Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 29, 2010

2009 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(Here's the latest Film Roundup, a pre-blog tradition, and something I put up after the Oscars. I'm posting this one much later than I'd like, but it's not the tardiest it's ever been! Per usual, it can be read starting here and scrolling down through the other posts. Previous installments are here.)

Many of the best films of 2009 took some effort to find and didn't last long in theaters, but there was a solid crop of well-above-average films with wider exposure throughout the year. 2009's set of blockbusters delivered stunning spectacle and some genuine entertainment. It was an unusually strong year for science fiction and fantasy, with Avatar, Star Trek, District 9, Moon, Watchmen, The Invention of Lying and that film about the boy wizard, what's-his-name. (The Road isn't "genre" sci-fi, but as a post-apocalyptic piece also qualifies.) It'd be nice if indie films and foreign language movies could get wider exposure, because it can be hard to see them even in Los Angeles. Still, the trend continues toward 3-D extravaganzas in the theaters, and a second and often more robust life for other films in rentals and sales. The Hurt Locker is an interesting case in point – as of this writing, DVD sales have earned almost as much (13 million) as the U.S. theatrical gross of the film's limited run (14.7 million). However, with its Best Picture win, The Hurt Locker's extended re-release may double its theatrical haul, and the win will surely increase rentals and DVD sales as well. (Meanwhile, Avatar currently has a 2.68 billion worldwide haul from its theatrical run.)

If you're going to do with two hosts for the Oscars, you could do far worse than Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, who worked well together. Their video segments were funny and clever, and their on-stage banter was sharp. Overall, the ceremony seemed to move more quickly than some other years (but Tivo helps for that).

Where's Jack? It used to be a staple of Oscar telecasts to cut to the King of Los Angeles, Jack Nicholson, but he's been absent for three years running now. Apparently the new rule is that, when in doubt, cut to George Clooney or make a joke about Meryl Streep. (The line about her Hitler memorabilia was one of the weirdest and funniest jokes of the night.)

Neil Patrick Harris is a talented guy, but I felt we were having an Emmys flashback when he came out to start the show. Steve Martin's a good song and dance man, too, so why not just use him? Was Alec Baldwin less solid? Harris did a fine job with some biting lyrics, but starting with him and then transitioning to Martin and Baldwin felt odd to me. (Apparently, the theme was famous comedic couples, and I've since learned Harris was originally slotted to perform with Martin Short, who was sick.)

On the music front, I didn't mind the montage of Best Song Nominees versus a performance of all of them, but it might be better to decide this on a year to year basis. On the one hand, with a montage you lose the chance at a few great live performances, such as Swell Season performing "Falling Slowly" from Once or Annie Lennox's Scottish soul explosion on "Into the West." On the other hand, so many years some nominees are thoroughly mediocre and forgettable. Meanwhile, even the decent songs often would be better showcased with film clips ("That's How You Know" and "Happy Working Song" from Enchanted). I was happy to see Ryan Bingham's "The Weary Kind" (from Crazy Heart) win this year. The song's similar in tone to Springsteen's song for The Wrestler from last year, which wasn't nominated and should have won, although Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth" and the winner "Jai Ho" were excellent, so it wasn't a travesty. (In a weird coincidence, George Clooney's character in Up in the Air is named Ryan Bingham, too.) Meanwhile, I like the trend of a live performance during the memorial section – Queen Latifah was fantastic last year, and James Taylor did a lovely job this time.

The Pilobolus silhouettes a couple of years back were clever and fun, but this year the Oscars returned to their WTF tradition for dancing. The dancers were talented, as they usually are – that's seldom an issue. But just as Savion Glover tap-dancing for the Holocaust movie was a bizarre, absurd spectacle "honoring" 1998 films, it's unclear what the hell doing "the robot" has to do with Up (WALL-E was last year, guys). Still, since I enjoy train wrecks at the Oscars, I can't fully complain. True, it's hard to top the infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White number from the 80s, but supposedly talented people having atrocious taste sorta epitomizes Hollywood and the Oscars.

The big drama was whether Avatar or The Hurt Locker would win Best Picture. I was happy to see The Hurt Locker win, because I thought it was the better film overall, and for two years running now, the Academy has actually given Best Picture to a film that deserved it, or was at least a worthy contender. (There was some confusion with Hurt Locker's Best Picture win, apparently because a producer was banned and the rest of the team hadn't worked out who would accept.) Still, it was even better to see Kathryn Bigelow win for Best Director for her best work to date. Some of her previous films feature memorable scenes but also can be uneven, overblown or cheesy. However, The Hurt Locker features strong performances and some very taut, well-constructed sequences. I thought it was more cool than disappointing to see a woman win for an action-thriller. We'll see if the field opens up – female directors are more common in TV and documentaries, and female directors have won Oscars before, but in the documentary category (Barbara Kopple has won twice). The lag is in big studio narrative feature films. Meanwhile, there's the issue of genre bias – it's rare for comedies to win Best Picture, and sci-fi/fantasy have traditionally faced an uphill battle as well.

The John Hughes tribute was welcome at the Oscar party I attended, because all of us grew up with those films. The Breakfast Club remains one of the best teen films ever, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off is iconic. Matthew Broderick's anecdote about getting asked every day, "Hey, Ferris, is this your day off?" is proof of Hughes' impact. It's easy to take teen flicks for granted, especially when they focus on comedy or angst. But Hughes really "got" teenagers and never condescended to them. His films were a cut above for their genre, and he delivered an impressive streak. He also had a great eye for young talent and launched many a career. (Judd Nelson's Oscar grooming did not get a favorable review, though.)

On the presentation front, Ben Stiller coming out as a Na'vi from Avatar was funny, but just as in past years, he milked the gag for too long. (The original version of the gag, with Sacha Baron Cohen as well, would have been even funnier.) The Kanye West rush-the-stage moment for Short Doc winner Music By Prudence was bizarre (and is explained here). Everyone agreed Miley Cyrus needs not to slouch. I'm not a fan of the best actor/actresses tributes. I'd rather see clips of their work. At least they cut the tributes from the supporting actor awards. With a few exceptions, the tributes were too long, too gushing, and too serious. On the other hand, Gabourey Sidibe getting a tribute from Oprah clearly made her night.

The best presentation by far was Tina Fey and Robert Downey for writing (video here):

Fey: Great movies begin with great writing.

Downey: What does an actor look for in a script? Specificity. Emotional honesty. Catharsis.

Fey: And what does a writer look for in an actor? Memorizing. Not paraphrasing. Fear of ad-libbing.

Downey: Actors want scripts with social relevance, warm weather locations, phone call scenes that can be shot separately from that insane actress that I hate, and long dense columns of uninterrupted monologue, turning the page, and for instance seeing the phrase, "Tony Stark, continued."

Fey: And we writers dream of a future where actors are mostly computer-generated and their performances can be adjusted by us, on a laptop, alone.

Downey: It's a collaboration, a collaboration between handsome, gifted people and sickly little mole people.

I would have given Best Adapted Screenplay to In the Loop and probably Best Original Screenplay to the un-nominated The Invention of Lying, but the winners, Precious and The Hurt Locker respectively, were both worthy recipients. (Geoffrey Fletcher also became the first African-American to win a screenwriting Oscar.)

Christoph Waltz was a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor, and deserved it, since he was the best thing about Inglourious Basterds and the core of the film. I would have given the slight edge to Colin Firth for the Best Actor performance of the year, and think Jeff Bridges was better in The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski and the (little seen, underrated) A Door in the Floor. Still, Bridges is a fantastic actor and one of my favorites, so it was cool to see him win, give an exuberant speech and slip a bit into "the Dude." The Blind Side was the one Best Picture nominee I didn't see, so I can't judge Bullock's performance. She does get style points for accepting her Razzie for worst performance of the year (for All About Steve) in person, though, not long before the Oscars. I believe that's a first for an actor, winning a Razzie and an Oscar in the same year. (Halle Berry won a Razzie for Catwoman the year after her Oscar win for Monster's Ball, and gamely cried at the Razzies, while writer Brian Helgeland won a Oscar and Razzie in the same year for L.A. Confidential and The Postman, respectively.) Bullock's speech was one of the best of the night, detailing how her deceased mom constantly pushed her, and praising her fellow nominees. It was all the better for her getting teary while starting to move off-stage and thanking her "lover, Meryl Streep." I think Samantha Morton should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and both the Up in Air nominees were fantastic (Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick), but Mo'Nique's big scene in Precious was a stunner. She gave an inspired speech, and her Hattie McDaniel homage was nice. As for the other Oscar speeches, the best of the night was composer Michael Giacchino's one about having a support system, and assuring young creative types that what they're doing is not a waste of time.

I assume the Oscars are rotating genre salutes, since this year they did a horror film montage. The salute felt a bit random, but the segment was well put together. Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman did a nice bit in a taped segment explaining the difference between sound editing and mixing. The brief clips of previous short winners talking about what it meant to them was neat. I'd still like to see more promotion of the three short categories, perhaps with the Academy posting all of them on the web (with the directors' approval) and viewer voting. Many of the shorts are online, but not in an official capacity. The voting wouldn't need to be binding, but could engage viewers and actually have them rooting for categories many ignore. Overall, the biggest problem with the Oscars this year was the lack of suspense in major categories (beyond Best Picture, although The Hurt Locker looked more inevitable as the night progressed). Still, there was a good mix of worthy winners and head-scratching ceremony moments.

L.A. NPR show The Business did a good show on producing the Oscar telecast. Meanwhile, as usual, NPR did a nice job explaining the less covered awards in pieces on sound mixing, special effects, and the "other Oscars." Here's a good segment from The Business on composer Michael Giacchino, who also does the music for Lost and produces it a furious pace.

2009 was a fine year for Woody Harrelson, excellent in both the silly, gory fun of Zombieland and the more somber drama of The Messenger. It was a breakout year for Zoe Saldana, Chris Pine and Carey Mulligan, and not too shabby for Stephen Lang and Aziz Ansari among others. Robert Downey wasn't complaining, either.

French director Eric Rohmer died in January; I have a post on him here. Meanwhile, this year is the centennial of Akira Kurosawa's birth. I linked it last year, but I have a more extensive post on a Kurosawa exhibit here.

In terms of movie-going this past year, I found much less talking during films, but far more people gazing-at-that-bright-smart-phone-screen-for-minutes-at-a-stretch-and-not-giving-a-damn. (I'd think going to see a Terry Gilliam film would self-select such behavior out.) I'd also like to see 3-D glasses that properly fit people who wear glasses, especially given the new onslaught of 3-D films, and considering how many older patrons go to the movies. (And you damn kids get off my lawn.)

On to the reviews. Per usual, I've tried to avoid potential spoilers and label those at the end of a given review if there are any. I figure if you'd know it from watching the trailer, it's not a spoiler. The three tiers are rough divisions, and for several films I can see the case for moving them up or down one. I've also included the usual links, mostly to radio interviews.

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