Monday, February 4, 2013

Time-Delayed Oscars 012: 2001, A Time-Delayed Odyssey

The year 2001 carries a little extra baggage in movie-world, given that the year shares a name with one of the most lionized movies of all time (appropriate, then, that we'll kick off our rundown with a sort-of Kubrick film). I was surprised as I worked on this entry to see that the year lived up to its associations, providing us with a hefty boat of classics and personal favorites (it looks particularly strong when juxtaposed with the 90-pound weakling that was 2000).

Same story as before: A look back at a year's worth of movies that had a U.S. release, comparing what was important and impressive then with what is seen as important and impressive now. Or, put another way, which are likely to be enshrined in the canon, and which are likely to be fired out of a cannon. Icons after the titles to indicate my impression of their momentum.

To quote the great Arsenio Hall: Let's get this show busy.

All The Movies of 2001

And The Ones That Still Matter Today

"And that's how I'll invent Facebook. What's that? It's 1964? Dammit."
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (+): Steven Spielberg directed this as a quasi-"final Kubrick film", and it's exactly the sort of hot mess you'd expect by combining those two sensibilities. It's a real Nuts & Gum moment for cinema. Honestly, for all Spielberg's obvious talents, who thought he would be the right stand-in for Stanley Kubrick? Austere, chillingly composed, devastating meditations on the nature of existence are broken up by so many lowest common denominator grotesqueries such as a jive-talking robot and a wacky hologram, (voiced by Chris Rock and Robin Williams, respecitvely) that you get whiplash. Nevertheless, Hally Joel Osment's performance as a robot replacement boy cruelly programmed to desire love is among the finest of the year, and individual scenes, when Spielberg isn't letting his Spielbergy-ness get in the way, are killer. If only he'd had the courage to end it on the ocean floor, it still would have been a messy success. For some reason, a lot of people seem to want to read the horrifying cop-out ending as a brilliant subversion. I perceive that it's gaining both critical regard and fans, inexplicably enough.

Amelie (=): Sugar wafer of a movie with strong visual inventiveness. Juenet subverts his usual dark sensibilities to channel some of that Wes Anderson twee. A cute trifle, but one that is going to keep bringing people back.

A Beautiful Mind (-): A perfectly respectable, professionally-made movie that really doesn't do anything notably enough to compel you to put it on your Netflix queue 12 years later. Russell Crowe gives a strong performance in a movie that treats mental illness in the most reductive way possible, though I do still think the reveal halfway through, imaginary friends aside, is a trick well done. Anyway, I don't think anybody hates this movie. I don't think anybody thinks it's awful. People probably remember that it's pretty good, but I don't think anybody thinks much of anything about it anymore. It won Best Picture, which is what it was created to do.

Bridget Jones' Diary (=): Surprisingly (to me) sturdy romantic comedy, mainly on the strengths of the lead actors. Notable for being one of the earliest movies to figure out that Hugh Grant works much better as a cad than a nice bloke.

Donnie Darko (+): The movie that launched a thousand Gyllehaals (give or take 998 Gyllenhaals). A box office squib upon release, this dark time-travel fable has ridden INCEPTION-grade obsession about its twisty plot (which ultimately makes INCEPTION-levels of sense, not that it matters), a fantastically quotable plot, and a director (Kelly) with a knack for creating indelible visual moments, to become the cult classic of this year. The fact that Kelly can't make good movies anymore appears (rightly) not to have hurt the regard in which this movie is  held. Feces are baby mice.

The Fast and the Furious (=): Kicked off a franchise that will not die, though it will drift. This movie will be remembered by humanity for as long as they keep making the sequels. It will be forgotten approximately twelve seconds later, and then remembered again very briefly at the 127th Oscar ceremony as a mourning nation says goodbye to Vin Diesel (choked on a shrimp).

Fat Girl (-):When they talk about uncomfortable sexuality and shocking endings that make you queasy to think about, oh yeah, they talk about FAT GIRL.

Ghost World (+): The movie that launched a thousand Scarletts Johannson (Kidding. It was only five, but they do star in a lot of movies nowadays). Highly regarded these days and gaining momentum, it deals honestly and painfully with the awkwardness of adolescence turning slowly into adulthood. Great performances, too, especially from Thora Birch (and where did she go?) and Steve Buscemi.

Gosford Park (-): Might be the Robert Altman movie that came closest to winning a bunch of Oscars, given that (1) the nominee pool was pretty weak, (2) the movie was pretty good, (3) Robert Altman was pretty old, and (4) British! It's still awfully good stuff, deftly threading upstairs/downstairs intrigue while keeping straight around 30 speaking characters, but I don't think it's going down as ruling-class Altman. It's upper-middle class Altman, which is pretty good Altman (and even lower class Altman is superior to royalty from most directors), but it won't get you invited to table at Downton Abby, squire.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (-): Considered to be pretty dire thanks mainly to an uninspired director (what about MRS DOUBTFIRE and HOME ALONE made anybody think Chris Columbus was the man for this?), but it did kick off a well-loved series of adaptations from a beloved book series, so this movie will have legs for a good while yet.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (+): A cult favorite that I can't speak to with much authority, as I haven't yet seen it (I do need to correct that, if only to confirm absolutely that this isn't a movie about the glam rock double life of Harry Potter's owl). It's possible that what was once seen as edgy will seem quaint as the transgendered become happily less marginalized, but I'm guessing that as long as the stage show keeps being performed, people will seek this movie out.

I Am Sam (-): This movie, I can't talk about. I only saw the trailer. But it was such a dumb trailer, I had a difficult time believing it was really for a real movie that was really starring the real Sean Penn and the real Michelle real Pfeiffer. It seemed exactly like a parody of an actor playing somebody with a mental handicap as a magic saint in order to get an Oscar. And then he actually got an actual Oscar nomination. Then Ben Stiller made specific fun of it in Tropic Thunder, in a parody trailer within that movie, which wasn't really any more ridiculous than the actual I Am Sam trailer. And now this movie's legacy is the line "Never go full retard," delivered by an ex-druggie white movie superstar in the most extravagant blackface ever, and for which he received...yep, an Oscar nomination. This is a weird universe.

Ichi The Killer (+): A classic of over-the-top Japanese ultraviolence, and beloved among connoisseurs of such things. I'm not one of those, but if you want to see human skin doing things you hope your human skin won't ever do, I'm told you should run, not walk, to this flick.

In The Bedroom (-): The other movie (along with Gosford) that probably came close to winning gold. Still well-remembered today, though not often-remembered. Stands out for its performances (Spacek and Wilkenson in particular), probably forgotten for being a little too reserved. This movie happily resuscitated the career of Marisa Tomei (very talented, very hot).

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (=): Not remembered for being particularly good, but amusing enough (applesauce, bitch). Notable for being the moment that Kevin Smith finally pulled the ripcord on his career as a director and began his career as a guy who tweets 800 times a day and curates all things Jay and Silent Bob.

K-PAX (=): Not a success when it came out. All but forgotten today. I need to put this one in the list because it killed Kevin Spacey's career as a Big Deal Actor, making such a sharp rift between his decade of greatness and his decade-plus of dreck that "The K-PAX Moment" has become my shorthand for the movie version of "Jump the Shark" in an actor's career arc (example: Father Of The Bride was Steve Martin's K-PAX moment). Jeff Bridges survived this thing, but he did have to change himself into a wookie to do it. You thought he got too lazy to shave. No. He's in hiding.

Late Marriage (+): Still very obscure, generally speaking but then so are movies like Women In The Dunes. In other words, among cinephiles a highly-regarded foreign film that keeps getting love. I oughta see this.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (=): Hard to know exactly how to rate this one, since the trilogy is increasingly just seen as one massive movie (the Academy put their stamp on this view in three years, when the award-valanche for installment three was largely seen as a valedictory for the series). Taken alone, its probably the strongest film in the series (unsurprising, since the same is true of the books). Jackson's world-building still amazes. This will be a part of the fantasy gold standard forever, basically.

The Man Who Wasn't There (+): One of the most under-rated Coen Brothers movies, given that it's got an emotional vacuum at its center (Billy Bob Thornton in an amazing performance), and that it didn't get much in the way of a release, and it certainly didn't catch on with audiences, probably because black and white isn't popular even if it's the most beautifully-shot movie of the year. It's really good.

Monster's Ball (-): Oof, is this one not aging well. At all. It's a movie that thinks it's being clever by having Billy Bob Thorton (hey, look at this - back to back Billy Bob!) display a sudden proclivity for chocolate ice cream. Whether the gross racial dynamics are ham-fistedly dumb or knowingly dumb is debatable, but the histrionic tone is going to put me off either way.

Monsters, Inc. (+): Still one of the sweetest entries in Pixar's ongoing and nearly unbroken streak of awesomeness. One of my favorites in the Pixar library. Boo.

Moulin Rouge! (-): Huh. I keep writing this, but I think this movie also had a credible shot at winning best picture back in the day. Again, I think this is indicative of the relative weakness of the nominee list. However, I have to say that nowadays this is the movie among those that were actually nominated I'd be happiest to remember as a Best Picture winner. It's so completely the unique and shitbat-crazy product of Baz Luhrmann, it's so much exuberant fun, and all the principal actors are doing such good work, it seems a shame to notice that it frequently turns into a montage of music videos (albeit excellent ones). That set alone deserves a special Oscar.

Mulholland Drive (+): David Lynch's career-defining masterpiece. More on this movie shortly.

Ocean's Eleven (-): A huge hit in 2001. I'm sure it would still be fun to watch today, but it's legacy, such as it is, is losing steam, as is inevitable with a movie that is basically a bunch of rich actor buddies having fun together.

The Others (-): One of my favorite movies of the year, and one of the better ghost movies ever. I feel like it's been buried a bit, and hope it will be rediscovered. I wonder if it will be rediscovered. I don't think there's much of a sense out there that it is as good as it truly is. Perhaps I should revisit it just to confirm. Contains what I think is the best Nicole Kidman performance, though Birth is close.

The Piano Teacher (+):
Haenke before Haenke became an Oscar darling, this is probably seen by consensus as his first major film, and one of the finer performances Isabelle Huppert's career. Man, I still have a lot of movies to watch. This is getting embarrassing.

The Royal Tennenbaums (+): The summit (so far) of Mount Wes Anderson, though some may argue for Rushmore, and I'm actually hearing some noise for this year's Moonrise Kingdom. For my money, this is the one where all the pieces (the meticulous diorama-like design, the font, the B-sides, the quirk) come together best. Also, I think this was the last great Gene Hackman performance — and a rare comedic one, at that.

Shrek (-): A mega-hit of 2011. Spawned who knows how many crappy sequels and spinoffs. Probably best-known as the movie that cemented the use in kiddie movies of low-grade toilet humor and Smashmouth songs. It's still borderline amusing, but the fact that it won the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar is going to look dumber and dumber as time goes on, especially given that it was in competition with...

Spirited Away (+): For my money, this is Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece, one of the most breathtaking imaginative works of the decade, probably the best animated movie of all time, and one of my favorite movies of any genre. So you could say I think it's held up over time. My opinion aside, this is still a highly-regarded film by an increasingly revered filmmaker, its reputation appears to be growing, and will apparently continue to be enjoyed for years to come.

Training Day (-): Denzel Washington won Best Actor for his against-type performance as the most crooked cop ever. It speaks well for him that this is still seen as a pretty good choice, given how otherwise unremarkable the movie is.

Waking Life (=): Pretty much seen as an afterthought now, unless the subject is "which Richard Linklater movies are worth checking out, after Dazed and Confused, that is?" I'll talk about this one in a bit.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (+): Alfonso CuarĂ³n's road trip/sexual awakening opus is still seen as a minor classic.

Zoolander (+): I seem to remember that this didn't do so well upon release. Like many things which contain more than trace amounts of Will Ferrell, it was discovered on video, where it made people laugh, which made people happy, which made people quote it. It's a comedy with legs, though I wonder if it will eventually fade once vapid celebrity surpasses this to the point it seems less like satire and more like restrained documentary.

And The Time-Delayed Oscars Go To . . .

"Your skin . . . it's so . . . leathery."

Best Picture

Real List

A Beautiful Mind
Gosford Park
In The Bedroom
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
Moulin Rouge!

Winner: A Beautiful Mind

Today's List

Donnie Darko
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
Mulholland Drive
The Royal Tennenbaums
Spirited Away

My Pick: Waking Life

Probable Winner: Mulholland Drive

This is tough. It turns out that 2001 nominated all the wrong movies, or almost all the wrong movies. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a potential exception, but it's hard to know if, in my hypothetical alternate universe, it would now be seen as the single film and thus un-nominated until the completion (also, given lukewarm critical reception of The Hobbit, we may be seeing degradation of the original trilogy's critical regard). I could easily see it replaced by The Man Who Wasn't There, or The Piano Teacher, or Ghost World. I could also see Donnie Darko falling out to accommodate one of these. Furthermore, none of the films that were nominated are embarrassing Chocolat-style head-scratchers; the weakest of them is probably eventual winner A Beautiful Mind, and even it is a fairly solid if unremarkable film, not entirely out of place on a Best Picture nominee list. The worst you can say about In The Bedroom or Moulin Rouge! or Gosford Park is that they no longer seem like essential viewing, but they're still valid. I could see any one of them still edging into the short list. 2001 was just a very strong year for movies.

So it's difficult to know just what the nominee list would be. I think that once enough time has gone by, The Man Who Wasn't There is going to be understood as one of the very best of the Coen's entire filmography, so maybe here we're seeing that even 10 years is not enough for critical consensus to shake out, or maybe we're seeing that I love The Man Who Wasn't There more than most. (I think it's the former, though.)

That typical dream where you forget that you're a floating silhouette.
None of this matters very much, because the movie that would win Best Picture running away would be Mulholland Drive. This aborted TV pilot got remixed into a nightmare-addled fever dream by David Lynch, and while the plot can be pieced together to make a sort of subjective sense, its true power lies in its ability to create and sustain specific atmospheres from scene to scene, building impression of the horrible truth by showing you only the subjective fantasies of more (or perhaps more) of its subjects. It's an impressionist painting, a Picasso that splatters into a dark Pollock at the the center. It's also the movie that started topping Best of the Decade critics lists. I think it's still pretty out there for a Best Picture, but then again, so was Citizen Kane at the time. At a certain point, the critical consensus becomes inescapable.

But I said this is tough. The difficulty here is knowing who my pick would be, given that that 2001 is a year that delivered not one but three of my all-time favorite films (I'm going to exclude LOTR for now, since I personally see it as a single movie, even if I don't think it would be treated as such).

Those three are inevitable-winner Mullholland Drive, Spirited Away (which I've already gushed in the 2001 recap above), and Waking Life, Richard Linklater's animated dreamscape, and no, it hasn't escaped my attention that all three of these essentially rest on dream imagery and a highly unusual internal logic. When you consider that one of the only other movies of the decade to impress me on the level of these three is Synecdoche, New York, I think it's safe to say we've found my movie sweet spot.  Personally, I hope that Waking Life is due for a major re-discovery, though it's been largely forgotten due to (1) its awesome rotoscoping technique being co-opted by insurance commercials, and (2) by occasionally digressive and unpolished performance (which I think is a completely purposeful and successful choice for what it's doing); for (3) its episodic nature (ditto previous parenthetical); and for (4) the fact that some of the episodes are rather trite or sophomoric (triple-ditto previous parenthetical). Essentially, it does all the things that I wrote about Mulholland Drive a few paragraphs up, but it does them with a much looser, hopeful, contemplative energy.  Waking Life is the dream, Mullholland Drive is the nightmare.

Since Mulholland Drive has (very deservedly) all the critical attention and love it will ever need, I'll throw my own personal love to Waking Life, a movie in a minor key that certainly wouldn't make the nominee list today, nor probably ever, but which will always be Best Picture for a small tribe of like-minded dreamers.

Best Actor

Maybe someday I'll lead off with these awards; I'm always tired by the time I get here and rush it. Personally, I'd love to have seen Gene Hackman win for The Royal Tennenbaums or Billy Bob Thornton for The Man Who Wasn't There or Haley Joel Osment for A.I., but it's hard to see this one getting away from Denzel Washington, even if the movie that contains his performance doesn't have much to distinguish itself. He transcends the material. I don't think people still get excited about Training Day, but when Washington eventually wins his career retrospective Oscar, the clip show will either lead off or close with him standing in the street, screaming "King Kong! Ain't Got SHIT! On Me!" And he'll be right. (I did guess that he'd have won already for Malcolm X if we were in alternate time-delayed Oscar universe, so that might offset matters somewhat, but if we keep speculating about alternate universes, we'll wind up spending hours making diagrams with straws.)

Best Actress

Halle Berry became the first black actress to win the big prize, ever, which . . . guys. It was 2001. This was the 74th Oscar ceremony. I believe the next time a lady of African descent got close was last year, ten years later, when Viola Davis nearly snuck one away from Meryl Streep... and that was for, um, The Help. Putting aside the fact that there aren't that many great roles being written for women, doesn't it seem like there REALLY has been a dearth of good roles for black actresses, ain't it?  So I feel churlish for alternate-dimension taking this moment away from Halle Berry, who was quite good in a movie that was quite bad, and who, based on her acceptance speech, I think it's safe to say wanted it the most. But I don't think she'd win a do-over, today, and it's got nothing (well, almost nothing) to do with her roles afterward *cough* Catwoman *cough*  After all, we've already noted that there are only about 1.073 decent, challenging roles written for black actresses each year, and right now Viola Davis is getting 0.987 of them.

In ordinary years, I'd probably say this would be Nicole Kidman's prize. She ruled so hard this year, in Moulin Rouge! and (my personal favorite) The Others that the next year she won Best Actess for what was essentially a supporting role in The Hours as what sure looked like a countervailing measure. But that's only because it hadn't yet sunk in how much the Oscars missed the boat. Kidman wouldn't win this year, either.

You guys. It's Naomi Watts in  Mulholland Drive. Her wannabe-actress-gone-nutso (spoilers, sort of?) makes believable one of the most wild character shifts in movie history (and David Lynch's big narrative gambit). It's a role that shouldn't work, but does, and it's all due to what seems to be getting reassessed as one of the great performances of the last decade, or any decade. The audition scene alone, in which the big shift is first revealed (foreshadowed?) has become an all-time classic. One of the most acclaimed films of the decade hinges on her, and she simply nails every scene. Watts wins the do-over.