, like Flags of our Fathers, American Sniper is a tribute to a fallen war vet, a sincere memorial to a brave soldier’s legacy.

The movie I had in my head, which doesn’t count for a hill of beans, was a statement against the war after this sniper killed a record number of men, women and yes, children in Iraq so that when he came home he was a hollow man. That Chris Kyle was then famously “accidentally shot” at a shooting range is a big part of his story, a profound irony for the military’s greatest sniper, yet for this film it is merely a footnote.

Eastwood was not interested in making Kyle’s death the biggest part of his story and was clearly devoted to the notion that the vet ought to be remembered for his heroic and traumatic service at war time. The story about the gun, the subsequent shootout with cops as they pursued Kyle’s killer opens a debate about gun violence in the US, a futile, pointless death juxtaposed against the 160 Iraqis Kyle killed. That’s an interesting dynamic but it is not part of American Sniper.

Instead, this film is about the difficulties fighting that endless, horrific war (which continues to rage on) and Kyle’s refusal to accept that he was afflicted with PTSD, struggling with survivor guilt seemed to torment him more.

All the same, it’s difficult to know what to feel watching the film, though I suspect if you believe we fought the good fight in Iraq or that our thousands of soldiers killed over there was worth it you will find this story resonates more than if you are someone who opposes the war and believes that we had no business going in.

The film draws a parallel between 9/11 and Iraq that, from Kyle’s point of view, he was amped and ready to go when the towers were hit, never mind that they were hit by Al Qaida – his country called him to fight and he believed that’s what he was fighting for.

Thoughout the film, Kyle rages against the enemy and that rage is never undone, as it is in Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-war film, The Hurt Locker. Eastwood clearly feels that this man fought for his country and paid a high price as he tried to fit in to the life he was supposed to have back home, a happy love nest with his wife (Sienna Miller) and their two kids.

Naturally, the war scenes are the most vivid thing about the film. They are terrifying. Eastwood does not sugar coat what Kyle had to do, which included shooting children, though that was clearly the thing that troubled him most. He had to shoot any kid who aimed weapons with the intent to kill Marines. In once bravura sequence, the soldiers are caught up in a dust storm – and only then do we see any sort of commentary on this ongoing war.

Miller does her best with what she has to work with but indeed, those scenes have less impact than the war scenes because she doesn’t have much to do – Eastwood is great with women on film, always has been, and despite the clunky dialogue he gives her some nice moments.

The real standout and the reason to see this movie, however, is Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. Cooper disappears into the role, illustrating remarkable versatility. He packed on the pounds and nailed Kyle’s accent. In a competitive year of great male performances, Cooper’s is a standout.

But American Sniper suffers, like all films around this time of year, from inflated expectations of Oscar bloggers who called it as a strong Best Picture contender early on. That is how we end up with the movies in our heads and why sometimes that can be a detriment to the film ultimately.

It also followed Ava DuVernay’s Selma on the night it premiered at the AFI Fest, a cinematic experience that was the best anyone could hope for. American Sniper will make lots of money, particularly outside the big blue cities and deep in the red states.

We must never dismiss nor take for granted what our soldiers have done in service of our country. We train them to take the mission whether they agree with it or not. What a shame that their fates are in the hands of people who make such bad decisions with their precious lives.

75-12

“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was brought to vibrant life at the AFI Film Fest in Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary new film, Selma, about the civil rights protest that ultimately led to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Too many black men killed today; too many black men killed in 1965. Spike Lee wrestled with the opposing movements of the 1960s with “militant” Malcolm X and pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. That conflict is also present in Selma, as it would have to be in an era that almost demanded violence be answered with more violence. But King had a dream. His dream was bigger than the small minds that bound it. His dream is alive today, a wavering flame always threatened by hot air from stupid people who have way too much airtime in 2014.

That dream was a dream for equality — that all men (and women) are created equal, with the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of the color of their skin. Many Americans probably don’t even know about the march on Selma. Indeed, when it was announced that DuVernay was making this film few even knew why it would be called Selma and what that represented in King’s legacy. The film dramatizes those very dramatic events as they unfolded. Like now, after Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson it took live TV cameras to show Americans what the racist authorities were doing to black citizens who were engaged in peaceful protests.

The irony of watching Selma last night was that it was featured preceding Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper the same evening. (more on that in a separate piece). In Eastwood’s film, insurgents were brutally murdering Iraqis who so much as spoke with Americans. In Selma, white protestors were beaten and murdered for standing alongside black citizens during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The militant racist whites were as much terrorists as the insurgents and yet our government, our presidents, continued to look the other way until TV cameras brought it to America’s doorsteps.

In David Oyelowo, DuVernay has found the embodiment of her inspiration. His portrayal of King is not only one of the best performances of the year, but certainly the definitive portrait of the charismatic civil rights leader. Oyelowo said in the Q&A afterwards that he knew if he was going to play King he would have to “bang out a great speech,” and indeed, he delivers them ferociously. You can’t underplay what happened when King hit the mic — he isn’t considered one of the greatest orators in history for nothing. DuVernay and Oyelowo capture the man — the husband and father who found himself struggling with internal conflict of Christian pacifism and the growing fury at the obvious injustices unfolding daily in the South.

DuVernay, working from Paul Webb’s screenplay, gives us enough information about what was going on then, what was most important — the right to register to vote, which means the right to sit on juries, which means the rights to help legislate laws to help their own communities. Attempts to preventing the black vote was a huge problem in the 1960s, and led to many protests, beatings, murders — countless deaths and ongoing intimidation. Incredibly, shamefully, it is still a problem 50 years later.

Selma is an important film but more than that, it is a great film. DuVernay directs with confidence, not trying to emulate anyone but trusting her own instincts as a visual director who really invests in character and story. She takes her time and never gives any character the short shrift.

If you’ve seen Middle of Nowhere you are already familiar with how DuVernay directs — she captures electrifying expressions on faces, puts the camera in places you don’t expect. When King speaks her camera is not aimed downward from up on high the way Orson Welles filmed Charles Foster Kane – rather, King is shot eye level as a way of demystifying the historic icon to bring him down to earth. DuVernay’s sensuality is evident in the ways she films men, but also in how her characters are not robbed of their sexuality, the way so many are in today’s films. This is not a sanitized look at King’s life – DuVernay was after authenticity and she surely gets it.

Indeed, the house was alive with good cheer when DuVernay’s film screened. A standing ovation, prolonged applause and even fan cheers for DuVernay afterwards was a good sign that this was no ordinary director screening any ordinary film. This was an historic moment and everyone knew it, particularly since all we’ve been seeing an Oscar season brimming over with stories about white men doing important or unimportant things. Not only is Selma full of women but here is a woman who has made a film that does not shy away from the feminine in her directing and surprise, surprise, it never lapses into fantasy or imaginary fairy dust. It is a great story brilliantly told by a director who is just starting to hit her stride.

If you look at who King was, how he was brought up and who he became, and contrast that with the piece of shit who took his life you will see the irony of how Americans viewed black men back then and how they viewed white men. One was clearly a “wrong one” and a right one who couldn’t have been more white is the kind of story that haunts our American history again and again. King’s bravery in the face of death threats are addressed in Selma, as is his infidelity and internal conflicts with other civil rights leaders at the time. DuVernay was not interested in whitewashing his story or making him better than he was. His life needs no embellishment.

The right to vote, the right to be viewed as equal in cities where black citizens held the majority, was what Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for before his life was taken at the age of 39. We are woefully now without our Martin Luther Kings as the age of apathy has drowned us in our own excess. But Selma shows us a different time, when there was still hope for change, a belief that black children could grow up in a country that judged them “on their content of character and not the color of their skin.” That was King’s dream.

The right-wing propaganda machine that is Fox News, and even some of my liberal brethren are engaged in a long, slow high-tech lynching of our first black president, who has been obstructed, intimidated and treated with unforgivable disrespect, it is clear that King’s dream still requires a long hard fight, even if intolerant white supremacists in the deep south are a dying breed.

King in Selma is a player who leads the nation to a much bigger victory – voters rights. America has much to atone for, even today, with voter turnout a pathetic 36% in mid-term elections, the lowest since we were at war in WWII. Watching Selma might start to knock some cold hard sense into Americans that our democracy requires that we vote. Insidious powerful forces conspire to prevent us from doing just that – from apathy (“who cares, it doesn’t matter”) to illegal suppression, oppression and subversion.

The battle to uphold the Voting Rights Act continues to play out today. John Roberts’ Supreme Court recently undermined key provisions to immediate and devastating effect. Voter suppression continues unabated. Black citizens continue to be robbed of the right to have any power even when they are the majority of citizenry, as we’ve just seen play out in Ferguson, Missouri.

As a director, DuVernay has worked more intimately in the independent world. Middle of Nowhere won the Best Director prize at Sundance yet no amount of advocacy could earn DuVernay a screenplay nomination. But the publicity around Middle of Nowhere was enough to boost DuVernay’s profile — she’s now an Academy member. That was one of the reasons she was approached by Plan B to make Selma, a film on a much bigger scale than she had been accustomed or allowed.

Early word about test screenings on the internet was mixed. Someone on Facebook incorrectly told me the following, “Selma is not good in any way.” He later wrote: “Note, though, that the film has been re-edited, re-scored, color corrected, and had additional sound work since the version I saw.” After the first trailer appeared a week ago, the prevailing winds online shifted dramatically.

With a film like Selma, perspective is everything. That’s okay – whatever brings us to the trough is worthy grounds for debate. Still, trying to sell some viewers on a film like Selma is futile. It’s not wrong to say that some people have the disadvantage of being born into privilege. The film industry often revolves around and caters to their tastes. Perhaps they never felt the strong arm of oppression. They’ve never had a woman clutch her purse when they enter an elevator at the same time. They’ve never had to live down a legacy of being bought and sold like property. And they’ve never been unilaterally prevented from voting or registering to vote. They just choose not to. So forgive me if I mostly disregard the opinions of people like that.

The Oscar race is a silly game that purportedly honors the ‘highest achievements in film” but when critics and bloggers watch a film for consideration these days they are watching it with a quibbling eye, looking for any “flaws,” looking to be wowed out of their cynicism. That kind of criticism forgets that movies are made for audiences. Not critics. Not Oscar voters. That dismissive midset has led to bland Oscar watching that says no more than it says yes. Vanilla product inevitably emerges in the wake of it.

DuVernay is smart enough to know that she is coming up against the sort of groupthink that prefers, quite frankly, the white male narrative. As a one-woman film movement, DuVernay has started her own production company that promotes black filmmakers but she is also committed to bringing black audiences to the art house. DDuring the AFI Fest — and, frankly, every festival or screening I’ve been to in the Oscar race so far — white-centric viewership has been unified and dismally dominant. How refreshing to sit in the Egyptian amid so many black audience members. At the end, it was no surprise that the poker-faced mostly white media sat there while the rest leaped to their feet to cheer the film they had just seen.

I know what’s coming next. I hope I’m wrong. It’s a dirty game. The stakes are too low for anyone to care much but there’s a reason our political leaders today are so bland. When you become too critical of the little things you lose sight of the big things. Selma is a big thing for film in 2014. Maybe the biggest, or close to it. It is now up to film critics to establish its rightful place in the Oscar race. And if critics won’t, I bet Oscar voters will.

Every so often I’m so deeply moved by the courage some people have to tell stories when all odds are against them. You see, women do matter. We matter in life, in art, in film. When doors are opened to us, we walk through those doors with style, strength and grace. That DuVernay’s film was such a success at last night’s premiere turned me into a soggy mess and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am woman therefore I cry. I am so proud to be alive to witness this moment of hers, alive to see a black woman auteur succeed — and I know I’m not the only one.

I have three favorite films this year. I’ve written plenty about my admiration for Boyhood and Gone Girl. Selma now joins them, one of the best films I’ve ever seen period, and one of the best film about civil rights ever made. You can’t watch Selma and not think about 2014. The drumbeat of change could once again be upon us. We have the tools because we have the vote. What we need are more leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to help light the way. We lost Dr. King far too soon but his spirit is with us forever, as long as we have filmmakers like Ava DuVernay to bring him back to eternal, shimmering, unwavering life.

75-11

75-11

The lost boys that crowd Oscars 2015 have no real qualities to be leaders or heroes. They are fumbling around trying to avoid failure at all costs. That failure claps through the canyon like a falcon’s cry — who are we now? It’s an important question to ask. The country is more divided than it’s ever been. Hollywood feels the pull of international box office threatening to transfigure domestic product. Liberals put their faith in Obama only to then see their idealism thwarted. Terrorism, mass murder, random and frequent gun violence. Giant masses of trash floating around in our oceans, large percentage of wildlife destroyed in the past 40 years. How could anyone feel hopeful about the future? Is that why our cinematic heroes must either dwell in a past where hope did spring eternal or in the fantasy realm where our imaginations can take over and real life isn’t real at all but an irrelevant point in the workings of the plot? All the while a mishmash of social justice and political correctness working its way through the way we talk, the way we make movies, the way stars are built up then torn down. We are our political beliefs, our well chosen words, our Apple products, our environmental footprint. We’re powerless.

We’re not ready to give up on our ubiquitous male protagonists, however. Because they can’t be heroes, they flail around not being heroes — preserved in the 1970s model of Five Easy Pieces where there is nowhere left to go except inward. The present-day hero is a lost boy, a diminished manchild, incapable of being a leader in what feels like a world gone wrong.

The film of 2014 that lies outside the insular world of critics and pundits, outside the fanboy culture of comic book and superhero movies is the one audiences have been flocking to, talking about, reading about, wondering about, arguing about, breaking up over – and that’s David Fincher’s box office phenomenon, Gone Girl. That pundits aren’t even talking about this film as potential Best Picture winner, or even nominee, shows that we’ve failed in our industry. To second-guess Oscar voters, thinking they won’t nominate a film like that is absurd. And yet, that’s because we live in that world. We have a list of what Oscar voters will like. We have numeric measurements of such – and there are those pesky Academy screenings where a few dismissed the film outright, which does nothing more than prove that they’re the ones who have lost touch with what audiences want to see from a major studio that is aimed at adults. Remember that kind of movie?

What a thrill to watch Gone Girl’s opening scenes – flash cards depicting a decaying world. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross set the mood, Jeff Cronenweth’s camera puts the chilly world on display where something is just not quite right. Finches’ gift as a director is to deliver dual worlds. There is one thing on the surface. There is a whole other thing underneath. His expert collaborative team sends the message that you are in capable hands of a master at the top of his game. The criticisms ranged from men saying the film wasn’t Zodiac-y enough to women uncomfortable with the negative aspects of the female anti-hero. It’s a mistake to trap a filmmaker in what you define as his or her style. Fincher’s range as a director is impressive. Zodiac is a masterpiece, no question, but so is Gone Girl. It may take a woman to know it.

Watch from the first frame to the last a director at the top of his game, with such an assured hand – no one makes films that deliberately anymore, where every note of music, every article of clothing, every reflection in every piece of glass, even the seemingly random sounds have all been specific choices. It is rare to have any film come close to that level of exactness. Flynn’s and Fincher’s Amy Dunne emerges like a monster of that forgotten sex and lays it to waste with the “cool girl” monologue, which is more about what men want from women — what almost every film in the Oscar race has helped perpetuate — the myth that women are only here for men. Amy Dunne had a better idea.

The other definitive modern film about a lost boy is Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which works as both a somewhat fictional account of the DuPont murder, as well as an insightful commentary on how the 1% has screwed the middle-class. In this case, Channing Tatum plays a hopeful protagonist just trying to work hard and succeed within the confines of the American dream. He is usurped and manipulated by the tragic DuPont, who is so cut off from everyday life he has created his own ecosystem. Foxcatcher, like Gone Girl, depicts a haunting of a kind of American life — what once was and never can be again. They speak the truth, however, even if both dwell in the realm of black comedy.

The auteur in the Oscar race still surges. At the top of that list has to be Richard Linklater and Boyhood. Boyhood represents the film that no one hates, and the one that stands apart from all others because it took 12 years to make. The only negative anyone can come up with, and it’s blurted out from time to time by lazy thinkers, is that it’s “only a gimmick.” It isn’t a big moneymaker but it was made on the cheap with a lot of heart and dedication to the craft of filmmaking. It represents a smaller but thriving Hollywood independent film industry, but more than that, it represents the auteur as the singular force that drives cinema. Written by. Directed by. One person’s thorough artistic expression. Boyhood’s success is not simply that it was made by Richard Linklater and is about the passage and the meaning of life, but that it connects on some universal level to those who have grown up, had children, and felt first hand the swiftness of time. Boyhood beautifully illustrates that one of the best special effects can simply be to show how fast time slips away from us and why the memory of a sunset view with a pretty girl at the beginning college might be delicious enough to carry us on through the ravages of time and aging.

The auteur is also alive and well with Dan Gilroy’s sleeper hit Nightcrawler and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. They are both tightly written and directed and neither loses site of its film’s main point. If you went to film school you would recognize these as the kinds of films students are taught to make. They are precise, exacting and never deviate from their goal. They are also satisfying and entertaining films overall. Though it must be noted that even in the world of the modern auteur women are sidelined as supporting characters, though way more colorfully handled in Nightcrawler than in Whiplash. This won’t matter to Oscar voters, as it hasn’t mattered to critics. You can add J.C. Chandor to the auteur list, although his film isn’t as structured as the other two films and will have a harder time being placed neatly into the Oscar race.

The flipside of the precise auteurs would be the freewheelers like Paul Thomas Anderson who quietly made one of the best films of the year with Inherent Vice. No one will know what to make of it but it is one of the most fascinating, brilliantly rendered cinematic experiences of the year. It’s just that there’s no box to put it in for the Oscar race and, like Gone Girl, perhaps it’s better for it.

Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar feels like freewheeling auteurism, just with $165 million to spend. Though Nolan, like Alfonso Cuaron last year, is playing with state-of-the-art visual effects, he has earned the freedom to make exactly the movie he wanted to make. His fans have stuck with him through this, helped to understand his movie by wanting to understand him. To love an auteur’s work is to love the auteur. Thus, Interstellar isn’t just the one movie – it is all of Nolan’s work taken into consideration leading to this. The most divisive of his films and certainly the one the critics have been most harsh with, almost everyone is giving him a major pass for ambition and effort; how many big budget films in Hollywood would have dared to be as convoluted and daring as this? Is it a success? Who’s to say. It will be measured by the money it makes, by the awards it wins but none of those can compete against the fans who got exactly what they wanted.

But convoluted storylines are harder to place than exacting ones, which helps Nightcrawler and Whiplash and hurts Inherent Vice and Interstellar. It could be argued that both protagonists in these films are lost boys who then must be found. They are boys haunted by memories of women. Interstellar represents the oddly old-fashioned view of love — no sex. While Inherent Vice is one of the few films in 2014’s race to have any sort of sexuality present. That is because Paul Thomas Anderson’s world view includes sex, thank god. It is absent almost every other drama this year.

Wes Anderson has invented his own genre and it is built entirely on auteurism. The Wes Anderson oeuvre has reached its apex with The Grand Budapest Hotel – a delightful, odd romp that could only have come from the mind of Anderson. But as with all auteurs, to love the work it’s important to first to love the auteur — and many do. Just not many Academy members so far. That is neither here nor there. Though this film dwells in the past where finding heroes was much easier.

Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman is the critics darling of the year so far, and it’s no wonder. A perfect movie from start to finish, Michael Keaton’s Birdman is about a lost boy too. A fading actor whose only success that can be measured was his turn as a superhero. He really can’t move forward because he has nowhere to go except back to playing a superhero (he’d rather die) or reproducing a once in a lifetime stunt that goes viral on the internet. It’s a lose-lose. Probably too many film critics (save for dearly departed Roger Ebert) see film’s future as a lose-lose. No one wants to be stuck writing about superhero movies either. In Birdman they see their martyr for the cause, standing up for the roots of drama and organics of filmmaking. Only a few critics were insulted by the portrayal of the film critic. But that one bit in the film will have professionals in Hollywood cheering.

It is bravura filmmaking by an unrewarded director. The funny thing about Birman is that its so-called “gimmick” is the least memorable thing. Sure, the film seemingly shot in one take with the solo drumbeat score is kind of cool, but what you remember about Birdman is Michael Keaton’s face. His face and the dialogue so vividly rendered is equal to the camera work making for one of the most exciting films to watch this year. But Birdman is the antidote to what many industry professionals are lamenting about modern Hollywood. It is the one tiny protest against the wave of change, the dominance of superhero movies that no one can really stand except fanboys and ticket buyers. Many who work in Hollywood as actors or writers or directors did not get in the business to massage the inner 13 year-old of the American psyche, nor dwell in the realm of masked avengers. That has its own whole industry. Birdman is, therefore, a fist waving rallying cry, even if it seems futile.

But the Oscar race, as defined by pundits in 2014 is based on their recent history, which has rewarded films about heroes that took place in the past, a past we can all understand better. 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech. 2009’s The Hurt Locker was the last film to win that took place in present day. That puts The Imitation Game immediately in the winner’s circle. The People’s Choice winner in Toronto, and the most liked on the festival circuit, the film is being rolled out by the Weinstein co. That means it’s most likely one of your top three contenders this year, along with Birdman and the frontrunner, Boyhood.

In keeping with them is The Theory of Everything, about the life of Stephen Hawking, a surefire Best Picture contender and possibly Best Actor winner. In the same genre — Biopics, old-fashioned and British — you have Mr. Turner. Though this film is about a reluctant hero — a mad genius, in fact — whose painting was inexplicably full of light and hope where his personal life and personality was anything but.

If you take Oscar punditry out of the equation and look at the race for Best Picture of 2014 you are looking at three movies: Boyhood, Birdman and Gone Girl. When you factor in Oscar pundits, however, the Oscar race is still down to Boyhood, The Imitation Game (which hasn’t opened yet) and Birdman. Tonight, American Sniper and Selma will screen. They will either alter the dynamic or they won’t. Unbroken is still being held up by many as a potential frontrunner though it hasn’t yet been seen. A Most Violent Year and The Gambler are films that could have benefited from being seen earlier in the race as it takes time for opinions to be shaped. Out of the gate they aren’t going to get the kinds of reviews they need but sometimes films need the public to help shape their narrative. Though the Oscar race is decided behind closed doors long before the public even sees the films, sometimes audiences can make all the difference, as they maybe have with Gone Girl.

We are headed for darker days — the darker they get, the more Academy members seem to dig their heels in and reach for the films that signify the hero, the guy who can still overcome obstacles and succeed, the guy who makes life seem almost worth it.

Finding directors to make those kinds of movies, however, is getting harder. Most of the best of them are more fascinated by what confounds us and torments us, what makes our present day so hard for heroes to bloom and why those heroes can’t move forward but are thwarted, stuck back in some different time, preserved as boys who can’t ever become men.

Predictions

Best Picture

1. Boyhood
2. Birdman
3. The Imitation Game
4. Gone Girl
5. Whiplash
6. The Theory of Everything
7. Mr. Turner
8. Foxcatcher
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
10. Interstellar

Haven’t been seen:
Selma
American Sniper
Into the Woods
Unbroken

Dark Horses:
A Most Violent Year
The Gambler
Fury

Best Actor
1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
1. Eddie Redmayne, Theory of Everything
1. Benedict Cumberbatch, Imitation Game
4. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
5. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
6. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
7. Mark Wahlberg, The Gambler
8. Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
9. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar

Special mention favorite who won’t be considered: Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice

Unseen: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper, Jack O’Connell, Unbroken, David Oyelowo, Selma

BEST ACTRESS
1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
3. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
4. Hilary Swank, The Homesman
5. Felicity Jones, Theory of Everything
6. Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars
7. Anne Dorval, Mommy
8. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle

Unseen: Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
2. Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
3. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
4. Emma Stone, Birdman
5. Laura Dern, Wild
6. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
7. Jessica Chastain, Interstellar
8. Kristen Stewart, Still Alice
9. Jessica Lange, The Gambler

Unseen: those from Into the Woods, Selma, American Sniper

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
1. JK Simmons, Whiplash
2. Ed Norton, Birdman
3. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
4. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
5. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
6. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
7. Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
8. John Cusack, Maps to the Stars
9. John Goodman, The Gambler

BEST DIRECTOR
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
3. David Fincher, Gone Girl
4. Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
5. Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
6. Morton Tyldum, The Imitation Game
7. Bennet Miller, Foxcatcher
8. James Marsh, Theory of Everything
9. Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
10. Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest Hotel

Unseen: Angelina Jolie, Unbroken, Ava DuVernay, Selma, Clint Eastwood, American Sniper, Rob Marshall, Into the Woods

Special mention favorite who probably won’t be considered: Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 11.00.07 AM

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 11.00.07 AM

 

Gone Girl’s box office has officially entered phenom status with its take domestically, $145 million and globally, $300 million. Phil Contrino at Box-office.com said it would end up with around $160 domestically but I think it will surge past that.

Big Hero 6, as predicted by Boxoffice.com and Boxofficemojo.com, overtook Interstellar – it was in more theaters and it’s three hours long. But Interstellar ties Gravity’s international opening with $80 million and should surge with global box office as well as domestic. Big Hero 6 is off to a great start as well. Nightcrawler appears to be generating good word of mouth for a tidy box office take.  But to me the real surprise, and it will come as no surprise to you, is Gone Girl. She’s got legs. She knows how to use them…

 

140318_BabadookMain

Jennifer Kent, writer and director of The Babadook, shows the kind of promise not seen in the horror realm for quite some time and rarely by a woman. I would rank her film among the greatest horror movies ever made, from The Exorcist, The Haunting, Carrie, The Shining – this film is that good.

For some reason, The Babadook did not qualify for the Oscars, which is a shame. If the people in our business of covering film paid any attention to her whatsoever, the way they have ushered in her male counterparts, like Guillermo Del Toro for instance, she’d be much more well known than she is. Lucky for you, you’re about to find out about her now.

Kent’s long history of acting is probably why her horror film, like all of the best horror films, starts with character building and focuses heavily on the lead actress, giving her an array of emotions and directions. The lead performance in The Babadook, Essie Davis, is the performance of the year. It is not eligible for the Oscars but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is, quite simply and without any shred of doubt, the best performance by anyone, male or female.

Kent’s visionary, unpredictable work in this film would launch her immediately into the Best Directors race, though to be perfectly honest if Gone Girl and Birdman are “too much” for the Academy, The Babadook would shrivel their toes and turn their hair gray instantly. They would flee from the theaters and would have to then spend their remaining days trying to speak a simple sentence.

It’s a shame that the Academy has become so soft, yet soft they remain. And we can’t lay blame on the Academy, since the entire industry matches in their choices of the year’s best. We know what kinds of movies those are and The Babadook ain’t one of them.

Kent talks to Film Comment about her style:

There are a lot of references to old films, especially to Georges Méliès. He was a magician, and magic is a huge part of the film. He’s referenced many times, and the effects themselves are very simple illusions.

I’m a big lover of Méliès, and what he did for early cinema was incredible. I think that over the years we’ve lost that simple in-camera connection. I really wanted everything to be in front of the camera with very little post-production work done on it. I wanted to give the film a different feeling without resorting quickly to CGI. The energy of his films is very childlike and simple, yet a lot of his stuff is quite sinister by default, so that was very inspiring for The Babadook.

In many horror movies now, you see a lot of docudrama-style camera work. You chose a more still, yet very fluid, style.

I could never see this world in a contemporary way. To have a lot of loose movement simply didn’t suit me, nor did it match the psychological energy of that character. I’ve created a world in which there isn’t a resemblance to a lot of horror at the moment, which is good.

It’s refreshing. You wear your influences proudly, and that’s something a lot of filmmakers can be self-conscious about.

It can be a challenge to be inspired, and to let those inspirations show while owning the film. I felt very confident with the story, and I knew how I wanted to tell the story visually. It’s certainly an interpretation of those influences. I had a wonderful Polish director of photography, Radoslaw Ladcsuk, and we found our own language together. We created something unique to that world.

Take a look at Kent’s short film – and if you can stand it, try to watch The Babadook, one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Direct-TV.

Here’s the short Monster, which is a precurser to The Babadook:

Kent was immediately pounced on by several agencies and has signed with WME.

A Most Violent Year2

One thing that threads throughout JC Chandor’s work, with three films under his belt now, is that he devotes his time to organic filmmaking, the way movies used to be made and sometimes still are in the independent world. He has somehow bypassed the tsunami of showmanship or style over storytelling and takes his cues not from Tarantino and Cronenberg and Lynch but rather from Lumet and Cimino and Pakula. A Most Violent Year feels straight out of the time during which it takes place, the early 80s, and that makes it a bit of a salve for weary film critics who remember the days when movies were really movies and not the endless exploration into the boundaries of visual effects.

Visual effects are cool and all, but there’s something to be said for the need for storytelling – it is a vital human requirement, in fact, so that we can shape our past, present and future without always giving way to fantasy. Some of us go to the movies to be carried away to a different place but some of us go for somber reflection on who we are, what we’ve been through and what we fight for.

A Most Violent Year is about a man holding his business together when it is being threatened by competing thieves. Honestly, it isn’t the most exciting plot – but it isn’t so much the plot that matters. It’s the way Chandor slowly unravels the story, much the way he did in Margin Call, building scene upon scene until it all finally comes together at the end without giving any satisfyingly easy answers.

It is moody, quiet and contemplative, sometimes just letting the sound of breathing fill the frame. There’s a deep sadness to it, as though the main characters really don’t have much to hold onto at all because what they’re holding onto is slipping through their fingers. If Wolf of Wall Street was a story about success, A Most Violent Year is a story about success seeping out of its container. It doesn’t quite become a story of failure but these are not winners here. These are survivors doing what they have to do.

Naturally stealing the show is Jessica Chastain who indeed competes against herself, and frontrunner Patricia Arquette, for Best Supporting Actress. She’s ferocious in A Most Violent Year and that ferociousness becomes a bit of a problem for the film. One yearns to have the story be more about her – but once again, she is supporting. She’s great and no male writer out there is going to point this out because we’ve become accustomed and comfortable with great supporting turns by Chastain but isn’t it time she demanded and commanded more screen time? I think it is. But I’m not the one making movies and making decisions about those movies.

That doesn’t detract necessarily from the film overall, and no one reading this now is even going to notice because Chastain makes the most of her screen time. She is an actress who always makes a decision about where she is in a given scene, who she is and what her objective is. She is far more accomplished and talented than the younger women in the business for whom whole films are built around because they bring in the box office. Chastain isn’t quite there – she isn’t that tweener box office draw or the “it” girl. But she’ll be where Meryl Streep is one day. She will bring people to the movies just to see her in a film.

The versatile and talented Oscar Isaac holds the movie down with his singular performance. It is the polar opposite of his Llewyn Davis – you might not even recognize him as the same actor if you didn’t already know. The supporting cast are fine as well, including Albert Brooks in an understated cameo.

Chandor is such an unpredictable artist – when given the opportunity to write and direct he always takes us somewhere new and he does with deliberation and thoughtfulness. I always feel as though I’m in good hands with him because I know he knows where he’s headed. A Most Violent Year is, as all critics are deeming it, a “slow burn.” It falls in line, in that regard, with Foxcatcher, which is another slow burn of a film. Foxcatcher, though, leaves you with a chill at the end. A Most Violent Year leaves you with melancholy, the same kind of melancholy we’re all feeling a bit as our middle class collapses around us.

I think it’s too early to declare A Most Violent Year’s Oscar prospects, though I expect it will be among the best reviewed films of the year. I think Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress are most assured. Best Actor would be too except for Oscar Isaac is entering the most competitive category at the Oscars – which makes it a tough road.

Depending on what directors think, Chandor could be looking at a Best Director nod as well. We’ll have to wait and see how the film settles with critics awards and early precursors. For now, it goes on the list.

ebertcb2

By now, with 134 entries for Foreign Language feature, it’s time for the Academy to acknowledge that documentary filmmakers are making an abundance of vital, important films right now. Five slots for Documentary Feature is simply nowhere near enough to honor the groundswell of non-fiction filmmaking. Since mainstream Hollywood seems more inclined towards fantasy, we need documentaries now more than ever. The Documentary category looks the way the feature film category SHOULD look and yet one allows for more than five and the other doesn’t.

Films directed by women are far more common in the documentary field, which would help greatly increase gender equality within the Oscars without breaking a sweat. But five does not adequately reward what is happening in the industry, the country and the world.

Sure, to have ten slightly diminishes how special the usual five are but let’s face it. So much has changed that the more popular documentaries get in while the most important, culture-altering ones do not. Blackfish has caused Sea World to scramble towards ending their barbaric (emphasis mine) practice of capturing and breeding Orcas in captivity yet Blackfish was shut out of the Oscar race. By anyone’s definition that film should have been included. It is the one category that should not come down to publicity, publicists and money and yet every year we see that dynamic play out.

How in the world are voters going to plow through 134 documentaries to pick only five? They never will. They’ll cherry pick the ones they’re either interested in or they’ve heard buzz about. The end result is always predictable and almost always disappointing.

While we’re at it, maybe the Academy ought to consider expanding the directing category from five to ten, since they now have more than five Best Picture nominees. It makes no sense to have five for director and not five for picture. They should expand both to an even ten and forget this herding cats version of choosing between 5 and 10.

If I had things my way I would divide the directing category by sex, the way the acting categories have done. Best Male Director and Best Female Director. That would mean several significant changes. The first, voters could no longer ignore the work of women but would have to acknowledge it to fill five categories. Second, it would help to motivate studios to hire more women to direct their Big Oscar Movies. This would be one of the coolest things anyone has ever done and yet I know it would never happen, the main reason being no one wants to admit that when it comes to filmmaking, there are the trusted directors (men) and the untrustworthy directors (women). This would be blatant affirmative action, in which I am a great believer. Affirmative action exists to provide opportunities to a group that has been systematically shut out, which women clearly have been in Hollywood, particularly Hollywood in 2014.

Imagine if voters had the freedom to choose five women and five men for director this year. Imagine how that would change things – how it would obliterate an ongoing problem. Since we’re splitting Picture and Director anyway, why not open things up for women?

Just a thought.

Neither of these things are likely to happen. The Oscars like things how they are. Very little has changed in the 16 years I’ve been covering them.

What do you think, readers? Good idea or bad idea?

The submitted features, listed in alphabetical order, are:

“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq”
“Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case”
“Algorithms”
“Alive Inside”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Altina”
“America: Imagine the World without Her”
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs”
“Anita”
“Antarctica: A Year on Ice”
“Art and Craft”
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda”
“The Barefoot Artist”
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball”
“Before You Know It”
“Bitter Honey”
“Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity”
“Botso The Teacher from Tbilisi”
“Captivated The Trials of Pamela Smart”
“The Case against 8”
“Cesar’s Last Fast”
“Citizen Koch”
“CitizenFour”
“Code Black”
“Concerning Violence”
“The Culture High”
“Cyber-Seniors”
“DamNation”
“Dancing in Jaffa”
“Death Metal Angola”
“The Decent One”
“Dinosaur 13”
“Do You Know What My Name Is?”
“Documented”
“The Dog”
“E-Team”
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”
“Elena”
“Evolution of a Criminal”
“Fed Up”
“Finding Fela”
“Finding Vivian Maier”
“Food Chains”
“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden”
“Getting to the Nutcracker”
“Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
“Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia”
“The Great Flood”
“The Great Invisible”
“The Green Prince”
“The Hacker Wars”
“The Hadza: Last of the First”
“Hanna Ranch”
“Happy Valley”
“The Hornet’s Nest”
“I Am Ali”
“If You Build It”
“The Immortalists”
“The Internet’s Own Boy”
“Ivory Tower”
“James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge”
“Jodorowsky’s Dune”
“Journey of a Female Comic”
“Keep On Keepin’ On”
“Kids for Cash”
“The Kill Team”
“Korengal”
“La Bare”
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“Last Hijack”
“The Last Patrol”
“Levitated Mass”
“Life Itself”
“Little White Lie”
“Llyn Foulkes One Man Band”
“Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles”
“Manakamana”
“Merchants of Doubt”
“Mission Blue”
“Mistaken for Strangers”
“Mitt”
“Monk with a Camera”
“Nas: Time Is Illmatic”
“National Gallery”
“Next Goal Wins”
“Next Year Jerusalem”
“Night Will Fall”
“No Cameras Allowed”
“Now: In the Wings on a World Stage”
“Occupy the Farm”
“The Only Real Game”
“The Overnighters”
“Particle Fever”
“Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes”
“Pelican Dreams”
“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step”
“Plot for Peace”
“Point and Shoot”
“Poverty Inc.”
“Print the Legend”
“Private Violence”
“Pump”
“Rabindranath Tagore – The Poet of Eternity”
“Red Army”
“Remote Area Medical”
“Rich Hill”
“The Rule”
“The Salt of the Earth”
“Shadows from My Past”
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry”
“A Small Section of the World”
“Smiling through the Apocalypse – Esquire in the 60s”
“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon”
“The Supreme Price”
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper”
“Tanzania: A Journey Within”
“This Is Not a Ball”
“Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence”
“Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People”
“True Son”
“20,000 Days on Earth”
“Unclaimed”
“Under the Electric Sky”
“Underwater Dreams”
“Virunga”
“Waiting for August”
“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”
“Warsaw Uprising”
“Watchers of the Sky”
“Watermark”
“We Are the Giant”
“We Could Be King”
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”
“A World Not Ours”

boyhood11f-5-web

boyhood11f-5-web

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”

The films that will define Oscar’s Best Picture race will be each member’s five selections for “the highest achievements in film” for 2014. It will be a list made up of a collection of agreed upon films that starts in a few weeks with the critics, runs through the Hollywood Foreign press, then gets filtered through the large industry guilds before finally settling with Academy members.

Christopher Nolan. Darren Aronofsky. David Fincher. Alejandro González Iñárritu. British film about a British hero who overcomes personal torment and helps end the war. Backed by the Weinstein Co. Two films directed by women possibly landing Best Picture nominations? A Birdman instead of a Black Swan. Is it 2010 all over again?

2010 was a battle of three films, really, much like this year, but the opinions of critics and industry voters were sharply divided. The critics went unanimously in ways they never had and never have since for The Social Network while the industry went unanimously for The King’s Speech. They couldn’t have been more opposite films – The Social Network wholly American by one of the country’s best and as yet unrewarded directors, David Fincher, about a self-made millionaire; and a film about a monarch with inherited wealth, British up one side and down the other, a film that could have been made in any decade.

The spoiler was Black Swan, and possibly Inception, both of which likely split the non-King’s Speech vote. But Black Swan, like Birdman, was a show about performers and their delusions, their vanity, their deepest fears – there is even a two-girl love scene in Black Swan, and a two-girl kiss in Birdman.

Interstellar might get into the Best Picture race as the biggest money maker but this time, the David Fincher film is going to own the box office as well. Moneywise, it is going to wipe up the floor with most every other Oscar contender vying for Best Picture, much like the King’s Speech did in 2010. It will even top the King’s Speech, as well as Argo and the Departed.

David Fincher risked much to hire Gillian Flynn to adapt her own novel. No woman has ever been nominated for an Oscar who adapted her own novel. Only Lillian Hellman yawning all the way back to 1941 was nominated for adapting her own play. They took a chance, the movie is a massive hit, with a 90 rating by audience members at Rotten Tomatoes. A film that has inspired lengthy, passionate essays by Maureen Dowd and David Bordwell. It is the most talked about films of 2014. But the one thing Gone Girl isn’t? An “Oscar movie.”

You see, to win Best Picture or to even get nominated, you have to fit into the tiny suitcase that fits into the tiny dollhouse of the sensibilities of this particular demographic. Think: 1930s. Think: Nazis. Think: puffy stuffed animals crowding out the monsters at night.

The two films up for Best Picture again this year, with Birdman being the potential spoiler, also pit an American story by an American director up against a British film by a British director. Boyhood, like The Social Network, has the critics admiration with a near record-breaking score of 100 at Metacritic. The Imitation Game, like The King’s Speech, has a kind of Masterpiece Theater quality that appeals to the old’uns and young’uns alike. Even the two publicity teams behind each movie are the same. Pins and needles.

The Oscar race for Best Picture may come down to three for the win: Boyhood, The Imitation Game and Birdman. As of now, these are the top three predicted by the Gurus of Gold and Gold Derby. Going back as far as I have been recording them, the top three predicted at this time of year has always yielded the winner. But Fandango’s Dave Karger has Unbroken winning. So does Tom O’Neil at Gold Derby. No one has yet seen Unbroken but to them it has a better chance that the three that are standing right in front of them.

Boyhood is too … IFC? The Imitation Game is too … Masterpiece Theater? Birdman is too … obnoxious?

Dave Karger, Kris Tapley, Scott Feinberg and Thelma Adams are all predicting no Best Picture nomination for Gone Girl, which is the only film in the entire race — in the ENTIRE RACE – written or co-written by a woman. It is also the only film singularly about a woman, a gone girl. Voters don’t like it, they say. Voters will like Unbroken and American Sniper better, they say. What perplexes me is that Gone Girl is going to hit $150 million, is directed by one of the most respected and revered directors in Hollywood. It stars one of the most popular actors. And yet — it is not Oscar-y enough, apparently. Only if the other unseen films fail, so the narrative goes, will these pundits predict this film.

Back in 2010, Dave Karger took a lot of heat from people like Jeff Wells and myself for sticking with The King’s Speech when there was such enormous support for the Social Network. “They” didn’t “like” the Fincher film, the echoing narrative went. It was still nominated for Best Picture, however. It’s funny to see the same people siding against the darker Fincher film, and the same people advocating for it (raises hand) and probably the same little birds whispering to their favorite pundits these talking points.

But Gone Girl, Birdman and even Boyhood – the films about right here, right now – are important narratives that look at how American life has changed so dramatically. In 2010, The Social Network was about how the internet was going to shape culture. These films are by artists reacting to those changes. They are prescient, relevant, exciting works by some of the best directors working today.

Gone Girl bravely looks at what our society is becoming. It joins several of the year’s best films that also meditate on our present day and the ways we’re selling ourselves out on the cheap – the way we are cocooned in swaths of narcissism, sacrificing all good things for the chance to be famous for five minutes.

2010 did not have a Boyhood, a film that is trying its best to stay quiet amid premature awards adulation but is earning slow and steady word of mouth. Just last night at dinner the four-top next to us exploded with talk of Boyhood. “Have you SEEN Boyhood?” A man of about 70 asked his fellow diners before leaning in and breathlessly explaining what watching Boyhood is like.

Boyhood also has the distinction of being a film that isn’t dark and twisty but also isn’t British traditional. It’s something new by a dedicated filmmaker who somehow held this whole thing aloft for 12 years.

Boyhood and The Imitation Game are both standing in the dark closet at the party, hoping people don’t notice that they’re not mingling among the guests. They are both waiting until the moment is right and hoping that word of mouth keeps them relevant but they aren’t toppled by hype, as so many films released in the later part of the year do. Though the films are slightly different, the Oscar power teams behind the two films are the same teams behind The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech. What most people don’t know is that Best Picture is often placed in the careful hands of a very select group of people who handle awards. Funnily enough, Fox Searchlight is the third film in the Oscar race so far with Birdman and in 2010 they had Black Swan.

With Intestellar, the Nolans go Inception one bigger. Though it isn’t going to be accepted by the general consensus, one can’t help but noticed the urgency in a film like Interstellar, nor in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Someday people will look back on 2014 and take note of the filmmakers who were paying attention to what was really going on in our world, whether their films were Oscar favorites or not.

The biggest difference between then and now, a difference that allowed Toy Story 3, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone and Inception all to get nominated was that voters had ten slots for Best Picture. They were free to do crazy things like nominate an animated film for Best Picture and films directed by women and a sci-fi epic. Now things have gone back to five slots and that is going to make all of the difference. Because with five you’re headed deep into “their” kind of movie and far, far away from the films that really define the year.

You see, we can take pills that make us feel happy as our climate is working hard to shrug us off this planet. We can pretend that when we buy cheap stuff at Walmart that we aren’t helping to eradicate what this country was founded upon. We can distract ourselves with stories about missing pregnant women and their villain husbands or Kim Kardashian’s giant, comical boobs and ass or Renee Zellweger’s face while there have been 87 school shootings since the Newtown massacre. The Oscar race continues to exist in a floating orb of manufactured happiness and redemption.

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has been exiled to the same island as Gone Girl by the gun-shy pundits who think the Academy and industry voters don’t have the grit to go that dark. We know our middle class is being slowly snuffed out by the ballooning wealth of the 1%, which pulses through Foxcatcher and Gone Girl. These gun-shy pundits have profiled the Academy, talked to members – some of them invested publicists and some of them retirees with way too much time on their hands. The results are – the reflexive need to numb out through uplifting stories that mirror back our better selves.

Voters are going to snuggle up to what’s safe and familiar, much like they did in 2010, when they see The King’s Speech’s smarter cousin, The Imitation Game, emerge in the race. Same bat time, same bat channel.

Pundits amiably co along with it, a co-dependent relationship that keeps the Oscar race stagnated. But to my colleagues the only thing that matters is being the rightest. The critics bend towards Oscar by choosing the select films that “have a chance” to win, even the National Society of Film Critics picked Inside Llewyn Davis once word got out that the film was being shut out by the industry. They didn’t “like” it enough.

We never learn from our mistakes because there is no one keeping score of who’s right and who’s wrong. Like the self-appointed film critics populating Rotten Tomatoes who stumbled onto the internet one day and fancied themselves experts, so do we pundits pretend that what we do isn’t damaging to the film community. When we anticipate a film like Interstellar will be a top contending Best Picture contender without anyone having seen it we set it up for near impossible expectations. We should see the movie and then conclude “what voters will do.” But we don’t and we get away with it because no one would ever take Oscar watching seriously enough to care.

Even I have not learned from 2010. I should have been smacked down and taught the important lesson that the Oscar race is not about great films that define our right here, right now but about films that make us feel good about ourselves. I should have learned and yet here I am, passionately advocating for a Fincher film that the top pundits have deemed not good enough for “them.”

The only way to face down this middling consensus year after year is to lay there and pretend to like it, make the voters feel as though they are part of something bigger than the People’s Choice awards. Tell them how great they are and what big dicks they have. And when the time is right, fake it. Isn’t it romantic?

So pundits who are downgrading Gone Girl and Foxcatcher are doing it to make room for Unbroken and American Sniper, positioning those films for yet more high expectations action so that anyone who goes in to watch those movies are going to be looking, not for a great cinematic experience but a film that might please 6,000 upper-class industry professionals and/or retirees whose contact with the real world and the multiplex is limited to the occasional uptown screening (for free). Most films can’t pass muster when those expectations are that high. Rinse, repeat.

One thing remains constant year after year: there is nothing pretty about the Oscar race, except the way the movie stars twinkle against the blood red carpet that unfurls in front of the Dolby Theater, those shimmering jewels, those chiffon waves of fabric, all of that piled up hair to help perpetuate the romantic illusion of that Hollywood is still Hollywood. It’s all for the cameras, even the cluster of fans packed on the bleachers hoping for a sweaty handshake. By the time the show starts all of the marketing executives, Oscar strategists and pundits start calculating the results.

Important dates coming up:

New York Film Critics (Dec. 1)

National Board of Review (Dec. 2)

AFI’s Top Ten films of the year (Dec. 8)

SAG nominations (Dec. 10)

Golden Globe nominations (Dec. 11)

Current Predictions For Best Picture

Best Picture
Boyhood

The Imitation Game

Birdman
Gone Girl

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Mr. Turner

Foxcatcher

Interstellar


Films that haven’t yet been seen that could overtake:
Unbroken
American Sniper

A Most Violent Year

Selma

The Gambler

Dark Horse contenders hovering in the background

The Homesman

Wild

The Good Lie

Best Director

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Morton Tylden, The Imitation Game

David Fincher, Gone Girl

Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

Directors who have not been seen who may impact the race:
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken

Ava DuVernay, Selma

J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year

Clint Eastwood, American Sniper

Darkhorse contenders:

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman

David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars

Xavier Dolan, Mommy

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Original Screenplay
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Alejandro Inarritu et al, Birdman
E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner

Adapted Screenplay
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl 
Nick Hornby, Wild
Anthony McCarten, The Thoery of Everything
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, The Homesman

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Hilary Swank, The Homesman
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Supporting Actor
JK Simmons, Whiplash
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Tyler Perry, Gone Girl

Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Laura Dern Wild
Jessica Chastain, Interstellar

Cannes 2014: Mr Turner

Mike Leigh’s swoony, moody epic, Mr. Turner, seems to be quietly residing under the radar right now. But in a quick conversation with Movie City News’ David Poland he pointed out that it’s possible the film could be one of the sleeper success stories in this year’s Oscar race, and I have to agree with that assessment. Just because the pundits aren’t talking about it, or it isn’t on many lists, that doesn’t mean it isn’t “in their wheelhouse,” as they say.

The first thing to know is that J. M. W. Turner is Britain’s most famous painter. The newly morphing BAFTOscars will very likely remember this and that might mean a BAFTA frontrunner. As the last remaining films are screened (Unbroken will screen on November 30) they may or may not make the cut. But, as always, it’s best to go with what you know versus what you don’t know.

To that end, I’ve decided to follow in Anne Thompson’s footsteps and only predict films that either I’ve seen or have been widely seen and agreed upon. I’m doing it as an experiment to see how the chips fall by year’s end. I think it’s important to view the Oscar race this way, first because it lessens the pressure on films coming up, lowering expectations, and second because it does not give short shrift to the known successes.

What sight unseen predictions can do is provide much publicity for the upcoming productions, giving them Oscar buzz that hasn’t yet formed into an embryo. That’s great for these films, especially the ones that are racing against the clock to get into the race. But there are ways of writing about them and keeping them on lists without actually predicting them for certain categories. I think it’s a crap shoot, really, with no “there” there but after 16 years of this I’m always interested in ways that might shake up the race a little.

If I had an aggregate site like Gold Derby or Movie City News I might think of separating myself out by only predicting films that have been seen, just to see, by year’s end, who ends up being more accurate. But most other Oscar sites are into the “hope springs eternal” form of Oscar predicting and usually glom onto that which has not yet been seen.

Either way, as the movies open and enter the race, they can succeed or fail. If they fail, that opens the door for films people already knew were good enough to be remembered. That could potentially mean good things for Mr. Turner, a Cannes favorite, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, one of the year’s earlier hits.

Most of the time, the some of the year’s Best Picture nominees do come from earlier in the year — sleeper films that pundits already whip through but that the Academy maybe didn’t get to see. We forget about them while the Academy voters see them for the first time. With a few notable exceptions, this seems to always be the case.

Might 2014 be the year everything changes? It might be. We can’t yet know.

Mr. Turner has very good reviews already and if that continues it could end the year as one of the biggest money makers. Full of notable British actors, with sumptuous cinematography, art direction and costumes — it seems to be one that should be regarded in higher esteem at this point in the race.

While The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Wes Anderson movie, and the Academy isn’t Wes Anderson friendly, at least where Picture and Director are concerned, one thing it has in spades is a large ensemble cast, like Mr. Turner does. The Academy is ruled by actors — their branch numbering over double any of the second largest branches. That means they’re likely to lean towards films that give actors their due. That favors Birdman and Boyhood, also Gone Girl, Whiplash, Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, but it also favors Mr. Turner and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Either way, something to think about on this Saturday.

Best-Director.png

Best-Director.png

“I feel like people are always talking about the business and how hard it is. But, [David] Fincher’s got a terrific movie. Alejandro’s got this movie. Wes [Anderson] has made one of his best movies ever. Richard Linklater made another great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson has made another great movie. Bennett Miller’s movie is incredible. Do you know what I mean? I mean like, c’mon. You can’t get cynical. I’ve been going to the New York Film Festival. Noah Baumbach’s got his movie. I’ve been going to the New York Film Festival every other night because there are so many. The Dardenne Brothers movie… what more do you want? How many good movies do you expect there to be?” Edward Norton talking to Indiewire

Some directors last. Some don’t. Some make you remember their names because each time they hold you in their capable hands in the quiet, dark calm of the movie theater they change you. The good ones do anyway. The best ones put their hands all over you, challenge your sensibilities, perplex you in unexpected ways. Not giving you what you want is often the best way to make a film. Because we judge movies by consensus on Twitter now and with various think pieces and/or social justice Tumblrs we often forget that art is not there to complete you.

The standout directors this year represent varying potential roads for the industry and Oscar voters. The Oscars put the period on the end of the sentence, claiming the right here, right now film to signify what captured their hearts and the zeitgeist to become worthy of being called one of the year’s best.

Throughout most of Oscar history, we’ve treated Best Picture and Best Director as conjoined twins. Splitting them was a rarity. The best picture was always credited to the director. In the silly awards community, this is somewhat “controversial.” I’m one of those who firmly believes that if it’s the year’s best picture the director should be the one who gets the credit. This is so with animated feature, documentary feature and the shorts. The director takes the credit. The only time they don’t is with the year’s top prize, where the producers take the credit.

The director is often awarded as a compliment to the year’s top film. Except when it isn’t. Though it’s rare, we’ve seen picture/director splits for the past two years. In 2012 the DGA announced after Oscar ballots were turned in. The consensus either had not yet congealed or the Academy’s choices for Best Director did not agree with that consensus. Either way, the two presumed “locks,” Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow, were not included on the list. Ironically, both films dealt with politics in the middle east. One comedically where Americans emerged the heroes. One more ambiguously, where Americans emerged victorious but lost. The combination of the likable alternative to the darker version of America, a popular actor who made good getting a perceived “snub” set the stage for a dramatic win for Argo, even without a Best Director nomination.

Once that extraordinary event happened, it seemed to represent an amicable “divorce” between Picture and Director. It suddenly seem fair game to judge picture and director differently, and/or to provide a simpler way to reward BOTH beloved films. In 2012’s case, Ang Lee became the default winner, topping the consensus favorite Steven Spielberg. Had Spielberg won, he would have joined an elite group of directors who won three Best Directing Oscars. Only three in all of their 87 year history have done it: John Ford, with 4, and William Wyler and Frank Capra with 3. Now, Ang Lee has won 2 directing Oscars (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi) without his films winning Best Picture, another rarity shared only by George Stevens, who never won director the same year his film won picture (A Place in the Sun and Giant).

All the same, 2012 was not your usual split because the Best Picture frontrunner did not have a Best Director option. A true split happens when both are nominated and voters decide to split the vote. In Argo’s case they were going to choose it for Best Picture no matter what.

Last year, however, a more traditional split occurred, again breaking a historical record for “two splits in a row” and this time voters intentionally did it. Alfonso Cuaron would win for Gravity (which would then win the night’s most Oscars, seven in all) and 12 Years a Slave would squeak by with Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actress. This same scenario played out in 1967 when voters settled on a split between In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate. But this split vote was traditional in the sense that the Best Picture winner won the night’s most Oscars, while The Graduate won a single Oscar: Best Director. While it happens that sometimes a film can win only one award for Best Picture and nothing else, it’s rare for a two-film race to give most of the Oscars to the film that wins Best Director but not Best Picture. Such was the case with Cabaret and The Godfather, and even 2012’s Argo and Life of Pi. It happens. It’s just not common.

The Academy’s small branch of 400 or so directors do seem to have their preferences when it comes to choosing great directors. For instance, they nominated Tom Hooper for the King’s Speech but have never nominated Christopher Nolan. The DGA nominated him three times — once for Memento, again for the Dark Knight and again for Inception. But the Academy? He’s been nominated twice for screenplay and once for producing Inception, which barely made it in with a Best Picture nomination on a ten nominee ballot in 2010.

While the DGA loves their success stories, the Academy tends to be more peculiar when it comes to choosing best. Generally, they fall in line with the DGA but lately they haven’t been. They chose Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin over Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck in 2012. Last year, Paul Greengrass got into the DGA but Alexander Payne was the Oscar branch’s choice.

Like Alfonso Cuaron last year with Gravity, and Ang Lee with Life of Pi, Interstellar fits nicely into what movies are likely to look like in the future: auteurs bringing that sensibility to effects movies, which aren’t traditionally the Academy’s favorite thing. The one thing these films all have in common, of course, is that they are both emotion driven and actor driven. That makes them acceptable to the Academy in ways that films like Avatar wasn’t.

But. Still. We’re talking about a version of Hollywood’s future that the actor-driven Academy might not be willing to give themselves over to. Some of them will make the jump easily — the composers, production designers, sound, animators, editors — while others aren’t going to go in so easily. For instance, last year’s win for Gravity for Director and Avatar’s massive popularity proved that writing isn’t the most important thing anymore. Visual effects can sometimes trump story. Also, fewer actors were needed to tell these stories. Again, visual effects trumped even the actors.

Many of the more traditional old-guard directors also might not be willing or even interested in throwing themselves into the effects-driven movies that are going to soon dominate the studios and multiplexes. Some of them don’t even like 3D yet. Making the leap to digital is one thing. Altering the art of storytelling, of the very fiber of filmmaking as we’ve known it for decades, is something else.

Therefore, we have once again two worlds converging on the Oscar race. Hollywood in the future and the grass roots traditionalism of what we used to call movies.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman scratch the skin layer off the ways we have deceived ourselves in modern life by buying into illusions. Gone Girl is about avatar living, knowing that there is always a better you waiting online, an image you can carefully cultivate to advertise your happy life. Fincher and Flynn have scissored the pages of the book and pasted it back together as almost a satire of its source, removing what so many fans of the book turned to for some sanity. Fincher has hollowed out Amazing Amy but brought to life the monster. This subtle but significant adaptation has unearthed a lean, surreal masterpiece that it is not easily run through the Big Mac-o-meter for quick and easy understanding.

When the lights come up, Gone Girl demands you dig deeper to think about what you just saw without ever telling you exactly what you should be feeling. The chill it leaves you with takes time to shake off — but once you do, and if you go back and watch it again, a completely different movie emerges. Now you know where it’s headed, so watching the knot untangle backwards is an experience unmatched by any other film this year.

Fincher brings to this year’s Oscar race a career full of unpredictable turns, with critics not knowing exactly how to define his work. They want to say Gone Girl isn’t Se7en or Fight Club until they remember that those films were head-scratchers when they came out but over time resonate more brightly than they ever did. They want to say Gone Girl isn’t Zodiac, nor the one film they all could agree on as perfection, The Social Network. What they aren’t comfortable concluding yet is that he doesn’t do what Tarantino does — make essentially the same type of film that pulls the same types of ingredients from the bag. He doesn’t have a “return to mob” movies like Scorsese, or a “return to sappy sci-fi” like Spielberg. At best, they can conclude he is most interested in making his viewers uncomfortable, the one unifying theme of all Fincher’s films.

Gone Girl could be called a “departure” for Fincher — certainly it’s made money faster than any of his previous works and is on track to be highest earner — but the one thing it has that’s similar to his other films is that extraordinary eye for framing and that gift of insight that always looks for the alternative take, the unexpected reaction, resulting in a viewing experience where you have absolutely no idea what’s coming next and you can’t easily read the people you’re watching on screen.

Also departing from his usual oeuvre is Alejandro G. Inarritu, whose Birdman is filmed and edited to look like one long take. There are roughly 40 cuts, according to Kris Tapley, but they are seamless. With a drumbeat score and a rapid-fire script, Inarittu owes a debt to Chivo (his and Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar winning cinematographer on Gravity) who captures the entirety of Birdman with what appears to be a handheld camera. Watching Birdman is a dizzying, electrifying experience, and unlike anything we’ve really seen from Inarritu.

Birdman, like Gone Girl is virtuoso directing by an artist at the top of his game, and another film in the race that slyly comments on the right here, right now of 2014. The question of relevance, and more importantly, how fame now can mean simply being filmed running through Times Square in your underwear and cheap stunts that go viral than offering up anything of substance to the gaping collective that waits, saliva dripping, for the next humiliation.

Both Fincher and Inarritu are are directors at the top of their game, working with masters of the craft from music to writing to acting to cinematography and editing. These are the type of films that Best Picture contenders are usually made from — a collaboration of various expert arms of the film industry.

The frontrunner in the category is Richard Linklater who has, as a writer and director, taken on a 12-year project with Boyhood. While Boyhood is not so much a departure for Linklater, it’s the realization of an entire career. It takes elements from so many of his films, and is complete with his soul brother and muse, Ethan Hawke, and is a rumination of life. Linklater is a writer and director who has not stopped asking questions, or wondering about the precious time we have in our too short lives. Boyhood is the only film that really captures that breathtaking speed of time passing before your eyes. To return again and again to the story, which feels like it was filmed in a couple of months.

Other films that are fictional accounts include Wes Anderson’s crazy/magical The Grand Budapest Hotel and the upcoming Into the Woods, and Interstellar. Wes Anderson, like Linklater, has yet to be embraced by the Academy, despite a growing and already impressive canon. The Grand Budapest Hotel defied expectations and made a good deal of money, surprising given its early release date. Gorgeous art direction, costumes, cinematography — this is a film that hails wholly from Anderson’s own imagination, much like Interstellar, where we will once again have the chance to deep dive into Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s abstract storytelling set amid state of the art special effects.

Interstellar screens tonight but I won’t see it until tomorrow. Already it’s earning buzz and raves by those who have seen it, though the critics and voters haven’t yet gotten a crack at it. It’s sure to be the year’s highest grossing film, or close. It will have to beat Guardians of the Galaxy but if it does, it will do it without pre-branding, no easy feat these days.

The rest of the Best Picture race is made up of true stories, or bending the truth slightly stories. Most of those upcoming are of heroes — like Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Or films based on true events, like A Most Violent Year.

Bennett Miller heads for a nomination threepeat with Foxcatcher, possibly his third Best Picture nomination for the third film he ever made. Foxcatcher is one of two films based on a famous but heroic figure. Miller takes the story in a slightly different direction in that it’s easy to see what American has become through the lens of this film — the poor get screwed and the rich get away with it.

Miller’s own legacy is two great films, Capote and Moneyball. Foxcatcher makes three. It is being downgraded for Best Picture right now because pundits deem it “too dark” to make it in. The relatively unknown James Marsh (Theory of Everything), the Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year and Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle are the new kids on the block. Either all of them will get in, pushing the vets out the door, or they won’t. It’s tough to gauge right now.

One funny thing about this year is that pundits seem convinced that the Academy “is cool” on David Fincher when he’s been nominated twice already, and at the same time they have Christopher Nolan as a lock for Interstellar when he’s never been nominated. While I agree that, sight unseen, Nolan seems like a lock for the category, it would be a break from tradition if they went for it, which they probably will. You never hear pundits talk about their “Nolan problem,” though. Either they aren’t interested or they aren’t paying attention.

Even with Nolan’s collection of box office hits, only Inception has cracked the Best Picture lineup and it did it with ten nomination slots, not nine. Voters now have only five slots. They will pick their five favorites of the year. Right now, we have no idea what those will be because of so many late breaking movies that many of us have not seen. Still, money has a way of deciding things, at least where Best Picture is concerned. But it matters for Best Director now, too, after the past two years have given Best Director to an effects driven blockbuster.

Here is how Best Picture breaks down over ten years, from cost to domestic take. Split vote years are bolded.

2013 – 12 Years a Slave – cost $20 million/Domestic take $56 million

2012 – Argo – cost $44 million | Domestic take $136 million


2011 – The Artist – cost $15 million | Domestic take $44 million

2010 – The King’s Speech – cost $15 million | Domestic take $135 million

2009 – The Hurt Locker – cost $15 million | Domestic take $17 million

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire – cost $15 million | Domestic take $141 million

2007 – No Country for Old Men – cost $25 million | Domestic take $74 million

2006 – The Departed – cost $90 million | Domestic take $132 million 

2005 – Crash – cost $6.5 million | Domestic take $56 million
 (Ang Lee, BM’s box office take: $83 million)
2004 MDB – cost cost $30 million | Domestic take $100 million

2003 – ROTK cost $94 million | Domestic take $377 million

And this year?
Boyhood – cost $4 million | Domestic take so far $23 million and counting

Gone Girl – cost $61 million | Domestic take so far $111 million and counting

The Grand Budapest Hotel cost $30 million | Domestic take $59 million

Birdman – cost $18 million | Domestic take so far in limited release $538 thou and counting

Whiplash – cost $3.3 million | Domestic take so far in limited release $401 thou and counting

In the end, Best Director and Best Picture continue to be up in the air, with a few choice names leading the pack. Though it feels at once like we’re waging war against superheroes, it also feels like there’s more opportunity than ever before. It’s nearly impossible to do what David Fincher has done with Gone Girl, it must be repeated: create a studio movie starring an adult woman that is aimed at adults with an ambiguous ending and dark subject matter that can earn $100 million in three weeks? Maybe he’ll pry open a door that’s been closed for far too long. Open doors, open windows, new life, new light.


american_sniper_poster-600x888

american_sniper_poster-600x888Directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal who is on record as holding the most sniper kills.
Jason Hall adapted the script from Kyle’s autobiography, and follows his journey from rodeo star to America’s most lethal sniper. Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes, Navid Negahban and Keir O’Donnell also star in the film which is set to open on Christmas Day.

A new poster was unveiled today showing Cooper in uniform with the tagline “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S History.”

If you haven’t already seen the trailer, we get our first look of Cooper playing Kyle, showing us glimpses of his life. Many Oscar pundits have put this on their prediction lists. What are your thoughts?

foxcatcher 7

Boy, that escalated slowly. If it seems like only yesterday twhen we saw the first teaser for Foxcatcher, you’re almost right: it was over a year ago. Sept 26, 2013. Wise move for Bennett Miller to bide his time so he could squeeze in a trip to Cannes to pick up his Best Dorector prize. At last the teaser phase is over and we now have a full-length trailer. || The true story of Olympic Wrestling Champion Mark Schultz who decides to get justice after schizophrenic John duPont killed his brother, Olympic Champion Dave Schultz. (sorry, Spoiler Alert?)

gone-girl-5-2

Awards season can ruin every great thing about movies because films are set up to succeed or fail based on criteria.  Ratings and scores, rumblings from Academy members, opening weekend – we’re all a Greek chorus of judgmental experts deciding on the success or failure of a film to either be a success with audiences (at best) or an Oscar frontrunner, which is supposed to be defined as: one of the best films of the year.

But beyond that, beyond the silliness, there are real conversations to be had. Both the New York Times and especially The New Yorker are bringing those conversations to hungry film fans eager to read something beyond the thumbs up, thumbs down mentality that grew like a weed and is killing its host.  No one can really believe the amount of in depth think pieces on David Fincher’s Gone Girl except that it points to how few adult movies there are to talk about at all. How many think pieces can a person write about Guardians of the Galaxy?

Gone Girl has tapped into something – even if there are those who just don’t bother to go looking. It, like Boyhood, like Birdman, like Foxcatcher feels very right now. There is something to be said for the whir of modern life and how artists respond to what’s happening around us, as opposed to the safer reflections backwards, the comforting nostalgia of the past.

In case you missed them, the New Yorker rises to the top of the pile with in depth think pieces on Gone Girl. While their critic on record, Anthony Lane, did what Manohla Dargis and Todd McCarthy did at first — express a measure of disappointment in what they perceived as Gone Girls pop sensibility and pulp roots. You might never dig deeper and read Richard Brody’s review of the film:

Kubrick and other key directors whose careers overlapped with his (such as Hitchcock and Howard Hawks) put their sense of style to the test with violent emotions and violent actions. They found ways to expand their style to reveal what was latent in that style all along; they infused the frippery of society with the wild content that it already concealed. Fincher’s style is a strange and modern fusion of sincerity and cynicism. It’s a destylized style that arises from the movie’s subject, the style of someone who knows he’s being watched. His cinematic manner reveals an intense, almost unbearable self-consciousness, an awareness (one that’s found in the story as well) of the ubiquity of media and of life lived in perpetual performance, on a permanent stage. At a time when every image is at risk of flying out onto the Internet, attaching to a celebrity, and both gaining a life of its own and becoming a part of that celebrity’s image (a phenomenon that’s central to the story of “Gone Girl”), Fincher’s images seem to neutralize themselves, to become even colder and less expressive than the blank, voracious media gaze that they represent.

The next piece by Joshua Rothman, What Gone Girl is Really About:

As in many postmodern narratives, the heroes and villains in Fincher’s “Gone Girl” aren’t people but stories. We hope that the familiar, reassuring ones will win out (they don’t). In fact, the film is so self-aware that none of the stories it tells can be taken at face value. As my colleague Richard Brody has written, the movie’s drama and characters have been streamlined so as to reveal their “underlying mythic power.” But “Gone Girl” is also anti-myth. When Amy (Rosamund Pike) says, of her plot against her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), “That’s marriage,” you’re not supposed to believe her. If the myth of the perfect marriage is poisonous, then so is the myth of the continual “war of the sexes.” The question the movie asks is: Are there any stories that we can tell ourselves about marriage that ring true?

If that question sounds familiar, that’s because, in some ways, with “Gone Girl,” Fincher has returned to the structures of “Fight Club,” substituting a married couple for Tyler Durden and his gaggle of disenchanted bros. In both stories, the characters rebel against the unbearable myth of attainable perfection, substituting for it an alternative one of transcendent, authentic, freedom-giving destruction. “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need,” Tyler Durden says. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.” Durden’s response to his disillusionment with contemporary masculinity is to embrace a seductive, violent, and supposedly more genuine idea of “real” manliness—but that alternative turns out to be a disastrous illusion. In “Gone Girl,” it’s the mythos of coupledom, not the mythos of masculinity, that’s oppressive. But the imagined solution is the same: “We’re so cute I want to punch us in the face,” Amy says.

And if two brilliant essays weren’t enough, the New Yorker brings a third piece, Marriage is an Abduction by Elif Batuman:

But perhaps “Gone Girl” ’s greatest insight is that the men aren’t mere brutish exploiters. Where a more simplistic narrative would posit that every loss for women is a gain for men, Flynn shows again and again that nobody is a winner—everyone is a dupe. Girls are set up for a horrific disappointment, but boys are set up to be horrifically disappointing. Boys are taught to protect, but how do you protect someone who has the same basic rights as you do, and from whom you are also demanding a huge sacrifice? How do you protect someone who is too good for you—not too pure or too lofty but actually better than you at day trading, running marathons, and looking like a million bucks?

Before a TV interview, Nick, the most hated man in America, is instructed, “You have to admit you’re a jerk and that everything was all your fault.” “So, like, what men are supposed to do in general,” he replies. This line got a lot of rueful laughs at the screening I attended. “Gone Girl” is as much about the near impossibility of being a good husband as it is about the anguish of being a good wife. The bat-shit preposterousness of the marital “accord” ultimately reached by Nick and Amy is an indictment of the state of marriage, and of heterosexual relations more broadly.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 8.22.05 AM

It’s a film that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t release you until the end credits. This clip gives you a better idea of what the movie is like in terms of tone and rhythm and camera and dialogue.

directors feature 2

The Best Directing Oscar has not gone to a director born in America for the past four consecutive years. That’s the longest running gap in Oscar history. Last year, the first Mexican director won, Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity. The year prior, the brilliant Taiwanese genius, Ang Lee (a naturalized American citizen) won his second Oscar (another record breaker), the year before that, Michel Hazanavicius directed the first French film to win Best Picture, and prior to that, the old mainstay, a Brit, Tom Hooper won for The King’s Speech. The last time an American director won was Kathryn Bigelow for the Hurt Locker in 2009.

This reflects both reflects the changing landscape of the Oscars and the film industry overall – more focus on international and less on domestic product.

Though many of the early directors who built the Hollywood empire by directing iconic films were immigrants from other countries, like Billy Wilder (The Apartment), like Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo), like Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life), Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia), Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), this has been the longest stretch at the Oscars without an native-born American director winning.

The irony of it is that one reason American directors haven’t been winning has more to do with the experimental, often divisive work many of them are doing, as opposed to the more traditional types of storytelling that wooing a larger consensus often requires.

This year, as is the norm lately, there are directors hailing from all over the world currently flooding the Oscar race, with three Americans at the head of the pack. Richard Linklater for Boyhood, David Fincher for Gone Girl and Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher. They join Mexico’s González Iñárritu for Birdman as the four strongest contenders for the category this year so far. Four wildly different films, of darkness and light, of realism and fantasy, of dreams and nightmares.

state of race feature

The Masters

Boyhood is the culmination of the meditative storytelling of Richard Linklater, a director who really has never fit inside any box. What his work has to offer in abundance is depth and heart. He is a good-hearted person and that shines through in the films he writes, alone or with his collaborators. He’s the guy who put the camera on Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as they tore each other apart in the third of the Before films. He’s the guy who finds nothing more interesting in life than the art of conversation — two people walking the streets of Vienna, diving into the human condition. But Linklater is more than just someone interested in conversation, he is also known to pull rabbits out of his hat unexpectedly with films like Fast Food Nation, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly. You’d be hard pressed to nail him down to any one style except raw authenticity. But it’s really with Boyhood that’s Linklater has taken his work to a different level, perhaps one he didn’t even see coming. It isn’t just a gimmick, this making a film over a 12-year period. This is careful storytelling, planning and filming pieced together as though it had been filmed in 12 months.

What Linklater does so well in Boyhood is tell this story seamlessly, literally having it move along in the blink of an eye. Never has a film captured life and preserved it behind glass like that. You’d think the result would be to marvel at people aging before your eyes — and whether you connect with the material or not that happens to you while watching the film. But it’s more than that. It’s about the delicate accidental pathways we carve for ourselves and others that amount to the totality of our lives. If you’re one of those people who fights off dark nights of the soul you’ll already have figured this out. But if you haven’t, Boyhood might just do it for you.

When the film ends you realize that Linklater has really been telling the story of the mother, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette. This was a love letter to her, and all of the teachers whose paths he crossed along the way. But to pay homage to the woman who did all of the hard work raising you? That’s some kind of thing. Boyhood has much going for it heading into the race and as many have already said, and I myself have said, it’s going to be a hard one to top.

It’s one of those odd stories in American film history that David Fincher hasn’t yet won an Oscar. He is already overdue twice over, once for Benjamin Button and again for The Social Network. Could it be possible, when all is said and done, that Fincher might join Kubrick and Hitchcock in the ranks of directors who gave us some of the finest films ever made but never won over the consensus? The buzz right now for Gone Girl is deafening. It has not only captured that elusive zeitgeist (as Fincher’s films often do) but it’s making big money. Dizzying, beautiful, haunting, Gone Girl is a send up of the right now, a companion piece to Fight Club and the Social Network as a sharp elbow to the ribs and a good laugh at the end of the night over the absurdity of it all. Each of these three films ends with a punctuation mark at the end of an ellipses. Working with an ensemble of talented actors, under the pulse of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Fincher has probably made the most provocative film of the year in a year of very provocative films.

Gone Girl can be enjoyed on two different levels. For those hoping to get their money’s worth on date night, it delivers a thrill ride and something unexpected. But Gone Girl, like Fincher’s other films, will also appeal to viewers ready to take a deep to other layers, if they feel like going there. To do that you have to be willing to step back and look at the world around you and listen to what this film says about that world. You have to be willing to look at yourself and your place in that world. Gone Girl is at once about the striations of the institution of marriage as currently stands in American culture as it is about the way we choose to define ourselves outwardly, our avatar selves, our social networking disconnect between who we are and who we want people to think we are.

One of the reasons there is so much excitement for Gone Girl is that it’s the first big studio movie to come out in a long time that isn’t aimed at 13 year old boys — or the vast numbers of Americans of all ages and both sexes who sometimes seem to have the mentality of 13-year-old boys. Its presence in theaters, on social networks, and word of mouth is a stark reminder of how starving adult people are for movies about people rather than costumed or animated characters. Fincher makes films in hard R. How many directors are even allowed to do that anymore? Some of us remember how things used to be. Oscar season is the one time of year now where we get a chance to live it again. Summer used to be the only time for blockbusters aimed at tweens. Now it’s a year round event. It’s not surprising that the coverage for Gone Girl has been off the charts. Now that Oscar season is upon us there will be plenty of films coming to take up the slack, to become filler for a season that has way too many crows pecking at few crumbs of bread.

Either way you look at it, this is one of the year’s most talked about films, which can sometimes translate to an Oscar nomination.

Bennett Miller brings another pitch black comedy of sorts to the race with Foxcatcher, the true story of the murder of Dave Schultz at the hands of John Du Pont, heir to the Du Pont fortune. As the story of multimillionaire misfit, the film doesn’t try to be a documentary. Rather, it settles like a slimy layer left overnight on an otherwise serene American dream, rotten from the ground up. Both Gone Girl and Foxcatcher offer up that dream as a too-pretty facade that covers the absence of where real happiness can be found: in real human relationships. These films are about the buying and selling of that dream and how, in the end, it can’t be bought.

Foxcatcher is a slow burn, but ultimately one that leaves you groping around in the dark for the light switch. It’s not a film that is going to send you out of the theater skipping with childlike glee that all is right with the world. But oh, is it brilliant. As our country unwinds from the damage caused by two decades of a government going from a democracy to an oligarchy, here is a film that clearly shows how different these two worlds are. Though Foxcatcher works as a film based on a true story, it also works beautifully as a metaphor for the theft of the middle class at the hands of people who have no right to take such a thing.

Alejandro Gonzolez Inarritu’s Birdman is another pitch black comedy. That’s three, count ’em, three headed into the race. His camera trails a day in the life of a former superhero who is trying to fumble towards one last grab at respectability by making What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the Raymond Carver short story, into a play (Adapted by, Directed by, and Starring!). It is another film about identity versus reality, illusion vs. delusion all pinned under what is made to look like a single take.

Like Gone Girl and Foxcatcher — and to a certain extent, Boyhood — here is another film that searches for the meaning of life, or the place where true happiness can be found. Birdman takes a merciless stab at criticism, fame, and even Twitter. There is a sense of artists fighting back at the strange way media has taken over the conversation. It is easy to make internet chatter and bloggers look stupid because when you look at it from real life’s point of view few things seem smaller than the silly shit we are all consumed by every second of every day online.

Though no one has yet gutted this modern phenom, Birdman comes pretty close to illuminating that modern-day feeling that there is just no THERE there anymore. The camera keeps us tied to the characters so that we can feel as suffocated as they do, so we can feel that there is no escape from the madness.

These are films that will define 2014, at least so far. The only one of them that can win the way the Academy votes now is Boyhood as it’s the only one that celebrates the goodness in us. In Boyhood, things turn out all right. There are no dramatic shifts in any direction to say that life is a sucky tragedy until we die, or that someone wins a million dollars and gets rich. There is just the heart-stopping beauty of the fleeting moments that fly by every second of every minute of every hour of the day.

When films like this come along any Academy member worth his or her salt would be wise to take notice, whether it makes you feel good or not. But this is an unwinnable war. With the balloting such as it is voters only have five choices for Best Picture, even if they include those that almost made it in.

Other masters hovering just outside the race would include:
Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel

New Kids on the Block

The other directors right now that are looking to make a slash with their films would include:
James Marsh for The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle for Whiplash
David Ayer for Fury
Xavier Dolan for Mommy
Tommy Lee Jones for The Homesman
Jean-Marc Valle for Wild

Master directors who could really change the game:

Clint Eastwood, American Sniper

Eastwood has won Best Director twice (along with Best Picture). To win a third time would put in an elite club of only three other directors in Academy history to win more than two. John Ford holds the record with four wins but only one of those (How Green was my Valley) also won Best Picture. William Wyler is next, with Mrs. Miniver an The Best Years of Our Lives, and finally, Frank Capra who won three Oscars but only once with Best Picture, so Eastwood would have to really make Academy history here.

Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

It seems inconceivable from where I sit that Nolan will be excluded from the race for Best Director for Interstellar. The only snag is that he doesn’t make “accessible” films but rather requires that the audience be active participants.

Women are a Force to be Reckoned With

Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie are headed squarely into the Oscar race with Selma and Unbroken, two films about American heroes. DuVernay’s film is about the march for civil rights and the Voters Rights Act. Jolie’s film is about Louis Zamperini’s incredible life as a prisoner of war. This hardly ever happens, to have women — and especially not a black female director like DuVernay to get this close to the Oscar race. Sure, these films have not been seen yet but how great that we’re talking about them at all.

Best Director right now looks like this:
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. David Fincher, Gone Girl
3. Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
4. Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
5. Morten Tyldum, Imitation Game or James Marsh for Theory of Everything

It really is a roll of the dice as to what will happen in the coming months with screenings ahead. It seems most likely that Christopher Nolan will get in but it is too soon to know about the rest.

IF

Gone Girl far surpassed expectations to earn $38 million this past weekend, (early tracking had it at $20 million), landing between last year’s Gravity which opened to $55 million in October and Captain Phillips, which opened at $25 million.

For the past three years, opening in October was the sweet spot for Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave was also an October opener in limited release. The year prior, Argo opened in October, earning $19 million opening weekend. November is also a magic month, with The King’s Speech opening in very limited release, making just $355K. The same thing happened the following year with The Artist making roughly $200K. Slumdog Millionaire opened in November in 2008 ($360K) and also No Country for Old Men ($2.1mil).

Beyond that, you can see how the date change really impacted Best Picture as we have Million Dollar Baby opening in December in 2004 ($179K), Return of the King in 2003 ($72 million), Chicago in 2002 ($2 million), A Beautiful Mind in 2001 ($360K) and finally the December breaks with Gladiator, which opened in May of 2000 ($34 million).

So you can see that nowadays, an October or a November opener is your best bet, outside the anomalies, like Gladiator. Boyhood winning would be one such anomaly.

The Social Network was an October opener with $22 million, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opened in December ($12 mil), Benjamin Button was another December opener ($26 mil), Zodiac had a March opening with $13 million, and Panic Room earned $30 million its opening March weekend. Fight Club, an October release, had $11 million, and Se7en had a September release with $13.

But Gone Girl had three key elements heading into the weekend – massive amounts of buzz (capturing the zeitgeist, after all), fans of the bestselling book – which is, as of today, the number one book and audiobook on iTunes. Lots of publicity by Ben Affleck, who is a draw on his own and fans of David Fincher who know that when they go to see one of his movies, whether more art house or blockbuster, is going to be exceptional.

This American director has yet to be lauded by the Academy, but the success of Gone Girl seems to bode well for a nomination, at least. Though the subject matter either thrills men or it makes them cup their balls in fear. No one can deny the mastery behind that camera, however. All are uniformly in agreement about that.

I don’t know what the term “Oscar buzz” even means anymore. To me it’s a muggle word, said by people on TV or in the mainstream press to mean “stuff people who write about the Oscars are talking about.” Being in the eye of the storm it doesn’t mean much to me – everyone has their own idea of what Oscar buzz means and honestly, what it literally means — as Mark Harris solidifies – is a few months off yet. What it literally means is voters walking around talking about movies they love. We in the industry (as such) define it as movies with good reviews and well respected filmmakers. A movie like Whiplash has Oscar buzz because people like Anne Thompson and AO Scott are talking about it.

What we know about the Academy — and the consensus vote overall — is that divisive films do not win Best Picture. You need as low a Rotten Tomatoes negative number as possible. The conflict in this, and the reason Oscar best picture winners do not last is this: the best films in history divide audiences. Great art IS, by nature, divisive. Even Boyhood is divisive — sharply. And that’s one of the most powerful things about it. It just so happens that it will likely be less divisive than some other films this year, which could result in a win.

If you put Gone Girl on one hand and Boyhood on the other you see wildly different films, as different as Raging Bull and Ordinary People, Goodfellas and Dances with Wolves, and yes, the Social Network and the King’s Speech.

I find Gone Girl to be a thrilling piece of cinema and if it is rewarded with Oscar nominations, all the better for the legacy of the Academy in rewarding such good work. But if it isn’t, that doesn’t change what it is. The 90+ audience rating at Rotten Tomatoes and the box office really says it all.

Other October openers soon to come:
Whiplash
Kill the Messenger
Birdman
St. Vincent
Fury

gone

Gone Girl vaults to the top of David Fincher’s box-office chart with the best opening weekend of his career. $38 million; that’s 4.5 million tickets. Panic Room made $30 million selling 5.1 million tickets 12 years ago (in 2002, when Ellar Coltrane was 6 years old). In 2010, The Social Network had a $22 million debut weekend and went on to earn $96 million. Last week 20th Century Fox was cautiously estimating Gone Girl would clock in with $22-25 million. It will be interesting to take a look at the demographic breakdown of Gone Girl ticket-buyers. We’ll add those stats as soon as I find them.

75-9

(SPOILERS)

“Kubrick is after a cool, sunlit vision of hell, born in the bosom of the nuclear family, but his imagery–with its compulsive symmetry and brightness–is too banal to sustain interest, while the incredibly slack narrative line forestalls suspense.” – from David Kehr’s review of The Shining

“The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.” – Variety’s review of The Shining

“The “Gold Room,” a clever amplification of the hotel ballroom in Mr. King’s novel, becomes the place where Jack’s rage about his fiscal and familial responsibilities is revealed. It’s also the place where the movie begins to go wrong, lapsing into bright, splashy effects reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange (though the Gold Room sequences produce the film’s closing shot, a startling photograph of Mr. Nicholson). The Shining begins, by this point, to show traces of sensationalism, and the effects don’t necessarily pay off. The film’s climactic chase virtually fizzles out before it reaches a resolution.” Janet Maslin on The Shining

“The newest film by Brian de Palma, who is often wrong but not dull, “Carrie” is billed as a horror movie. But it is sometimes funny in a puzzling kind of way, it is generally overwrought in an irritating kind of way, and once in a while it is inappropriately touching. It isn’t frightening at all until the very end, and then it is briefly and extremely frightening.” The New York Times on Carrie

As expected, David Fincher’s Gone Girl has sparked debate, some of it good, some of it intolerable. Two points often brought up seem to be wrapped up in this notion of the good girl vs. the bad girl. The novel itself toys with this notion, boy does it ever, but in bringing the story to the big screen it was inevitable that cries of misogyny would bubble up. The other accusation that the movie somehow erased perceived ambiguity about the character of Amy Dunne.

Gone Girl is full of brilliantly written, acted and directed FEMALES. A female detective, Nick’s twin sister, Amy’s mother, a “cool girl” girlfriend — dumb women, smart women, funny women, scary women — more women than any major motion picture you will see this season except for Into the Woods and what do we get? We get nitpicking, yet again, thus ensuring that this female demographic will not budge. We’d rather have no women on screen than a complicated array of them.

The best reviews of Gone Girl that I’ve read have been, thankfully, written by women. Try Linda Holmes’ two-parter on NPR, which deep dives into the film from a spoiler and a non-spoiler side. The first and the second. Try this interesting rumination on Screencruch on the strong woman, “How ‘Gone Girl’ Defies the Strong Female Character” by Britt Hayes:

We are only asked to empathize with Amy in the sense that this is a woman whose husband has been unfaithful, just as we are asked to empathize with Nick in the sense that his wife is a totally brilliant manipulator exacting an insane revenge plot, cutting into him piece by piece to make him into the shape of her ideal husband — Amazing Amy, indeed.
Those angered by a perceived bait and switch should ask themselves why: why are you so maddened that a woman should be allowed to be the villain of her own piece? Amy Dunne in ‘Gone Girl’ is a victorious moment, not for any vicarious reasoning, but because it allows women to be portrayed in all lights, just as men are, putting us on equal footing. The problem with the Strong Female Character is the same problem with the Cool Girl: she’s been constructed as an impossible, aspirational figure that no woman can or wants to live up to for the rest of her life, fictional or not.
Women, like men, are all things, and Amy Dunne thankfully shows our cinematic bad side.

And then the flip side. Words like “empty” and “hollow” keep coming up or worse, that it’s manipulative and deceptive.  In her Buzzfeed piece “The problem with Gone Girl is that there is no Cool Girl,” Anne Helen Petersen seems to want the movie to do what so many films about women unfortunately do: elevate women to ensure their inherent sainthood.

Peterson is 100% wrong about Gone Girl, Fincher’s interpretation of it, and what the films ultimately says when she writes (spoiler warning):

The Amy of Fincher’s Gone Girl isn’t Cool, or complicated, or sympathetic. She’s the “crazy fucking bitch” that Nick calls her, yet another example for the eternal argument for women’s unhingeability and hysteria.
And the film’s avoidance of an engaged interrogation of Cool Girl ideal is what makes it just as hollow, dismissible, and superficial as the version of Amy that inhabits it. It’s the major failing of the movie — and what downgrades a transgressive meditation on the politics of gender performance into a run-of-the-mill, if entertaining, thriller.

It is telling to me that Peterson sees the cinematic version of Amy, Pike’s version, as hollow, dismissible and superficial. I certainly didn’t. At best, this seems to me a case of someone wanting the movie they are seeing in their heads. At worst, it is a painful reminder that when it comes to women many of us still can’t handle the truth.  The point of Amy Dunne is that she criticizes the cool girl. She isn’t one. She could be at the snap of her fingers. She could be anything she wanted to be up to a point. But the Amy Dunne we know, the one Nick falls for, wouldn’t deign to be the kind of cool girl she’s talking about. She’s disgusted by these women, which is why she isolates herself from them. They appear throughout the film, either as Nick’s young squeeze or as girls we see in passing cars or girls who hit on Nick.  They are contrasted, however, by grounded, smart women like Go and Detective Boney — something Peterson completely overlooks.  That contrast is important here because it isn’t making any sweeping judgments about women. They are saying: here is a monster, one that could only have emerged from the twisted fantasy that is the imagined American fairy-tale life.

Peterson has revealed her own prejudices against the subject matter. She could handle the book when there was more ambiguity and still that pretty puffy little dream that Amazing Amy really WAS amazing. She could maybe dwell in the unreality of Nick and Amy as the perfect couple with their anniversary status updates on Facebook because you know, nothing holds our crumbling empire together better than a happy marriage. What she could not handle, though, is a visual and cinematic representation of the inside and out of a true monster. To see Amy any other way is a gross misread of the author’s intent. She undresses this monster, pulls away each pretty petal until she can be finally seen. Facing that Amy, facing that truth, is probably a lot harder than it seems.

The best female characters, or certainly some of them, have been bad to the bone, or at least bad because they are stand ins for symbolic moments in history — like Scarlett O’Hara representing the rotting evil of the South, or Blanche DuBois representing the aging decay of a dying breed, or Eve Harrington as the embodiment of fame whores, or Carrie White turning on the culture that bullied and rejected her. Or sometimes just pure evil — like Regina George in Mean Girls, like Maddie Walker in Body Heat, like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl.

Fincher was making and reworking the basics of the book and flipping them on their head — Peterson did not appreciate that because she could no longer see the difference between the good and the bad Amy. She couldn’t see it so she assumed it wasn’t there. The “entitled passive viewer” comes at film the way they stand in line for Starbucks. There is less open mindedness and more entitlement now than there ever has been so you often hear critics say things like “I have an issue with…” or “the problem with,” as though each and every complaint major and minor that they have somehow means the product itself, or, in this case, the film itself is “flawed.”

The problem with Peterson’s piece is the problem with all modern film criticism. It start with three words that should be stricken forever from film criticism, “the problem with.” That sounds like someone talking about new shoes or a GrubHub delivery or an Uber driver.  Assuming that your inability to understand an artist’s intent, or even the simple truth that you did not like a film, or that it’s a bad film, translates to a “problem.” No, a problem is global warming. A problem is the abundance of wild dogs on the reservations out west. A problem is Citizens United.  Hanging that overblown notion on a work of art suggests that it does society some harm, these passive film viewers who are victims of what they’re seeing on screen. I read one film critic who called it a “cynical manipulation” as though cinema itself hadn’t been built off that singular notion.

But this snuffs out art and invites what most of us are getting each and every week at the movies: that which we expect, exactly. A director like David Fincher, or even the retired David Lynch, or countless others who are working outside the accepted norms, who are challenging their viewers, opening doors, inviting discussion? There is little room for them in an orchestra of carping consumers who seem to want a one-size-fits-all movie that ticks off all the boxes and sends you home with a contented smile on your face. You know, probably not the best idea to see a movie directed by David Fincher if that’s how you plan to spend the evening.

A good comparison of Gone Girl is how Stephen King’s work has been adapted over the years.  If you read The Shining you will discover an entirely different story in every possible way than what Kubrick put on screen, much to King’s own personal disappointment. But Kubrick made it cinema where it was horror fiction before (I think literature but hey, that’s me).  Kubrick made it funny. It wasn’t funny. It was nowhere near funny. The Shining, as written by Stephen King is terrifying. Wendy is being hunted by her haunted husband and Danny has a power that makes the Overlook want to absorb him for it. Kubrick’s version did not delight critics in the least bit, and it certainly pissed off a lot of King fans. But Kubrick’s film is a cinematic masterpiece because it is about CINEMA. It’s about the color red. It’s about Jack Nicholson’s wildly off-the-wall performance. It’s that giant hotel swallowing up the skinny Wendy and tiny Danny. It’s about tracking shots and it’s about evoking terror. It’s about showing, not telling.

When Brian DePalma made King’s wonderful first book, Carrie, it was a similar kind of transformation. It was kind of funny. It is different from the book in so many ways — for one thing, in the film Carrie is not repulsive. She is pretty, though freaky as Sissy Spacek realized her. This is what we talk about when we talk about the language of cinema — showing an audience a story that is meant to give you an experience over a two hour period sitting in a dark theater — it is not about the isolated wonder of making a book come alive in your imagination.   Even films like the Shawshank Redemption or Stand by Me or Misery or Dolores Claiborne completely alter what was written on the page. They have to. They’re movies, not books. Vive la difference.

It is therefore very telling how different people interpret Amy in Fincher’s film. Here is a director like Kubrick or DePalma who has taken a familiar book with familiar characters and found a new way to tell that story using the language of cinema, not the language of fiction. He found in Gillian Flynn a writer who understands both.  So that this attempt to find the goodness in Amy, or to want to see one’s own definition of a “cool girl” is to want the movie you made in you head rather than the one these artist’s rendered.  People seem so insistent about making Amy somehow good. Perhaps, while reading the book, they were able to remake Amy as a more palatable person. But Amy, fully fleshed out on screen, is the collaboration of an actress, a director and a writer who found this cinematic Amy, quite different from the Amy as written on the page.

One of the things I love about Gone Girl is how blithely Nick Dunne, or Ben Affleck, rolls in and out of the backstage drama. It is such a brilliant comment on white male privilege, particularly in the modern age. Like Nick, many of the male responses to the film have varied from wanting to be the brave protector of Amy (“She’s not bad. She’s just drawn that way.”) to feeling protective of themselves against women. Never, though, is anyone going to start pointing the finger at Nick. He cheats on his wife for an entire year and still most of us come out of the book, and the movie, on Nick’s side. Only a few of the very embittered among us might secretly think, “oh fuck yeah.” In the end it will come down to Amy because she is the one who must carry the burden of being the “positive role model” for women and the fuckable babe for men.

Now, women are our own worst enemies. If we could unite and stop competing we could truly rule the world. We are the ones who drive the gossip industry. We are the ones who pick up tabloids at newspaper stands and carefully observe the flaws in others so that we can feel better about ourselves. We are the babysitters and teachers and nannies and wives and girlfriends who do terrible, murderous, violent things and lie about it. We have a whole universe of bad that goes mostly ignored in film, and sometimes on television because the truth about women as ticket buyers is that they “have to like” the female character. That is the big question, always. Do they like her. When Fatal Attraction was audience tested they didn’t like that Glenn Close committed suicide. They wanted to see her pay. So they had Anne Archer, the one they liked, shoot her. In Fincher’s film, the audience simply isn’t given that reprieve. Things aren’t allowed to go back to ‘normal’. We have to confront and live with this particular truth, lingering unexpectedly like Anthony Perkins’ skeleton smile at the end of Psycho.

Amy Dunne is a sociopath. Amy Dunne is a crazy bitch. Amy Dunne is unhinged hysteria unleashed upon humanity. Amy Dunne is a monster. Gillian Flynn wrote one, a female one, as a horror story. Does that mean all women are crazy bitches? No. Peterson objects to the film version, or Pike’s interpretation of Amy because, probably, she liked Amy in the book but didn’t like her in the movie. She did not take to this chilly ice-queen whose presence took the film to a completely different place.

We’re working with a pretender, but also someone unimaginable to polite society. Unlike Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, who really is a “crazy bitch” this director and screenwriter never betray their heroine. They don’t turn on her the way they did in Fatal Attraction. They don’t sweep her up with a broom and dustpan and throw her in the garbage. They stay with her until the very end. That leaves you with a bitter chill, a terrifying questioning. Amy is the monster as imagined by Flynn, but she is also a cinematic icon in the tradition of chilly blondes. The expanse of the big screen gives us no escape, not rationalizing our way out of this mess. That is, in the end, what is so terrifying about Fincher’s ADAPTATION of Gone Girl. That is the magic of cinema. That is the power of art.

If we insist that all women in film — and all black characters or Asian characters or other minorities — only be portrayed as good because the white male patriarchy has shit all over them for so many years, then we will have effectively written ourselves out of the continuing evolution of art in film. We are 50% of the population. We gave birth to the world. Yet only one aspect of our nature is depicted on screen, rendering us as essential as a doorknob, as distinct as a four door sedan. Not all of us are nice. Not all of us are pretty. Not all of us are good. Not all of us are strong. And none of us are invisible.

Sign In

Register

Reset Your Password

Email Newsletter