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Oscar Symposium Day 2: Invisible Art & Self Love

Previously on the Oscar Symposium... we discussed and defined the business of actors elevating their movies, spent time at "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"'s stale office party mingling with the nine Best Picture nominees (only one of which we all seem to love) and agreed that Brad Pitt deserves Best Actor. Eventually Nathaniel's second favorite movie of the year (The Artist) took quite a beating so he sulked off to lick his wounds.

And here we pick up for Day Two of our three day symposium...

MARK HARRIS: While we're waiting for our host... Nick raised a really interesting point yesterday in his persuasive case for Plummer, which is: Just what the hell is a supporting performance anyway? I like his definition (and Plummer would probably get my vote too, for showing amazing restraint in a part that could be played as one Big Moment after another). But I'm also drawn to performances like Jonah Hill's, in a role that exists purely to give Pitt's character a wittily contrasting somebody to bounce off of, and like Melissa McCarthy's (my favorite in that category, I'm not ashamed to admit), even though she's more a standout in an ensemble than a pure supporting actress. Do any of you feel that there are supporting performances this year that are miscategorized? The French clearly do, since when the Cesars nominated Berenice Bejo for The Artist, it was for Best Actress.

NATHANIEL ROGERS: I plead the fifth on category fraud. I've said too much over the years about that whole... nightmare.

KURT OSENLUND: I'm going to flip it on its head and go 'lead to supporting.' By which I mean, I think I'm one of the few who still believes Viola Davis belongs in the supporting category. I'll admit this is a complicated stance. I think it's the film/text that's guilty of cheaply attempting to make Aibileen a lead character, giving her a tacked-on coda of "closure" and trying to reduce the shame of taking a black women's story and still handing it, mainstream-style, to a white redhead. By extension, I think awards bodies are guilty for taking the bait. Ideally, I'd like to see Meryl walk away with Best Actress, Viola walk away with Supporting Actress, and Octavia sit comfortably with a nomination, for a performance that's highly enjoyable, but shrill and stereotypical and nowhere near as soulful as her co-star's.

My short answer to the 'supporting to lead' question would be that, this year, I actually think all of the supporting stars are placed where they belong.

NICK DAVIS: I don't think the ending of The Help feels tacked on. I don't even think it feels like closure: we have no way to predict Aibileen's next move, much less to presume its ease.  And from those opening minutes with all of her backstory and daily routine, and through all of Davis's impeccable playing of heavily weighted scenes, I think she's definitely a lead.  I know her screen time must be small compared to other leads, but at the very least, she falls squarely in that Marge Gunderson/Hannibal Lecter category where her charismatic impress is so profound from the lead/supporting borderline that it pushes her handily over.  It helps that even the blocking and costuming and editing and lighting choices keep conspiring to shift focus from Skeeter to Aibileen whenever they share a scene.  Emma Stone is just giving away those scenes, as markedly as Meryl all but erased herself in the Doubt standoff.  I wouldn't want anyone watching me act opposite Viola Davis, either.

MARK: At last, a fight! I'm going to strongly disagree about Viola Davis, who not only carries the emotional weight of The Help, but has considerably more screen time than past lead-performance winners like Frances McDormand in Fargo. Kathryn Stockett's novel isn't Skeeter's story, even if Skeeter is a storyteller -- it's told from the first-person perspectives of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. (So, if the movie were really true to the book, Octavia Spencer would probably have to be considered a third co-lead.) To me, Skeeter's "...and then I wrote the book" storyline feels as inorganic to what The Help is really about as the closure the movie gives Davis. The movie's emotional strength -- what there is of it -- lives in Aibileen's struggle; she's arguably even the title character. Yes, the movie is technically Skeeter's story, but only in the way that Training Day is technically Ethan Hawke's. So I'm happy Davis is where she is.

After the jump: The Help, Best Screenplay, and Masturbatory Movies

KURT: Well I certainly wasn't trying to imply that I don't think Viola's performance totally carries the movie's emotional weight, I just think she does it from the sidelines, regardless of the narration or the formal decisions that Nick astutely observed. (I see Nathaniel chiming in to join the opposing side but I'm still typing! Haha). I have also gathered through this season that had I read Stockett's novel, I would have approached the film differently, as Mark addressed. So maybe I shouldn't have included the word "text" in my last response. What ultimately matters in the film may belong to Davis, but in plain terms, the movie belongs to Stone.

ALI ARIKAN: J'ACCUSE!  The last time I saw Kurt he was wearing a "Viola 4 Evah" t-shirt, and practicing his new signature, "Kurt Davis," on the margins of his notebook.

KURT: Hahaha!! And you know I wish I were the one who got to rub all that glitter all over her for SAG night. *snap*

NICK: I tend to think movies have more leads than we recognize. Lots of dramatic structures presume more than one character whom the film takes a rounded interest in, with generous screen time, in ways that serve that characterization for itself without just refracting onto somebody else's. The Help feels to me like a contrapuntal movement at all times between Skeeter's story and Aibileen's.  It is very aware of what each enables for the other, but also of all the qualities that both women harbor as individuals.  They are dual centers of different but compatible gravity.

NATHANIEL ROGERS: I've never had such trouble keeping up with a symposium before, I have to say! You are all such remarkably speedy typists. Did you take all the dictation for The Help once they had the maids in the room?

I was in the corner licking my wounds, my injuries are pride based so they heal quickly. When people got mean about The Artist last night, I just... well, to me it's like kicking that cute doggie that Mark didn't want humping his leg at the party.

MARK: Our conversation is reminding me of two important things:

1. How much harder it is to speak up for why you liked a movie, and contend with all those wrinkled noses and furrowed brows and pellets of "You LIKED that?" than it is to say what didn't work for you.

2. Emma Stone's remarkably horrible wig.

NATHANIEL: Ha! By the way, I love the image of Kurt in a "Viola 4 Evah" t-shirt rubbing glitter all over her. I only hope he'll gift it to me since he's a Streep man this year. He's only infiltrating the Viola camp to get info.

I don't love the image of anyone in Skeeter's wig, least of all the gorgeous Emma Stone.

I'm thinking of a new question. Give me a moment. This is a marathon and not a sprint.

NICK: I'm still curious if anyone thinks a multiple nominee got blanked in a category where it should have been an easy get.

KURT: I think Tinker Tailor's snubs were already referenced, at least as far as Art Direction. I'd add Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing and Directing to its deserved noms. I also think Drive absolutely belonged in Editing (but that wasn't a multiple nominee...) I think the Tree of Life should, duh, be in Editing. What an undertaking that must have been! I think The Descendants would have been a fine contender for Mark's imaginary music category, but that's neither here nor there.

I will say I'm thrilled that a snub I would have definitely thought I'd be mentioning here doesn't apply: A Separation for original screenplay. Easily my favorite surprise nod, maybe favorite nod in general.

MARK: For me the most notable omission for a multiple nominee is one that Nathaniel cited in his introductory post: Tinker, Tailor for Best Art Direction. And I think that if Moneyball hadn't come out, Brad Pitt would have been a sure nominee for The Tree of Life (although that might have been an instance where lead-vs.-supporting category confusion would have caused real problems).

And I agree with Kurt that the screenplay categories are so often the home of pleasant surprises -- for me, it was the inclusion of Margin Call.

NATHANIEL: Oh, Kurt, the editing category. To me it's nearly always an indecipherable nightmare. How did The Descendants get that nod?

As to your pleas for what belongs there I say Yay and Nay. Let's take the Nay first. The Tree of Life is a beautiful movie but I don't feel that editing is crucial to its success (though certainly fine work) because, honestly, couldn't you move any scene around, abbreviate any bit or extend any other and still come up with basically the same meditative poem? Or am I just missing something precise about The Tree of Life which I admired but never loved? Maybe I was just burnt by my experience with The New World which I loved far more but which kept changing even after release until I had no idea what movie I'd actually seen. 

But a resounding yes on Drive which gets much of its intoxicating thrill from its unusual and autoerotic rhythms. It was so fixated on itself, pausing to admire its own imagery or sound and then revving back up again, like it was engaged in a really really long edging session. Was any movie more in love with itself this year?

And when a movie loves itself so much -- surely there are other examples among the nominees -- does this turn you on or off? Back it up with an example!

NICK: I think it's no secret that The Descendants crew wanted to avoid The Help's current predicament of looking like an actor-friendly vehicle with no voting hooks for other filmmakers.  So, they put a heavy promotional push behind Kevin Tent's nomination, and voilà.   I will avoid naming the same film in relation to your question, Nathaniel, about films that seem exorbitantly in love with themselves, as I am trying to say nice things. Mostly.

Instead, the other film that comes to mind in this respect is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  That's a little ironic, since David Fincher seems proud but a little lukewarm in his own press about the movie.  As was true during his Social Network PR, you can sort of hear his telepathic emissions: "Okay, you guys, but really? More excited about this than Fight Club, or Zodiac?  I thought those were pretty great."  But if its scrupulous, consummately professional maker could at some level take or leave this franchise, the visual, rhythmic, and audio textures of Dragon Tattoo sure radiate a sensuous pleasure with itself, not unlike Drive's.  Even the clothes in both films seem designed to make us drool (though I realize during Oscar season we are ONLY allowed to drool over period duds).  I'm more seduced by the Refn film than the Fincher, even though my sympathies with those two generally run the other way.  But with five nominations in wide-spread categories, the Tattoo crew obviously succeeded in making the self-love contagious to others.

The Driver. The Girl

MARK: I would like to come down squarely on both sides of the fence regarding what Nathaniel calls (perfectly) Drive's autoerotic quality. The first time I saw it, my reaction was: This is a series of self-conscious poses with an esthetic no deeper than an '80s album cover. The year's crappiest studio movie did not provide two more drab and thankless roles for women than the parts with which Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks are saddled here. As for Ryan Gosling, I wanted to channel my inner Bruce McGill-circa-The Insider and yell, "WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE!" Then, the second time I saw it, I suspended all my umbrage and just gave in and felt, okay, this is a fun, well-sustained exercise in trash for boys.

I'm going on at length primarily to avoid the question of whether Drive deserved an editing nomination or not, because the invisible art is, as ever, a complete mystery to me. But, to Nathaniel's final question, I have noticed that it usually takes me a second viewing to warm up completely to movies that are smirkily referential or drenched in style gestures (Inglorious Basterds, Moulin Rouge!) and sometimes even a second viewing doesn't get me all the way there, which is why I guess I don't feel that Drive was robbed (although Brooks was).

KURT: I'm on my way to see Drew Barrymore (very convincingly) save the whales, so I can't offer much at the moment, but boy did you just open the flood gates, Nat. Before I toss out some titles guilty of highly detrimental self-love, I'm gonna say something for which I imagine many cinephiles will want to put a knife to my throat. Aside from Tomas Alfredson, I think Nic Refn had more stunning formal control over his baby than any other filmmaker whose work I saw last year, and I like to think I'm not quick to toss around such statements. I surrender to the notion that the film is shallow (and, indeed, gaga over itself), but mygod, the construction of that crazy/sexy/tacky/cool thing is just intoxicating. Like you Nat, I'm a proud fan. As for films whose self love makes me ill, they're gonna have to wait until I witness this Big Miracle.

NICK: It's gettin' hot in herre!  I enjoy a good diatribe, and I've got Jodie's bucket and her blow-dryer, for when Kurt vomits on some Kokoschkas. And for the record, my hair is pulled back into the same tight ponytail, making every single one of my arteries pop. And also for the record, four leads.

NATHANIEL: I love you! And I'm so ready to love Jodie Foster again though that will have to wait for another film. Would that she would be interested in making them more often!

I wish other filmmakers and great actors would share Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood's work ethic... or at least Steven Spielberg's (nothing and then two at once). Although perhaps I shouldn't say "work ethic" in connection with such uneven filmographies. Showing up to work and totally working it being two totally different things. [I'll illustrate: Payne, showing up to work; Refn, totally working it.] Woody was embraced this year (we haven't much discussed Paris but I mostly love it) and Clint was entirely shunned (a rarity but thank God) but really in both cases I feel like their successes and failures are almost accidental. I picture them showing up, looking at the call sheets, grabbing the camera and shouting "Action!" Sometimes they get lucky but there's no time for second guessing or planning because by Thursday you need to be in post so you can start preproduction on the next one by Tuesday.

I'm really turned on by meticulously crafted movies which is why I'm nutso for the elaborate gags in The Artist, the astonishing layers of A Separation, anything Jane Eyre (though sadly it's only in the Costume mix), and it's why I'm relatively calm about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's fine showing even though I don't think it's anything like Fincher's best work and I remain perplexed at the world's fascination with that franchise.

[Kurt suddenly reappears post movie-screening]

KURT: Okay, so did I miss a talking point? I'm determined to, as promised, get all Best Picture 2000 and unleash a little hell up in this tiger-filled symposium. Just let me shake off Big Miracle's raping of every bit of newsreel footage it could get its blubbery hands on, and the memory of the guy across the subway car post-screening, whose glare at the gal next to me suggested a tad too much Shame training.

I'm gonna try to keep the self-love indictment in the realm of recent Oscar movies, and the first that's jumping to mind is Invictus, which was so damn proud of itself for simply being about Nelson Mandela that it didn't mind serving you third-rate takes and shameless, utterly tacky music cues (do you remember that helicopter scene?). Sticking to that same year, I had a lot of love for Precious amid Oscar season, particularly in regard Sidibe's transformation and Lee Daniels's talent for texture. But stepping away from that movie two years later helps to reveal how much false hope it's peddling, so pleased with the horrors it just drug you through that it feels an anticlimactic kiss-off of an ending will suffice given your need for any kind of oasis.

You know what? Let's just make it all about 2009, 'cuz I know Nathaniel will ride my hate train when it comes to The Lovely Bones, the movie I'll forever pretend was made by someone other than the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sadly for cherub-in-a-knit-hat Susie Salmon, the seatbacks in my theater didn't have Today's Missal, but they thankfully did have high-density plastic, to keep my furious feet from harming the folks in the next row. Naturally, that same year boasted The Blind Side, a film that pats itself on the back so hard you could see the lump in its throat go flying into the end zone.

NICK: But why take Oscar's bait and only confront the problems of the past - even the recent past?  I assume this point came up because you have some beef with our current slate of contestants.  The People want more blood, Maximus!  (Or was it vomit I wanted?  I'm still holding this blow-dryer.)

KURT:  I'm sorry for winding the clock back to 2009! Guess I misread Nathaniel's question a bit. Nick, I hate to leave you with your blowdryer in your hands, but the main self-hugging 2011 film at which I'd spew venom/blood/vomit is Extremely Loud, and I think that poor thing's been beaten enough (I'd add Warrior and Albert Nobbs to the list, too).

ALI ARIKAN: Did you know that the driver in Drive does not have a name?  You didn't, did you?  It's hardly ever brought up in that film, which has its head so far up its own ass that it could give itself a tonsillectomy.  I am not quite sure how that would work, but there we go.

I see a brief mention of Midnight in Paris and my ears are burning.  It was an exceptionally good film, and Woody Allen's best since Bullets Over Broadway.  There is an Erich Von Daeniken book called "Habe ich mich geirrt?" which translates as "Was I wrong?", and features the author re-examining his wacky paleo-contact hypotheses.  Midnight in Paris is similar in the way it shows the auteur questioning his fascination with the past and reliance on nostalgia.   The film floored me, but I was also very surprised to see how Allen came to the conclusion that not only is it futile to live in the past, but it is also unattractive. 

Owen Wilson makes for a surprisingly perfect Allen surrogate, no?  Some have denounced the film for what they claim is its sophomoric take on literary figures, but that is absolutely fitting to the way Wilson's character has always imagined them to be.  Who knows if Corey Stoll comes even close to channeling the real Hemingway, but he channels the legendary Hemingway, as per Wilson's character's estimation.  That's obviously but one part of a truly multi-faceted triumph.

NATHANIEL: Yes, Nick & Kurt, I did want to stick with this year's slate though if we've sufficiently name-checked all the movies with very high estimations of themselves -- though I'd heartily disagree about Albert Nobbs because I think it lacks too much confidence to be in love with itself -- we should move on. And Corey Stoll's Hemingway is a pitch perfect bridge in this regard. So thanks, Ali!

If you're a writer, declare yourself the best writer! But you're not as long as I'm around unless you want to put the gloves on and settle it."
-Ernest Hemingway via Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris 

I'm curious if you all totally get me on the "showing up to work vs. totally working it" thang. I still can't totally decide if Woody was doing the former or the latter on Midnight in Paris but I do think the movie is much smarter about nostalgia, both revelling in it and suspicious of it (which is good balance) than the other nostalgia-fests of 2011.

Did anybody work their material as hard as Asghar Farhadi? A Separation being a miracle and all. If a screenwriter or director didn't... where did you wish they would work the material harder to justify their nomination(s)?

Or if that question doesn't suit you, do you have one of your own your dying to throw out to the group?

MARK: By bringing up Woody Allen and Asghar Farhadi, you've edged us toward a topic I've been wanting to talk about, which is screenwriting -- an area that perhaps rivals editing as the one in which it can sometimes be almost impossible to discern the artist's intent from the finished product. Farhadi and Allen, directors who write their own work (or in Allen's case, maybe calling him a writer who directs his own work is more accurate), are obviously exceptions. But in general, I think people who write about movies are more generous to powerhouse direction of thin scripts (like Drive) than to a beautifully crafted script like Win Win that is visually prosaic (though I'd argue that it's directed with a great feel for actors). I was wondering what pieces of writing wowed you this year. I'd put A Separation and Margin Call high on my own list, but maybe not as high as Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, which I thought was a stunning piece of writing tip to toe, albeit one we could probably argue about all day.

ALI: Margaret has yet to open in Turkey, and I don't think it even has a release date yet.  In fact, Fox Searchlight made it absolutely and utterly impossible to see the film outside of the US and the UK.  There was an online screener, but I could never get the link.  Needless to say, I am incredibly looking forward to seeing it.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which they skipped for a foreign film nomination) was my favourite film of the year, and I love the subtleties of the script, too, though other factors (such as Ceylan's keen eye or Gokhan Tiryaki's compositions) might have been perhaps more influential to the film's eventual success.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an exceptionally well-written adaptation.  The shooting script is quite different from the final film, but it's a finely crafted piece of writing on its own.  I was also impressed by the scripts for Shame, Melancholia, and Martha Marcy May Marlene.  Alas, I am not with you, Mark, on Margin Call.

KURT: I adore Midnight in Paris without reservation, and I hugely agree with Ali that the CliffsNotes versions of the icons reflected Owen Wilson's general perception of them. That reading gives the film a new kind of beauty, I think. One of the things I loved was how the film had this mixed reception among the unwashed masses and the culturati, but it got everyone talking about it together, largely with smiles, so, Cheers.

And Mark, I'm over the moon about Margaret. I saw that only recently at Cinema Village (it was a very scratched print, no less, which I swear lent itself to the greatness of the experience). That script is this beautiful behemoth, and that film just has so much room to breathe. And the ending -- I was texting folks in excitement when I left.

NICK: Can I hear the summary cases for and against Margin Call from the last two gentlemen?  That was a movie I had a hard time getting worked up about in either direction, and a lot of the coverage it engendered was about its topicality and/or its innovative distribution model.  I've been eager to hear people who really love it say why and detractors say why not.  Especially while I tread water assembling my own thoughts about screenwriting.  Aside from echoing the brilliance of Margaret's writing (the Lear scene, the visit to Ruffalo's home, the conference calls, the chats with dad, the eulogy, every scene with Jeannie Berlin...)

ALI: Margin Call does not seem to understand exactly what the deal is with toxic assets, leverages, swaps, futures and derivatives.  Peppered into the narrative is a scene where a random character asks one of the hot shot analysts to explain the problem the investment house has found itself in like they would a child.  At each and every occasion, the characters (and thus the film) fail to do so.  This lack of specificity hinders the eventual effect -- since this is not really a morality tale a la Wall Street, it requires a much better understanding of the financial system. I understand that JC Chandor's father used to toil in Wall Street, and he has an ear for the sort of sales floor dialogue that one encounters at places like Citi or Goldman -- in fact, the one scene I DO like in the film is the huge sell-off near the end, where we see shots of salesmen try to unload anything and everything they can with Paul Bettany's voiceover providing a cool and calculated counterpoint (Bettany's mid-Atlantic accent is also pretty spot-on!).  The authenticity of the dialogue makes the nescience of the rest of the script all the more obvious -- and, thus, problematic.

Also, what the hell is that last scene with Kevin Spacey and President Laura Roslin about?  And why is she all dressed-up and ready to par-tay at three o'clock in the morning?  These questions also linger.

MARK: The case I'd make for Margin Call doesn't particularly have to do with its topicality or with its ability to explain exactly what went wrong on Wall Street in 2008, which I think is a task to which I think journalists and historians are better suited than filmmakers. What I think it does beautifully is to bring the people involved down to human scale. They aren't great villains and what happened isn't Shakespearean, and I think Margin Call demonstrates that mediocrity can be as terrifying as malevolence. It depicts a group of people who did not think particularly hard about what they were doing, why they were doing it, or what effect it had. What they were thinking about was what so many people who work in offices like that think about--how to impress the boss, how to move one rung up the ladder, how to maneuver the givens so that you make a little more money. The big picture, let alone the moral consequences, never entered their minds--they were doing their jobs. And the story of the crash is, to me, much more the story of people like the mid-level guys in Margin Call than of the monsters at the top.

I felt that Chandor had a perfect ear for how the men (almost all men) who spend their days in those offices talk to and about one another. And talk about formal control--I haven't seen a movie in recent years that better captured the nighttime clammy fluorescence of New York (certainly not Shame, which felt to me tidy and overly art-directed at every turn), and I'm not sure I saw a movie this year that kept a cast as diverse as this one on exactly the same tonal wavelength. (Well, maybe Tinker, Tailor.)

NATHANIEL: I fall somewhere between the two of you in terms of Margin Call, right alongside the fence and I'm fine landing there. But landing where I landed with Margaret. That's a place I'm less comfortable.

We'll pick this back up tomorrow on the Symposium's final day and I'll explain why.



  • Who is really telling the story in The Help?
  • Are self-loving movies a major turn on or a total turn off to you?
  • Margin, Margaret, Midnight... What were your favorite screenplays this year?


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Reader Comments (53)

I guess the question is why is viola lead and octavia supporting? Are they both not helped by skeeter? Is it because octavia seems like she is supporting viola? I agree with Kurt. Viola in supporting, Meryl is lead? And Octavia the nomination.... The "poop" pie bit just did not let up!

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I'd like to throw another writer/director into the mix - Abbas Kiarostami. Not only because CERTIFIED COPY was my favourite film this year, but because the more I think of the film I'm not sure if it's expressly the direction or the writing which makes it work. I mean, of course, both help and I remember thinking that the scene in the diner after Juliette gets dolled up is one of the most spectacularly written scenes of the year but then as I got further away from it, I started thinking if it wasn't the direction that made it sing. Which is all to point to Mark's point about noticing good direction when the script is thinner, CERTIFIED COPY is such a cerebral experience it seems to be all about the script that it's easy to forget those great directing moments (the final shot, for example.)

On THE HELP, I get what Kurt's saying but Viola looms way too much over the film for me to consider her supporting. It sort of reminds me of the Jane/Anne lead/lead issue in AGNES OF GOD. Like Emma, Jane goes into a world she doesn't quite know to get a story (okay, that's disingenuous - but I'm sure you get my point). She's sort of the person we get the story through even though Viola like Anne is the lead of the story being told with Meg Tilly being the one with the baity part (a la Octavia). It's been a WHILE since I saw AGNES OF GOD, but if my dodgy memory serves me right the analogy stands.

(As an aside, I guess it goes to show that despite me liking MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, I was so NOT immersed in the experience that months after I'm still trying to understand how that damned portal works. If it take you to where you want to go why does that guy following Gil get taken back to the Renaissance?)

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Favourite Screenplays of the year

A Separation: an arthouse Iranian film with an honest to goodness plot? How gauche. But it's really remarkable and intelligent and moving and astonishing and insightful, so why mock?

The Skin I Lived In: Talk about full command - the screenplay knows when/how to reveal the sick, twisted nature of Almodovar's story. And the ending is an emotional wollop.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Also, another story of full command.

Certified Copy: The best romantic comedy of the year! It's about romance, it's often hilarious, yeah, I'll stick with my designation

Weekend: An astute, low-key tract with some blindingly powerful moments about the difficulty of self knowledge.

Beginners: I still can't get over how deftly Mills juggles all these ideas. So many beautiful nuances.

Midnight in Paris remains the worst film of the year, and that's mostly due to the aboslutely shoddy screenwriting.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Andrew -- i love that you got caught up in how the portal works... as if time travel is actually possible and needs to make sense.:)

absolutely hear you on agnes of god. I'd forgotten it plays out like that but it does. or at least that sounds right.

Jamie -- i think that's what Mark is saying. in the book apparently it's more lke three leads and in the movie, two. Minnie really does feel one rung beneath Skeeter and Aibileen in terms of narrative force... maybe that's because she shares her scenes whereas the other two women, even when they're sharing scenes, seem to be the sole focus of their scenes?... except when they're together in which aibilieen is entirely the focus. so she's lead. She always takes precedence as Nick pointed out.

If the movie had been smart enough to have a touch less Skeeter, this really would never have been a hurdle for people.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Viola is a lead, just a co-lead. I think if they had taken out the pointless love arc of Skeeter's, I think it would've seemed a bit more even. I feel like if Viola was a typical leading lady in many movies, no one would be asking questions.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

The Help: I'm just saying, Abilene doesn't get a story beyond her work. Skeeter gets a romance, a family life, and her writing work.

Self Love: if it's still a good film, I'm ok with it. If the self love detracts from the overall picture, then it's a bad thing.

Screenplays: Jane Eyre for distilling a Gothic novel into a tight Gothic film, Insidious for turning the haunted house film on its ear with sincerity, Rango for going all Brechtian on a family friendly picture, Midnight in Paris for being the sweetest little time travel fantasy film I've ever seen, and Martha Marcy May Marlene for being an inescapable psychological nightmare.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

"Abilene doesn't get a story beyond her work"

How is that so? We learn so much about her. About her son, about her dreams, etc. I think the point was that IS her life, and that's sad.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Great Part II. Oh, that these symposiums were more regular.

Who is really telling the story in The Help?

I already ranted briefly about The Help in the previous symposium and the way it tells the nice story of how raising 'awareness' of racism helped a white girl get a promotion. Which is not really fair, but The Help is such a tonal mess that it's difficult to work out what it's really trying to say. I was going to extrapolate, but that's really my answer. I had such massive problems with the tone of The Help, the way it cut from really serious racially charged moments to basic gags was almost offensive, that I can't really say with certainty whose story it is.

Are self-loving movies a major turn on or a total turn off to you?

Generally they are a turn off. Indie rom-coms of the (500) Days of Summer kind can get me offside pretty quickly (that one happened to win me over eventually though). I liked Ides of March, but it was pretty impressed with itself and came close to turning me off (the scene in particular that nearly pushed me over the edge is the general staff scene where Gosling tries to convince Clooney to do the mandatory national service thing and he does that "they don't vote" line and everyone nods and chuckles as if to say 'yeah, that's right, political genius right here' but the line and the idea is nowhere near clever enough to merit that response; it's a scene cut straight from the cloth of Studio 60: Greatest Comedy of ALL TIME).
Ultimately, the issue is whether or not a film is good enough to back up its self-love. I was happy to go with the self-love in Drive, because i thought it was a great movie.

Margin, Margaret, Midnight... What were your favorite screenplays this year?

A Separation is, for me, comfortably the best screenplay in both categories. A second viewing two nights ago confirmed that. I wish Margaret would poke its head above the parapet and let some people in other countries, like Australia, see it at last.
The most criminally absent script as far as I'm concerned is Young Adult. I thought its study of self-absorption and how most people will go to any length to avoid admitting that they might be the cause of their own unhappiness was nothing short of brilliant. And its ending was kind of unnerving in how accurately it demonstrated the way (minor spoiler) self-absorbed people will gladly disregard all the mountains of evidence that they might be wrong if just one person, even someone peripheral, justifies their behavior.

This is quite the post, but I guess such rich discussions merit hefty replies.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel

Re: The Help's lead vs. supporting status, I'll just say that it wasn't until I heard all these debates online did I ever consider that anybody other than Emma Stone could be the lead. She was totally marketed as the lead. Just look at the trailer-- Emma's the first one mentioned and figures in almost every scene shown. Viola has like five lines. And in the movie itself, I thought it was Skeeter with whom the audience was supposed to relate.

When the online discussion argued for multiple leads, I decided that if Viola was a lead, so was Minny.

Re: Viola having the emotional weight of the story, Plummer occupies the same role in his film yet we call him supporting.

And re: Margin Call, I agree with Ali that it doesn't even seem to have a grasp on what happened with the crisis. And that it seemed to think it was so illuminating only made me resent it even more. But most of all, unlike Mark, I HATED the fluorescent, computer monitor-like lighting. All in all, I would have much preferred to see a nomination for 50/50 (which had a realistic chance), Martha Marcy May Marlene (which didn't), or Margaret (which was doomed).

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Good lord, I saw Margaret recently, and nothing tops that. Fuck, even with his vision a bit butchered, Lonergan is a genius. The writing feels terribly real and raw. I'm not particularly sad it didn't get Oscar-nominated, because it never had even a shred of a chance, did it?

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlandshark

I think Viola Davis is unquestionably the lead in The Help. Philip hit it right on the head when he said that were Davis a movie star who had headlined many other films, this would not even be a debate. Consider Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. I agree that Meryl should have been a lead in that film (as she was classified), but the amount of debate about Viola's classification seems disproportionate to the fact that no one questioned whether Meryl was a lead in that film (unless I'm remembering 2006 wrong).

If the movie is bold enough or well-crafted enough to support its self-love, then I think it can get away with it, but it's a fine line to walk. Inglourious Basterds is an example of a film that did so very well and I would say the same thing about Drive.

I'm not sure if The Descendants falls into the category of movies that are in love with themselves. The film is very convinced it is on to something profound and resonant and therefore doesn't feel the need to work for any of its emotional payoffs, It's also in love with its protagonist in ways that really make the piece suffer. Were it not a man who looked like Clooney, wouldn't the way he handles the information he learns about his wife be considered bad behavior? Or at least misguided behavior fueled by grief? That would have been a more interesting way to explain it rather than the approach the film settles for, which is to deify Matt King beyond reproach. Probably not exactly what was meant by "self-loving movies," but The Descendants does seem oddly pleased with itself, almost from its first frame.

Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene definitely sticks out for me as one of m favorite, if not my favorite scripts of the year. On its surface, I know it can read: inert protagonist/lack of an externalized arc, none of which are inherent formulas for good drama. But, the way the script uses misdirection so effectively and flashback structure (the latter of which can spell disaster for an entire film if handled improperly) makes it a winner for me. Bonus points for the scenes between Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Olsen, which I think are some of the best examples of character deepening I've seen on screen in 2011.

"Also, what the hell is that last scene with Kevin Spacey and President Laura Roslin about? And why is she all dressed-up and ready to par-tay at three o'clock in the morning?"

Perhaps you saw a different movie from what i saw. Clearly Laura was wearing a night gown. Maybe such outerware is not customary in Turkey, but here in North America it is common. By the way, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" was on my list of the 10 best films of 2011. Sadly it was not nominated for Best Foreign Film (nor was "The Turin Horse", perhaps an even more regretable omission).

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Re: Viola .. I totally agree with Kurt... she is definitely supporting as is Octavia... Emma is the lead.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Pardon me, Ali. When you said last scene, I thought you were referring to the last scene of the movie with Sam and Mary Rogers. My mistake.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Kurt is crazy cute and funny!

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNewyorker27

Drive and Midnight in Paris left me exuberant after I got out of both of them.

I could have danced on air / sped through L.A. the rest of those respective nights.

But the novelistic Margaret to be had such an incredible screenplay and so much ambition (more than any I've seen in years) that I can't help but be so utterly grateful for its existence. My heart jumped nine beats, I've never wanted people to stop fighting more, AND I added some new words to my vocab.

If that isn't a perfect package for a film, I don't know what is.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

I found this online, on a blog:

Viola - 41 minutes 05
( first hour : 25min25, second hour: 10min40, the last half:9min)

Octavia - 45 minutes 20
( first hour : 17min40, second hour: 20min40, the last half:7min)

Emma - 1 hours 05
( first hour : 34min40, second hour: 24min, the last half:6min20)

Jessica - 19 minutes 30
( first hour : 4min10, second hour: 13min40, the last half:1min40)

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeo

@Pretentious: This is exactly what I meant when I mentioned The Descendants as self-loving, though I declined to state the full case, because I'm worried I'll sound like I'm seeking every opportunity to slam that film. But I agree with you completely.

Also @Pretentious and @Philip: Yes: Meryl in Prada is an equally good example as Marge and Hannibal of the kind of lead that I think Aibilieen is in The Help. I acknowledge there is a sort of gray area here, and Streep and Hopkins did win supporting gongs for those performances. Mark's example of Training Day is also spot-on. I don't know that anyone is going to convince the opposite choir on this one, but with the whole opening, the close, and such key swaths of the middle ceded to Aibileen (even if Skeeter has even more screen-time, and a great diffusion of plotlines to manage), I just can't see her as "supporting."

@Evan: Tricky territory equating the movie with its marketing. The Help's trailer was definitely courting white women, whom the studio seemed to think was its biggest target demographic.

@Arkaan: I love your taste in scripts! I don't think Midnight in Paris is the worst movie of the year, but I certainly think it's one of the dinkiest, if you compare its reception to what's on screen. I never talk about in this whole symposium because I just can't will myself into finding anything to say about it.

@Andrew: That bothered me, too. I get it that it's a fantasy, but Purple Rose didn't make you think this. If MiP actually worked as a light soufflé, and didn't have so many "But where were you? But where did you go? Hey, where am I?" moments—this movie's version of Match Point's endless "But are you going to tell her? Then I'll tell her! No I'll tell her! But if you don't, I'll tell her!" exchanges—I doubt we'd care. But I cared. The screenplay seems like it's pulled on one leg of its pants and half a shirt and decided to call that an outfit.

There, I said something about Midnight in Paris!

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

So interesting to read Mark's thoughts re: Mulligan in Drive, since I had such a different reaction.

After seeing An Education, I was impressed by her performance, but not entirely convinced that she'd have any real staying power. Sort of a "one-hit wonder," maybe. I don't know, I just didn't totally get the hype.

But I thought both of her performances in 2011 were absolute knockouts.

Regarding Drive, specifically, she provided the element that made the film, with its cold-as-ice surface, almost shockingly moving and humanistic for me (although Gosling, Cranston, Isaac, and Leos have their contributing moments, too). I love her complex reaction to the Driver, particularly in the elevator scene: her realization that she's in way over her head with this guy, which doesn't register completely as fear, but also confusion, as if she's totally unable to process what's happening. She's an audience surrogate in this regard: as soon as she seems like she's beginning to understand who the Driver "is," he reveals himself as completely unknowable. And yet, she can't quite resist his magnetism (he's like a black hole at the center of the film... draws you in, but there's nothing there). I don't think the bleak nihilism of the movie would have been nearly as effective without such strong work on her part. By the end, I wasn't just reeling from the dazzling style on display; I felt a kind of heartache--a palpable sense of tragedy and loss--and I give Mulligan a substantial share of the credit for that. I don't know if any of that makes sense, or if it's convincing to anyone else, but it Worked For Me!

I'm totally on her side now. Can't wait to see what she does next!

(I can't quite quibble with the same reaction to Hendricks's role, although it sounds like, again, I was a little more sold on the character/performance. But then, it also sounds like I grooved to the film in general more than some of you guys.)

Loving these conversations, and also the spectrum of opinions on display. I sort of loved The Artist (#6 on my Top 10 list), but I really enjoyed reading the criticisms that some of you have leveled against it. Particularly because, even though I don't necessarily agree, they're so well-reasoned and fair-minded. A breath of fresh air, when so much of the negative conversation lately been so melodramatic, so borderline hysterical. Not that The Artist is alone there: so many of Oscar's picks this season have fallen prey to the false "MASTERPIECE!"/"DISASTER!" dichotomy.

Looking forward to the conclusion, and sorry for rambling!

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Um, I'm just realizing I used the word "so" about a million times in that comment. Pardon the awkwardness. It's late, and I'm beat. :)

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

@Steve: I'm close to where you are on Mulligan in Drive. I wasn't dying to put her on a ballot for anything in 2011, but I thought her choices were fascinating, and I think she more than held her own in contexts where it would have been easy to disappear. Not excited about The Great Gatsby, but fully sold on Carey. Wish they'd get that Seagull together.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

To back up Leo, I've seen a few sources on Help screentime and they all have Octavia in it more than Viola.

I also rewatched it the other day staying conscious of it, and his time listings seems right. I'm fine with the way it's been campaigned and wound up since it's not clear-cut and know screentime shouldn't be the determining factor , but I think it's hard to argue in this case firmly both that Viola is definitely lead and Octavia is definitely supporting when Octavia has more time and institutes more plot development.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDean

@Nick: Glad I'm not alone here. I should also add that I loved her, too, at her husband's welcome-home party. Another instance where she lends texture and nuance to a scene which, on paper, and in the hands of a lesser actress, likely would not suggest nearly the range of emotions Mulligan brings to the table.

I'm only tentatively looking forward to The Great Gatsby, the excitement owing itself in large part to the fact that I'm excited whenever Baz Luhrmann makes a movie (even after the disappointing Australia, which still had its moments). Mostly, I'm getting a little sick of DiCaprio.. Lately, he seems to be calcifying into his worst instincts/affectations/mannerisms, but I'm hoping that Baz can loosen him up. Also, you know, that novel's confounded filmmakers in the past - I wonder if anyone can pull it off.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

If people thinks the lead is the one with more screentime, I'm officially scared.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

@ Peggy Sue - I guess I'm scared (or, you know, "scared") in those cases where people say someone who's onscreen for, say, 15% of the film is a lead because of the character's impact, which kind of suggests that if you're supporting, you can't be crucial to the story. As for The Help, I think it has three leads, because Emma, Octavia and Viola all seem to fall between 30-45%.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJan

The most disturbing element of this conversation is the gratuitous amount of time spent on discussing "The Help", a film that would be largely dismissed and forgotten had it not made a shit load of money. Perhaps we should dig up all those wonderous notions about "The Blind /Back Side" too. Oscar season, for me in the past five years, ends when the nominations are revealed. Afterwards, I could care less. The predictability is kill-joy at work. Though I was a preteen in the 70's, I truly miss the unpredictable results, and the disintrest in the female wardrobes! (ie Ellen Burstyn for "Alice Doesn't Live Here.." was never dissected or scoffed at for making her own gown). The crass pretentiousness that pollutes the awards today makes me shut off, as I said, after the nominations. I truly enjoy everything, the anticipation and surprises prior to the nominations, but the preamble that follows is risable. No wonder so many blogs are talking so much about next years' possibilities already. This year (as the previous past years) is already old news. And strenuous discussion over the legitamacy of the current pile of nominees rings desperate, flaccid and phoney. As far as I am concerned, a great institution has been shot, buried and pissed on by interests who could care less about the movies, and yet drool at the mention of corporately exibitited fluff and marginally adequate heaps of socks.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Hear hear re: Mulligan in Drive. It was the only happy surprise the Bafta nominations delivered this year.

Yes, on paper the Driver's Semi-Bewildered Love Interest is essentially a nothing role (as is Gosling's for that matter) but dear lord, Mulligan managed to squeeze a sensitive, nuanced, grounding characterisation out of the nothingness.

Also, I finally managed to catch The Artist an hour ago. Yes, it's slight but it's dripping with movie love. I'm not entirely sold on - nor, for that matter, uncomfortable with - the instant classic hype. But I am very much confident that the out-of-control rancour is misguided and slightly despicable.

I am yet to see Bechir's film, but of the other four Dejardin's is far and away the highlight of that particular category, and the only one among those performances that belongs on any sort of ballot. I'm not sure why it isn't cool to sing his praises. This kind of deftness, balance and old-world mega-watt charisma is to be savoured. If he loses to Clooney it'll be the equivalent of Cary Grant in a screwball comedy losing to Gregory Peck in a turgid literary adaptation. (I know, I know. Grant would never have been nominated in the first place.)

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergoran

One small thing (admittedly irrelevant), Mark - you call Drive "a fun, well-sustained exercise in trash for boys." Let my female self assure you, as it was a favorite for me this year, Drive is for the ladies too.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmes

Goran: That Touch of Mink over all the Lead Actor's of 1962? That is what you're referring to, right? I can kind of see why someone would prefer that to Peck's staid prescence in To Kill a Mockingbird (he's fourth on my ballot right now). But: Cary Grant in what sounds like a featherweight 60s comedy vs. Oskar Werner grounding Jules et Jim to be a little more then just well shot navel gazing, James Mason going above and beyond to lend absolutely hypnotic levels of MENACE to Lolita and Peter O'Toole knocking an epically dramedic character study out of the park in Lawrence of Arabia? None of those would be preferred choices for a win?

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Goran -- i don't always need people to agree with me (Yikes if i did) but thank you for the support regarding The Artist. I am really ashamed of people who treat it like it's Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill" This movie is deftly played, exuberantly funny, gorgeous to look, challenging (yes for mainstream audiences it is. If anyone doubts that they're crazy) and encourages love of old movies and that's suddenly a terrible thing to be and do?

I'm embarrassed for people that think it's cool to hate it. SHAKE OFF THE CRAZY. You should never gleefully fight against movies that are encouraging a love of movie history. One of the worst things about Hollywood is their disregard for movie history so it's wonderful when something reminds us whether that's Hugo or Far From Heaven or The Artist or whatnot.

February 3, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Well said Jay!

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Thank U Kurt! Finally somebody is saying what I have been trying to say about Octavia Spencer for months now! Fair performence but COME ON we have seen this before & WAY better done (Oprah W. in The Color Purple anyone? & just for the record: I HATE Oprah). She is my LEAST favorite Supp. Actress Nominee this year, wich mean she will SO win (they always DO!). GO! Melissa!!

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterstjeans

I love the screenplay of Drive, that was written by Hossein Amini, that also wrote The Wings of the Dove, with a stellar performance of HBC in a role I'd love to see Carey Mulligan riff.

How can a single person switch from corset period pieces like Jude and The Wings of the Dove to pulp thrillers like Killshot and Drive. It's like seeing James Ivory directing Avatar

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Roberts post here on Rocky/Moneyball (Distant Relations) had me thinking of the Fighter in relation, and it occurs to me that in that case, you have the opposite with Christian Bale nominated supporting. Watching the film after the Oscars for the first time, he felt like lead to me, or at least co-lead with Mark Wahlberg. I suppose the politics come in, "we want you to win/be nominated, what's the easiest way to do that?" is that catagory fraud Nat (rightly) decries. But it also shows what I think is an avoidance of the idea of "co-leads" and here again I have to agree with Nat. (Nicole Kidman in the Hours comes to mind in the opposite direction - and I do think that the case could be made that Meryl was lead in that, the longer I get away from the film.)

I remember in college being told by a writing teacher in a screenplay class to analyze a film and come up with THE protagonist, and there could only be one person in that role, (Making the moral decisions that drive the action) whereas I found many examples of films that seemed to have 2 protagonists. (Nowadays there are screenwriting books that will back me up on this.) Is it possible that the Help has co-leads, regardless of screentime? And I will confess to not having seen the film, so I'm throwing that out in genuine curiosity. (That's one point I don't recall being mentioned in my screenwriting class "the protagonist must have this much percentage of screentime" or "anyone who narrates the story must be the protagonist - the criteria had to do with what the protagonist did to move the story.) Morgan Freeman is certainly not the protagonist of Million Dollar Baby, yet he's the one narrating.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

@Nick Davis

In fairness, I haven't seen a lot of crappy movies (or movies in general). I tend to avoid what I think I'll dislike (case and point: The Help. The book was a mediocrity and while I'm glad Hollywood gave Davis a movie, and love that she's having a really successful year, I'll probably skip this one).

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

@Arkaan: Oh, I feel you. I thought The Descendants was the worst movie of my year in buying tickets, but I realize that's because I don't see a lot of movies that would exert a faster claim on "Worst of the Year" status, either.

@Jay: I can see where you're coming from, and even making allowances for nostalgia, I agree that the Oscars are not what they once were, having been corporatized and dissected and campaigned to death. But at the same time, when a movie's as problematic and politically loaded as The Help — even in the ways the movie tries to avoid aspects of its own story and construction, the movie is obviously politically loaded — isn't it better to hash that out rather than just let it pass? Wouldn't it come across as more passively subject to corporate product if we just gobbled The Help and said nothing than if we debated the ramifications of its story structure, inquired into the implications of how it's been received, etc?

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Jay -- this just sounds like freeform hostility to me. Who exactly are you talking about in this diatribe. I assure you that we very much care about the movies. If you're talking about other blogs, maybe you're reading the wrong ones ;)

as for already talking about next year's slate. to me that is problematic before the current race is over. Because that suggests that actual movies aren't worth discussing, only their nominations. A point on which I heartily disagree.

the oscars have always been savaged but they're still around. They're much like any enduring celebrity, alternately loved, despised, considered irrelevant but always in the mix somehow. I personally love them because i love the idea of scrapbooking, of collecting your thoughts about each year and shaping it into some form of "This". Everybody has their own idea about best but it's fun to collect them all and discuss.

February 3, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@Jay: I don't know what's wrong with talking about the worthy (or, for the matter, the unworthy elements) of The Help. It's no masterpiece (duh), but it does have some Really Special Stuff going on. It's certainly leagues better than The Blind Side.

These kind of doomsday sentiments re: the Oscars are always kind of amusing to me. I mean, how can we possibly continue to have any respect for this institution, given some of its recent decisions? You know, the same institution that, in its early years, had the incredible foresight and critical good sense to honor such masterpieces as The Broadway Melody, Cimarron, Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, and The Life of Emile Zola? (I could go on.)

Granted, the 70s were a definite high-water mark for American film, but, even then, it's not like Oscar made perfect choices.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Regarding the lead/supporting issue, intangibles have a lot to do with this, and clocking screen time can be particularly futile. For instance: Rooney Mara appears in only 22 of the first 75 minutes of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo--and many of those 22 minutes are silent and reactive. Like Viola Davis, her lines are often minimal. And like Viola Davis, you could argue that technically, her character's main plot function is to help an investigative writer complete a task. But I haven't heard anyone argue that she's in the wrong category.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Harris

@Nathaniel: I do think we're at some danger of overstating the "beating" or the "being mean" toward The Artist in this conversation. Ali obviously doesn't like it and Mark is very cool on it, but no more than I don't like The Descendants or you don't like War Horse. Kurt and I both admitted to liking it more at the beginning than the end and/or more in the immediate aftermath than after it had time to sink in (or not). We certainly love Dujardin in it and said so, and even Ali concedes that point. I know it's fared worse on other sites, but I feel like those of us who didn't give it an A in this conversation are being characterized as having given it an F, to use your terms.

I personally love its movie-love and don't care that it's more polymorphous in expressing that love than slavishly devoted to one precisely-reprised aesthetic, which has been one of the big knocks against it. But I also don't think movies that love or honor past film aesthetics should automatically be protected; that's no more august a sentiment (though less often centralized) than "racism is bad," and we know how many mediocre and awful movies are devoted to "racism is bad" or "homophobia is bad." The reasons The Artist is my third favorite of the nominees have everything to do with execution and panache, not grading on a curve for the message.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Are self-loving movies a major turn on or a total turn off to you?

Total turn-on when the movie is good, or, let's say, aesthetically appealing to me.

What were your favorite screenplays this year?

The Ides of March, Young Adult, Jane Eyre, Bridesmaids. A Separation moved me more in spite of the screenplay, I think.

Having not read the book, I wondered why Octavia Spencer's role in The Help seemed as much a lead as Davis or Stone, but was relegated to supporting in all discussion. So it's a three-narrator piece, in fact...

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

This whole conversation about The Help has convinced me that the category fraud here isn't that Viola Davis isn't a lead, but the Octavia Spencer is (a co-lead with Davis and Stone, that is), and her inclusion as Supporting is the cynical, let's-just-make-sure-she-wins choice.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I'll put it another way. Skeeter is the one who connects everyone together in The Help. She also gets multiple scenes dedicated to her life outside of the fight to make the book. Abilene exists in this story only because Skeeter's character lets her exist. True, we learn about Abilene's son and see her house, but that only happens because Skeeter finds out. If anything, I'd argue it's an ensemble film with a narrator surrogate--Skeeter--rather than a traditional film with a leading role/s.

And I also think if Davis is considered lead, then Spencer is a lead as well. If Spencer is considered supporting, then Davis is supporting as well.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Favorite screenplay of the year is probably Martha Marcy May Marlene. It created a thoroughly fascinating lead and gave its supporting characters just enough depth to make them more than chess pieces in the script, without having to flesh out full backstories. More impressive though was the little details thrown out like bread crumbs that reveal how Martha became so enamored with John Hawkes and his crew (the song, training the new girl, the phone call, that trip to the house!).

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

The Help (the novel) was distributed into three distinct "leads," which didn't translate to the film, at all. The movie was top-heavy with Skeeter's story, which (unintentionally or otherwise) further pushes the whole "whitey solves racism" narrative. The only fully-realized translation from book to movie was Jessica Chastain's character, who, story-wise, played an equal part to Aibileen and Minny. Missing from the movie was the pain and despondency Aibileen felt for her dead son, as well as her own desire to write and the excitement she felt in helping Skeeter gather all of the stories together (which the movie only glosses over). The ending with Aibileen certainly felt like a coda, but it also felt like a handing off of a torch. I don't mind Viola being pushed as a lead, but the movie did her character (as well as Octavia's) an obvious disservice, and the movie's approach is rather shameful and self-indulgent.

If there ever was a movie in love with itself this year, it would be The Help ... in love with itself for being on the right side of history decades after it even matters. This was a major turn-off.

However, a film like "Drive," which was my favorite film of the year, even though it was not without faults (sometimes over-the-top writing, over-acting by Ron Perelman, Carey Mulligan with very little to do, no chemistry between her and Gosling, a not-quite-there-yet Albert Brooks), it was visually stunning and the scenes were seamlessly stitched together. When it was great, it was really great and it's hard not to love a film in love with itself in these instances.

Best screenplays of the year: Midnight in Paris, A Separation. Both scripts left everything else in the dust, although, I was very impressed with Young Adult.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCinesnatch

Nick -- that's true enough. I guess I am in danger of shoving people into their As and Fs even if they weren't already there. I don't grade on a curve because of message either but the reason i bring the message up is because I'm having a hard time getting a handle on why the super negative comments about it are usually about its movie-centricity... whereas Hugo is often lauded for the same thing. I've already admitted to some sensitivity on the subject. I'm not sure what else people want me to do with the fact that I am offended by the negativity. I just feel like 80% of the negatitivity is a complete misread of what the film is attempting. Plus it feels petty to me. Mark was right that you shouldn't assume motives and why other people feel the way i do but it's REALLY hard not to I'll freely admit.

Mark -- good point on Mara. I always hate the screentime argument because it never addresses who the scenes are weighted to. You can be in a ton of scenes and still be someone who is supporting a protagonist but it's never ever really about you.

Everyone -- thanks for commenting on the movies being in love with themselves question. I do think it's an interesting thing about movies that is rarely discussed... how pleased or indifferent or self-impressed they feel about what they're putting forward... for me confidence is a turn on but ti's interesting that too much of it seems to be a turn off for a lot of people. I guess it's whether or not you can back it up to some degree.

Steve -- thank you. very reasonable and what i wish i had said instead.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Mark gets all the KUDOS in the world from me for that Bruce McGill-"circa-The Insider" reference!! LMAO Classic!

Great discussion guys. Love these symposiums every year.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKBJr.

Nat: Another perfect example for the "scene weighting" argument is Christopher Walken in Batman Begins. He has up to 45% of the screentime, but you can't consider him a lead because most of his scenes are weighted toward being about Pfeiffer or DeVito.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia - it was very late when I wrote that post so I didn't think it through. I wasn't referring to 1962, more like a generic matchup, e.g. the average Grant vs. the average Peck performances. So even though they're seven years apart, just imagine if somehow Grant in Philadelphia Story and Peck in Gentleman's Agreement ended up on the same ballot? Yes, Ronald Colman would still win for showing off his dramatic chops (even though they're embarrassingly limited) as a Shakespearean actor... So I guess this analogy still doesn't work.
In any case, my point was that Dujardin = Grant in the sense that his natural charisma and star magnetism is written off as effortless and therefore less worthy (just like Cary Grant for three decades in a row), whereas Clooney = Peck a handsome but severely limited actor who just need to make solemn expression, cry some manly tears and stammer a stolid monologue et voila: Oscar nomination #27, not to mention a very possible win.
Incidentally I should mention that, with the glaring exception of what he did in The Descendants, I do actually really like Clooney both as an actor and a movie star (Peck, not so much) but this gravitas that Ampass projects on him is a little disconcerting.

And Nick - I don't think The Artist's movie love is a 'message' akin to The Help's '(even though white people are eminently more interesting and relatable, we must point out that) racism is bad'.
I didn't experience it as a message at all. It's closer to an infectious state of bliss. Hazanavicius isn't trying to teach you that silent films were important and worthy - he is very much preaching to the converted. His film's value more specifically lies in the pleasure of getting lost in this time and place that only ever really existed in the movies. Its 'movie love' isn't a message to take in so much as a feeling to get lost in.

Also (I am obviously no longer addressing Nick here) the complaints about The Artist's uneven aesthetic are ludicrous. Apart from the use of music and the closing number - both of which are thoroughly justifiable in context - all of the techniques it presents are perfectly in keeping with the golden age of the silent era. I feel like people overlook the amazing visual polish and sophistication that even studio films routinely achieved circa 1928.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergoran

@Nick Certainly "The Help" should be analyzed considering it's Best Picture nominee status, but to give it the same weighty consideration and time that a post graduate would give to Dostoyevsky is frankly embarressing. For me, it is as equally dismissable as "The Descendants".

@Nat I'm sorry if I came across as hostile, and I certainly was not alluding to this blog (i come here because of the love and attention that is given to the movies by you and guests like Nick, unlike other blogs that see the making of films as happy accidents, likening the art form to a sort of crapshoot). Often skill is overlooked. Perhaps I was getting frustrated with all the attention to "The Help", and was hoping for some mention of worthy films like Melancholia, Bombay Beach, The Turin Horse, Weekend, A Seperation, Meek's Cutoff, Tree of Life, etc. Also, drinking wine tends to make me whine, which is what I was doing last night. Mea culpa.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay
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