This week I was in the mood for a stream-of-consciousness rant:
It's apparently still a big secret that, just as certain films are marketed to teenage boys, other films are marketed specifically to the critics, with the long view set squarely on Oscar night. These films come with a professional polish, and usually contain 20 or 30 minutes of extra footage. They practically scream "Oscar," but most critics can't seem to hear. Roger Ebert, even after 40 years of experience, was fooled into voting for Crash as the best picture of 2005, a decision that I'm sure helped to fuel Oscar voters. And Peter Travers practically lines up the ten most likely Oscar nominees every year in his December list.
Films like All the King's Men and the other shoo-ins for award consideration are screened in advance, plenty of times, for hungry critics. Basically it's the studios and advertisers who are deciding which of these films get the awards push. Frankly, I'd sooner vote for Borat, Snakes on a Plane or Ultraviolet for Best Picture than All the King's Men, The Last King of Scotland (56 screens), Copying Beethoven (26 screens) or others of that ilk.
This year, critics I've spoken with aren't particularly excited about anything. Certain movies have their supporters: United 93, World Trade Center, Little Miss Sunshine (161 screens), Little Children (29 screens) and Babel. This list is likely to become next spring's final Oscar lineup. There are roughly six weeks left in the year and very little on the release schedule holds much promise.
Maybe every filmmaker in the world agreed in advance to release a mediocre film this year so that Martin Scorsese (The Departed) could finally win an Oscar.
You'd think the Oscar race held as much weight as the next presidential election or something, but I hold out hope that people eventually come to find the true masterworks of a given year, rather than the Oscar winner. As I pointed out last week, Rushmore and The Big Lebowski have become the dominant films from 1998, and Shakespeare in Love has been reduced to a bargain bin sale item. This year, I think there are two genuine masterworks. Terrence Malick's The New World screened for the press in December of 2005 when it wasn't quite finished, and many critics didn't bother to show up to see the final cut when it opened in January. The reviews landed on the mixed-to-terrible side, and the film flopped, earning only half its budget back. But I've seen no other film (aside from Claire Denis' The Intruder) that embodies pure cinematic artistry, a real knowledge of and feel for the medium, as well as a sheer passion for new possibilities. I suspect that, years from now, that's the film everyone will be talking about.
Otherwise, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times had a brief theatrical run in the middle of 2006, and it's still the top contender for my personal list. On the whole, this anthology film isn't quite as strong as his earlier masterworks, but the first segment, taken by itself, is among the best things he's ever done.
All this presupposes a kind of end-all, be-all, that the Oscar winners are bad, that the real masterworks are overlooked, and everything else sucks. Not so. I've seen a number of terrific little films this year that -- if nothing else -- I'd at least enjoy watching a second time.
Frankly, I thought Ronny Yu's Fearless (56 screens) would take the world by storm, but everyone seems to have forgotten about it. Perhaps mainstream critics got their fill of kung fu movies in the months following Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Now that was a film specifically crafted for the critics; it was slow and self-important and grandiose, and sucked the life out of an otherwise lowdown and pulpy genre. True kung-fu fans never understood Crouching Tiger. Fearless is the real thing.
I also enjoyed Douglas McGrath's Infamous (29 screens), in spite of myself. I went in -- like most people -- with a chip on my shoulder. I loved Capote (even though it's an Oscar winner) and was sure this upstart movie would not come anywhere close. It did succeed, but in completely different ways. I'd like to have both films on a two-DVD set so I can look at them alternately for comparison (not unlike the Criterion Collection's two-disc set of The Killers, with Robert Siodmak's 1946 version and Don Siegel's 1964 version). Toby Jones looks more like Capote than Philip Seymour Hoffman did, and he's more acerbic and funnier. (Hoffman concentrated on the essence of the character and the inner torment rising from his impossible situation.) Both versions of Harper Lee are stunning, Catherine Keener in the former and Sandra Bullock in the latter. But this movie has a brilliant opening, with Gwyneth Paltrow playing singer Peggy Lee, stunning an entire room with a pause. The real Capote must not have been easily impressed -- certainly this year's list of films wouldn't have swayed him -- but this holy moment does the trick, even for him.
Maybe there's a surprise on the horizon before the end of the year. I'll keep you posted.