Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Inocente (2012)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Short Subjects - Sean Fine and Andrea Nix

"Inocente" is the story of an amazing young artist named Inocente, a 15 year old who is preparing for her first art show while dealing with the traumas of her life, including homelessness and abuse.  The fact that Inocente is able to survive such circumstances while maintaining a positive attitude is amazing; the fact that she is able to do so while creating vibrant and exciting art is miraculous.

Filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix found a great story in Inocente's life, but they deservedly won an Oscar for their creativity in telling the story.  The filmmakers had the task of bringing the same vibrancy to the film that Inocente brings to her art, which they did through a few visual decisions, such as attaching cameras to Inocente's paintbrushes in order to convey Inocente's style of painting and employing the Errol Morris method of having Inocente look straight into the camera while speaking, instead of the more typical method of having the interviewee look at the interviewer.  The latter decision gives the film a confessional feel and the audience a closer relationship with Inocente, creating the sense of interacting with her directly instead of through the documentarian.

It is my belief that many documentary shorts are nominated not for the talent exhibited by the filmmakers, but instead because the "message" of the documentary is worthwhile.  "Inocente" is the rare film that succeeds both in the selection of the subject and the artistry in the filmmaking.  It is a gem of a film, and the world's introduction to a future star of the art world.

Watch "Inocente" at MTV's website.

Remaining: 3162 films, 874 Oscars, 5432 nominations

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Paperman (2012)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Short Film, Animated - John Kahrs

Much on the focus of the recently Oscar winning animated short "Paperman" has been paid to its groundbreaking combination of traditional and computer animation, particularly through the use of Meander, newly developed software used to assist in the computer rendering of traditional animation.  Yet while the animation is indeed amazing and a revolutionary step forward, the focus on the form instead of the content reminds me of a story I once heard Pixar guru John Lasseter tell: in the early days of Pixar's short animated films, someone asked him what software he used to make the films so funny.  As impressive as the technology behind "Paperman" is, the success of the short is due not to its technological innovation, but instead to its expertise in storytelling.

"Paperman" is the story of a young man who meets a young woman on a train and is instantly smitten even as they part ways.  When he spots her from the window of his soulless corporate office (think of the office in the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment), he makes every form in the towering pile on his desk into paper airplanes, each one thrown out the window in an attempt to get her attention.  As his last airplane fails to get her attention, the man gives up, only to see the universe intervene.

Though I was enamored with the film up until the point in which he throws his final paper airplane, I found myself disappointed with the rest of the story.  When the protagonist falls short of his goal, he gives up, and it is left to destiny to intervene and lead him to his fate.  It is a natural storytelling device for the protagonist to give in when he falls short of his goal, but when he fails to pick himself up and try one more time, it feels like his journey is incomplete.  The paper airplanes he threw are responsible for his final destiny, but not in the way he intended.  Perhaps this is a comment on how things have a tendency to work out for the best, even if its not in the way we originally intended.  Still, it's hard to care about a protagonist who gives up and is rewarded not through his own doing, but through the hand of fate.

"Paperman" isn't perfect, but it is so exciting to see Disney producing quality animated shorts again, obviously inspired by Pixar's success in the field.  "Paperman" was made with great care and creativity, and it is hopefully a sign of great things to come from Disney and its big-name competitors in the world of animated shorts.

Remaining: 3163 films, 875 Oscars, 5433 nominations

Monday, February 25, 2013

85th Academy Award Winners

The envelopes have been opened and the trophies have been handed out.  The standard criticisms have been made toward the Oscars - its bloated length, mixed reaction to the the host, the self-congratulatory aura of the evening - and even though many of these criticisms contain aspects of truth, I remain a devoted fan of the Oscars.  The ceremony may drag at times and the Academy is often guilty of rewarding safe films with mass appeal over unique and more daring efforts; yet the Academy Awards are the second most watched television show for a reason: they celebrate the world's most popular art form, rewarding and drawing attention to some of the best films of each year.  Yes, the Academy trends populist, but while the Academy gave Oscars to Brave and Searching for Sugarman, two films that were easy to like but paled in comparison to their fellow nominees, the Academy also rewarded more daring and controversial films like Amour and Django Unchained.  I will always be interested in participating in this worldwide celebration of film, even if I have to watch Snow White sing with Rob Lowe or James Franco publicly reconsider his recent life choices.

The downside of the Academy Awards is that after each year's nominations and winners, I get further away from completing my Oscar goal.  This year, there are four films that won Oscars that I have not yet seen: Django Unchained (two wins), Inocente, Paperman, and Curfew. Django Unchained will be easy to watch, as will Paperman, which Disney has made available online.  The last two, the winners in the Documentary and Live Action shorts categories, will be a bit more difficult to track down.

Though I've seen many of the nominated films, I still have to watch 28 of them just to get back to the point I was at last year.  The majority of these are in either the shorts, documentary, or foreign films categories, and since I don't live in New York or Los Angeles where these films are most often screened, it's a lot of work to track them down.  But I find that almost without fail, the reward is well worth the effort, and I will spend a great deal of time between now and the 86th Academy Awards watching the nominees from this year and previous years, as I seek someday to complete the Every Oscar Ever Project.

Remaining: 3164 films, 876 Oscars, 5434 nominations

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Head Over Heels (2012)

1 Nomination, Wins To Be Determined

Nomination: Best Short Film, Animated - Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly

"Head Over Heels" is a short animated film about an older married couple who have grown apart so dramatically that they live in two very different worlds, so different that one lives on the floor and one lives on the ceiling.  Both the husband and wife live their own lives, and though they sleep and eat at the same times, they seem to be nearly oblivious to each other's existence.  When the husband tries to reach out to his wife, they must learn how to cope with the gap that has grown between them.

It is a sweet little short that creates a metaphor for a problem that is all too common in the world.  Without any dialogue, director Timothy Reckart tells the story entirely and successfully through the expressions and movements of the characters, an extremely difficult task in stop-motion.  The stop-motion animation features intentionally roughly sculpted characters, but the fluidity of their movements are beautiful and natural, with a few of the movements, particularly those of the woman, amongst the most humanlike I have seen in a stop-motion film.  Reckart has led the creation of a beautiful design, giving the film a strong visual identity.

This isn't the most memorable or impactful short I've seen in recent years, but "Head Over Heels" is a sweet and well crafted short deserving of its nomination.

Watch "Head Over Heels" on iTunes here.

Remaining: 3164 films, 871 Oscars, 5434 nominations

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

5 Nominations, Wins To Be Determined

Nomination: Best Picture - Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, and Megan Ellison
Nomination: Best Actress in a Leading Role - Jessica Chastain
Nomination: Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - Mark Boal
Nomination: Best Editing - William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor
Nomination: Best Sound Editing - Paul N.J. Ottosson

When a Quentin Tarantino film isn't the most controversial of the nominees for Best Picture, you know it's an interesting year for the Academy.

Jessica Chastain Kathryn Bigelow
Zero Dark Thirty has garnered a fair degree of controversy due to its depictions of torture and the assertion that said torture led to the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden.  While Lincoln earned enough love from members of the United States Senate to earn a private screening for Senators, Zero Dark Thirty received criticism from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, with McCain requesting the addition of a disclaimer to the film.

It has become impossible to talk about Zero Dark Thirty without recognizing this debate, and while I generally believe a film should be judged entirely based on its artistic merit without consideration of politics, these issues are simply unavoidable for some films.  Whether the decision to include these depictions of torture was the correct one is beyond the scope of this post, so beyond recognizing the very real and fair debate surrounding this film, the rest of this post will focus solely on the artistic merit of the film.

Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow faced the unenviable task of crafting a thriller in which the outcome was not only known to the audience, but one in which the details were fresh in the minds of most and not viewed through the hazy lens of history.  Films based on true stories always face this challenge - it's hard to imagine anyone was surprised by the appearance of an iceberg in Tianic - but this problem is particularly acute in thrillers, in which the suspense of what will happen is a crucial element.  By choosing to tell the story entirely focused on one character who the public until recently did not know much about, Boal and Bigelow successfully met this challenge.

When the suspense lags, it is due less to the preordained ending than to the bloated runtime.  The film spans nearly a decade and Boal was challenged with compressing a ten-year long manhunt into a feature film, so it's not surprising and it makes sense that the film is long.  Yet there were several scenes that could have been shortened or perhaps even excised entirely, and doing so would have heightened the suspense without losing much in the way of character or plot development.

The film's climax, the raid on bin Laden's compound, is masterfully directed, and it is stunning that Bigelow was not nominated for this sequence alone.  The filming and editing of the raid is suspenseful and tasteful, violent yet responsible.  In a year with several truly memorable sequences (the vote for final passage in Lincoln, the airplane crash sequence in Flight), this sequence will likely stand the test of time as one of the more memorable of its time.

Jessica Chastain has been the next big thing for a few years now, and though she's turned in some solid performances, at times it has felt as if the hype was greater than the talent.  Her performance in Zero Dark Thirty shows why she has earned so much hype.  Though the performance isn't as flashy as some of her fellow nominees in the Best Actress category, she is greatly effective in her role, and the maturity she demonstrated in refraining from showier antics should be lauded.  My favorite in the category is still Emmanuelle Riva in Amour, but for the first time I understand why so many people speak so highly of Chastain's promise.

Bigelow, Boal, and the rest of the team behind Zero Dark Thirty have been deservedly commended for producing such a taut and thoughtful thriller, and even though the film could have benefited from some additional cutting, it was still tremendously effective and well made.  The troubling extracinematic matters will hamper the ability of many viewers to unreservedly appreciate this film, but this debate is all the more reason to see this film, the rare thoughtful and intelligent thriller.

Remaining: 3165 films, 871 Oscars, 5435 nominations

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Flight (2012)

2 Nominations, Wins To Be Determined

Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Denzel Washington
Nomination: Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - John Gatins

Flight is, without a doubt, the most frustrating film of 2012.  While many films released this year can easily be forgiven their shortcomings, Flight does so much right and has so much going for it that its wasted potential is especially disappointing.

After a short and not so subtle character introduction scene that could have earned the film's R rating all by itself, director Robert Zemeckis created what is without a doubt the most harrowing and well made airplane crash sequence in the history of film, displacing the previous titleholder, the Zemeckis-directed Cast Away.  Everything about this sequence is perfect, from the subtle use of special effects to the editing, and Zemeckis avoided every pitfall that a less sure-handed director might have fallen victim to.  The scene is even more impactful due to the steady performance by Denzel Washington, who is entirely convincing as a pilot who is - all at once - terrified, drunk, high, and yet in complete control.  Long after the rest of Flight has been all but forgotten, this sequence will live on.

Unfortunately, after the crash sequence, Flight limps along with almost no sense of direction or purpose.  There is an interesting question at the heart of the film, which is whether Washington is a hero for saving the great majority of the plane's crew and passengers or a killer whose actions led to loss of life.  His character was both drunk and high at the time of the crash, yet we can clearly see that this played no impact on his actions during the crash.  There is a moral dilemma that the audience must weigh, but because we know exactly what happened in the crash, we immediately make our decision regarding the appropriate assignment of blame, and nothing in the film challenges this determination.  

So without any question of responsibility, what is the film about?  John Gatins's script loses sight of this question, and after the crash, the film is little more than a collection of scenes of Washington's character abusing substances to various degrees.  We know that he is feeling the guilt that comes from his actions, but we know this almost entirely because of Washington's stellar performance and not because of the script, which introduces us to a completely pointless subplot involving actress Kelly Reilly that does little to further character or plot development.  Instead of a film that is about the questions raised by the flight, it's little more than an alcoholic-on-a-bender film, a modern The Lost Weekend.  The film has moments where it gets back on track, mostly in scenes involving a nice performance by Don Cheadle whose character asks the questions at the heart of the film, but these moments are too few to make enough of an impact to right the course of the film.  

Still, despite its many and considerable disappointments, Flight is beautifully directed, and is a strong argument for why Robert Zemeckis should return to making at least the occasional live action film.  Zemeckis's direction and Washington's outstanding performance were both so strong that the film kept me engaged, despite my frustrations.  Just as Washington's character bravely made the best out of a fundamentally flawed vehicle to save the day, Zemeckis and Washington did everything they could to make something great out of a fundamentally flawed script.  Flight could have been so much more, but somewhere along the way, things got turned upside down.

Remaining: 3166 films, 871 Oscars, 5440 nominations

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Uma História de Futebol (A Soccer Story) (2000)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Live Action - Paulo Machline

"Uma Historia de Futebol," or "A Soccer Story," is Brazilian filmmaker Paulo Machline's tale of the recollections of an older man telling of his childhood soccer team.  The team is a colorful collection of types that would be comfortably at home in any child-themed sports movie, such as the rotund goalie (The Mighty Ducks) and the extraordinarily gifted teammate with the potential for greatness (The Sandlot).  The story isn't terribly compelling, but for a short film there is enough going on to keep things moving along nicely.

Yet the film would be completely forgettable were it not for the little twist at the film's end, when we find out that one of the narrator's teammates is more than he seemed.  This revelation, which I will refrain from revealing despite the fact that the film is more than a decade old and thus the spoiler-alert compact between writer and reader should not apply, is what gives the film the entirety of its impact.  But much more could have been done with this revelation, which is little more than an aside, and the film is still little more than a fluffy little recollection that might have made an interesting essay but just isn't impactful enough for a film, even a short one.

Special thanks to the Arlington Public Library for finding a VHS copy of "Ume Historia de Futebol" through the interlibrary loan system from the Wichita Public Library.  For anyone who loves obscure short films, the interlibrary loan system is an essential tool, and the librarians at APL have been invaluable to me in this project.

Remaining: 3167 films, 871 Oscars, 5442 nominations