On Day 1 of the symposium we partied with the Best Picture field and considered Star Vehicles. On Day 2 we discussed movies that are hopelessly in love with themselves (to good and bad effect), the forever contentious Lead vs Support debate, the invisible arts of editing and screenwriting. We pick up there. Nathaniel was admitting he wasn't entirely comfortable falling for Margaret....
NATHANIEL ROGERS: I've scraped my knees up on cold hard pavement. I too was caught up in #TeamMargaret excitement. I love it when critics remember that part of their job is to advocate for buried treasure rather than merely rubber stamping the critical darlings over and over again (Did Michelle Williams really need to hog the majority of critics awards for My Week With Marilyn, which is straight down the middle awards bait? They didn't see anything off the golden path that was worthy of praise?). But when I finally saw Margaret, I left somewhat dejected. There's a lot to love. But there is also just an awful lot. It plays, to me, like a series of brilliant pieces that haven't quite been shaped to fit the genius-level mosaic they're intended for. Or maybe I was just thrown by the length and those phone calls to daddy. Lonergan is a brilliant writer but a brilliant actor not so much.
And maybe I was still just high on A Separation (my choice for Best of the Year) which illuminates a bit of the same ground in terms of personal actions creating ripples that we can't possibly grasp the full reach of. And they both show us how flawed people (i.e. all of us) can get tangled up in very difficult moral, social, religious, political and ethical webs they probably helped spin.
KURT OSENLUND: I'm glad you brought up that comparison between A Separation and Margaret, because it's definitely something I was thinking about while watching the latter (in between all the reveling in how Lisa initiates an allegorical, post-9/11 war that's ultimately futile and only reaps money for people who don't deserve it). Though vastly different in structure (one drum-tight, one manic and sprawling), these two scripts hold a lot of similarities, and are, in my opinion, at the tip-top of the year's best.
I'm also glad that Mark brought up Margin Call and Tinker Tailor in the same thought bubble because I found myself linking those two in my head a lot as well. Both films are essentially corporate dramas with power players coping with crisis, and both teem with a kind of impenetrable language you really have to crack. I hail from the team that doesn't really buy all the "Speak to Me Like a Golden Retriever" crap, because A) I don't believe those folks would actually expositionally coddle each other, or need coddling, in that way, and B), as mentioned, the movie keeps promising through dialogue that it's clearing things up, when it's really just thickening its fog of jargon. I do believe Chandor took a highly commendable crack at presenting this world, and I don't know if I've seen anyone do it better in terms of writing (Oliver Stone certainly didn't), but there's a lot of pretense about those scenes that irks me. (I prefer his small details, like the gross arrogance the company shows by firing Tucci's head risk manager, and little shots like the one of Demi and Simon Baker in the elevator with the cleaning lady.)
As for Tinker Tailor, there isn't a lick of coddling, just a glimpse into a radically rarefied world, filled with so much code talk, names and lingo it's like Tolkien does MI6.
KURT: (cont'd) I LOVE that Tinker Tailor has this whole existence outside of itself, and that you need to be aware of that existence, either pre-screening or post-screening, to fully grasp and appreciate the film. The movie/story is just a piece of Le Carre's universe. What I also love is that it merges that business setting with the theme of home invasion that was everywhere in 2011. I see it as the ultimate home invasion thriller, and I read its paranoia of flushing out the invader as a motif that repeated through Alfredson's character-building visuals, like the bee that weasels its way into the three men's car, and the owl that flies violently into the classroom.
NICK DAVIS: You guys are bringing so much back to me about Tinker Tailor that I'd already forgotten, and making me really intrigued to see it again. I don't foresee revisiting Margin Call, though I think it's interesting that the two charges being leveled at it are that it's too expository ("Talk to me like I'm a six-year-old") and insufficiently expository (where's my copy of Hedge Funds for Dummies?). I didn't mind that the diluted explanations never felt that diluted, because I think it's the nature of the beast that even "simplified" unpacking of this whole mess still sounds like a foreign language. I actually felt much more "spoken to like a six year old" during that very on-the-nose elevator shot with the cleaning lady and wished Margin Call had relieved itself of visual expectations and been a play (though I agree with Mark that it handled the corporate-glass aesthetic better than Shame did). In fairness, a lot fewer would have seen it as a play, and I appreciate the film's sober integrity and its intents.
Speaking of foreign languages, if I were to make an Oscar-bait movie about the poignant lure of the past, I might make an amber-tinted, tenderly scored ode to the lost days of the 60s and 70s when occasionally three or even four of the writing in nominees in a single category might be in a language other than English. I would be very leery of marketing it to eight-year-olds, or building it around two pre-teens. But as I was saying, as duly elated as I am with the Separation nod in Original Screenplay, I wish it had more polyglot company. I feel like the writing categories show the biggest discrepancy between the upper median of American achievements and the level of the writing in admittedly cherry-picked titles from abroad, even the ones in English: Poetry, Certified Copy, Tuesday After Christmas, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Weekend, even Melancholia, which doesn't even feel like a writer's movie per se but still represents a really daring effort and a dramaturgical step forward for Oscar-nominated songwriter Lars von Trier.
Is it just this personal peccadillo, then, that's making me think Farhadi could come from behind and win this Screenplay prize? Am I as big a nut as von Trier? Is anyone else nursing a suspicion about a possible spoiler of a winner that you're both eager and embarrassed to admit?
MARK HARRIS: Nick, my possible spoiler of a winner is Melissa McCarthy (and I'm only eager, not embarrassed). I think she could be the Marisa Tomei/My Cousin Vinny of this year--meaning that she's to be a terrific actress who gives an expert comic performance in a very popular movie belonging to a consistently denigrated genre. (Plus, this gives me the chance to remind everyone that when Tomei won, there was a great deal of sneery rumormongering that ancient presenter Jack Palance had misread her name, the argument being that Tomei could not possibly have beaten Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright. Since then, Tomei has gotten two more nominations, and her four competitors have combined for exactly one. Just saying.)
And Nathaniel, I won't pick a fight with you about Margaret, I promise! I don't share your ambivalence but I get it. This long and winding exchange has helped me to examine not only my tastes, but, more painfully, my biases. The biggest of which is, I've come to realize in the last few days is that I fall hard for a particular kind of movie: If I feel I'm in the presence of genuine greatness, it's not that I fail to see the flaws, but somehow they stop mattering. The Texas childhood scenes in The Tree of Life were at once so real and so unearthly to me (how did Malick do that? 3D without glasses!) that the Sean Penn stuff couldn't begin to tarnish my estimation of the movie. Kenneth Lonergan's savage understanding of family dynamics among the bright, interesting, overeducated, self-conscious people who fill my neighborhood -- that astounding sense of how to write a mother-daughter fight, a classroom power grab, a woman losing her temper -- was so pitch-perfect to me that I could tolerate any amount of --what's the opposite of "seamlessness"?-- in the last hour. I had some trouble with planet-as-metaphor combined with planet-as-thing-that's-going-to-smush-you in Melancholia, but the singularity and beauty of Von Trier's vision mowed over my objections. Every one of the few movies I loved in 2011 had some indefensible flaw--and still, I loved them more than certain hermetically sealed jewel boxes of nostalgia which I now resolve to stop beating up forever.
NICK: I've been hawking that McCarthy-as-Tomei theory since November, before anybody was nominated for anything. Now, I don't see how Spencer can be stopped, but I've hated letting go of my pet cause. I really hope you're right! From that field, McCarthy deserves it.
And I only say "embarrassing" because my dark-horse hunches are usually painfully obvious admissions of my own preferences, and they never come through. Like that Wiig nomination I felt certain was coming, in a Bridget Jones-y way. Shows you what spinning predictions out of Oscar precedent will get you, which is why I now worry about the Tomei logic. But again, McCarthy's got my vote.
NATHANIEL: I can't imagine that happening but I completely understand the dark horse as preference thing because as soon as I heard 'Could A Separation win?' I IMMEDIATELY saw it happening. But there's no way it'll be able to work around the widespread love for Woody's charming hit.
As for Margaret, Mark, I wouldn't fight back anyway. I love that people love Margaret. I wish that I did because it feels worth loving, unlike some of this year's critical darlings which just strike me as incredibly easy and thus disposable. I can't imagine several of this year's nominees lasting for decades as film touchstones but I can imagine, say, Melancholia and The Tree of Life lasting forever. They can't be replaced next year by the next softball of their particular kind because who makes movies like those? Only Von Trier and Malick as it turns out.
I value movie discussions like this so much because I have to reconsider my feelings when someone makes an interesting point so I thank you all for joining me. Like Mark says, it helps you see your own biases. One of mine is the hermetically sealed jewelboxes I think (ha!) because I love stylized movies that want to be beautiful. It is a visual medium.
I know we should wrap soon but given my last confession, I must ask for a quick rundown of your preferences in those often ignored categories. Costumes? Art Direction? Cinematography? I'm assuming everyone is backing Lubezki in the latter (speaking of movies that want to be beautiful) but I actually have no idea who you'd all vote for in the other two fields.
MARK: Put me on #teamlubezki (though that's really too hard to type) for Cinematography. Put me on #teamclueless for Costume Design, since I haven't yet seen one of the nominees, W.E., and was too appalled to make it all the way through another, Anonymous (many 2011 movies treated writers like crap, but none more intentionally). Of the three nominees I did see, I'd go for Michael O'Connor's work on Jane Eyre. (Although I wish Tinker, Tailor were nominated.) And for Art Direction, I'd pick Hugo (which I suspect will win in a walk), but I honestly can't tell how much of what I'm looking at is CG!. So I'll go for Rick Carter's excellent, allusive work on War Horse.
KURT: Nathaniel, my heart sank a bit when you asked about preferences in Costume Design, what with the tragic recent demise of Eiko Ishioka. If I had my way, she would have surely been recognized for her incredible work in Tarsem's Immortals, a gorgeous movie -- barring the 3D post-conversion -- that took a wrongful, albeit inevitable, beating (my review). And I know you wouldn't object to my wish that her threads be honored alongside those in The Skin I Live In.
But I know you're talking actual nominees, and of those, while I adore what Sandy Powell cooked up for Hugo (every element in that film's aesthetic is helping the other), I, too, am going with Jane Eyre's Michael O'Connor. That's such a beautifully executed film (cinematography?), and like The Princess of Montpensier, its period garb doesn't gleam like it just came off the rack. (I also haven't seen W.E.)
As for Art Direction, for the reason mentioned above and more, I'm going to go with Hugo and all its Franco-steampunk eye candy. For Cinematography, I'm on #teamlubezki, too; however, the films I wish were in the running here are Tinker Tailor, Mysteries of Lisbon, and Melancholia, which for me is the most beautiful movie of 2011.
I want to add, though, in the wake of offering another superlative, that I'm also really liking the topic of re-evaluating biases thanks to this discussion. There are a lot of really thoughtful insights I already want to revisit here, and plenty of them are counterpoints. I've been loving this.
NICK: I can't answer yet on Cinematography or Art Direction, since I'm literally a half-hour from finally finding out if Joey looks good in orange. I'm very partial to that color myself, entirely care of my Honorary Clementine Kruczynski Orange Hoodie, but you know it's a hue not everyone can pull off. I can't pull it off, either, but nothing stands between me and my H.C.K.O.H.
I shouldn't answer yet on Costume Design, since I'm an English professor and cannot handle the prospect of Anonymous until it's finally on DVD and my esteemed colleagues in Early Modern lit can enjoy it with me as a drinking game. (Knock one back every time someone's teeth are black! Knock one back every time a historical whopper makes you want to die!) Weinstein hasn't had the temerity to open W.E. in Chicago yet, either. But I'm completely for Jane Eyre, for reasons Kurt perfectly described - and I wish that film had made a showing in Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and maybe Score, to say the least.
ALI ARIKAN: This is what happens when there's a seven-hour time difference between one of the participants and the rest! You've been busy boys.
As far as I'm concerned, Anonymous was one of the three worst films of the year, an affront to civilisation and everything humanity holds dear. I might be exaggerating, but only a tad. So I can't get behind it on any level. For Costume Design, I'd back Sandy Powell's work for Hugo, which was inventive and colourful and fully in line with the art direction. I, too, haven't seen W.E. though I doubt my appreciation of Powell's work would be altered in comparison to Arianne Phillips' in the Madge flick.
For similar reasons, I think Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo's art direction in Hugo was ace, though I am partial to Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan's work in HP7:II -- if you compare the first film and the final installment, it truly is something else (I know we shouldn't judge this stuff on a curve but there we go).
As for cinematography, I am sorry but I can't get on Team Lubezki, and I will have to return the jacket. I felt a certain disconnect with The Tree of Life's narrative, and this had certain things to do with the ethereal quality of Lubezki's photography: the entire film has a dream-like quality, a stream of consciousness that needed grounding somewhere. And I thought cinematography should have been that: a more exacting eye could have been fittingly antithetical to the narrative and the themes of the movie. As such, it pushes me away even further.
No, I am firmly on Team Jeff Cronenweth for The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. He makes the scenery into a character, holding the family's secrets tight in its wintery grip. His almost sedate constructions contrast with the thump-thump-thumping of the soundtrack, creating a chilling (no pun intended) atmosphere. And the bizarrely undulating colour scheme during the climax, both outside and inside of the killer's lair, mirror the psyche of the rapist/murderer. Great stuff.
We haven't talked about the animated feature race, btw. I am a firm supporter of Rango, but I have yet to see A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita. I thought Rango found the beauty in utterly miserable and ugly looking characters. It was also a wonderful homage to spaghetti westerns as well as immense fun to watch. One for the pantheon, surely. Thoughts? Feelings?
NATHANIEL: I have thoughts but not neccessarily feelings. What is their to feel about that sorry category? As I've said repeatedly, its a ridiculously coddled one. If they voted proportionately in the big race we would have had 82 Best Picture nominees. No exaggeration! The animated category requires only 16 entries for a 5-wide shortlist. 31% of the submissions can be nominated in other words. If they went that easy on Best Song, we would have had 12 nominees this year instead of 2. Can you imagine trying to squeeze in 12 song performances on Oscar night? I'd only be okay with that if Bret McKenzie sang them all with 12 separate Muppets throughout the night: Kermit gets "The Living Proof", Sam The Eagle gets "Star Spangled Man", and Miss Piggy gets whatever she wants.
Okay, the party is running late. Well past Midnight in Paris New York now. Soon we'll be back with our bitchy fiancee and her cartoonishly rightwing parents worrying about our lame screenplays instead of having these magical conversations with iconic characters and writers we admire. So let's make the most of it before we head back to our drab present.
Let's end on a high note! Pick one nominee (or two if you'd like a duet) and suggest a new direction, role, or collaboration for them that would unlock something magical. Maybe you saw some new aspect of their gift this year or maybe you just can't get enough. Who? What? Why?
And please fold a few chairs and throw out some stray plastic cups on your way out the door. I'm not cleaning up on my own.
MARK: I'm bad at speculative casting and, unfortunately, I think Hollywood is too. (Why do I suspect that Demian Bichir's big post-nomination "opportunity" is going to be to play a Columbia drug lord in Fast Seven? If that's the door that opens, I sincerely hope he holds up whoever opens it for every penny he can get.) My Oscar wish isn't for a particular collaboration. It's that ten years from now, we look back at the career of Viola Davis and say, wow, The Help was the beginning of an amazing run for her, not the high point of her film career.
And, okay, that Jessica Chastain either gets to make a movie with Meryl Streep, or have a conversation with her the theme of which is "Where Do I Go From Here?"
NATHANIEL: I would pay good money to see that conversation filmed as a one-shot two hour film. Hell I'd sit through a three hour director's cut of that. Thanks for coming to the party, Mark!
KURT: I was going to say: Apart from the bajillion things I want to see Jessica Chastain do? (And god, Mark is so tragically right about Demian Bichir. Just you wait.)
I'll say that Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman's polar opposite approaches to a scarily authoritative figure make me curious to see what those two could do together, if I wasn't curious already (I don't believe they've shared the screen...?)
Ever since the Supporting Actor category started to whittle down, with the veterans taking over, I began imagining a Space Cowboys sequel, with Plummer, Von Sydow, Nolte, and maybe even Albert Brooks heading to Mars. Eastwood's not busy, right?
But I'll close on an especially fun note, with what immediately leapt to mind after reading Nathaniel's question. Screw the sequel; give me a spinoff of Best Original Screenplay nominee Bridesmaids, wherein the gals played by Wendi McClendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper make good on that mile-high kiss and take off an angry, yet sugary, lesbian road trip, swearing off domestic duties while kicking it with Disney princesses. It'd be like Bound for Tweens. Get crackin', Wiig/Mumolo.
And with that, if these are our farewells, let me say again that this has been a really awesome pleasure. I truly have a whole lot of respect and admiration for all you guys, and it was great to chat. 'Til next time.
ALI: Corey Stoll's Ernest Hemingway finds the way to travel in time, meeting his literary heroes, and daring them to wrestle. Now that's something I would like to see!
I hope Jean Dujardin gets more work. He is a gifted actor (and this is coming from me, the personification of The Artist-backlash), and he's recently been picked up by WME. His English seems slightly inadequate, but nothing a few months of classes could not fix. There is an aura of old school movie stardom to him, something that was obvious in the OSS films, too. The same could not be said of Roberto Benigni. I hope he follows the lead of Marion Cotillard, and makes interesting Hollywood films with interesting Hollywood directors.
I would also like to see films of the further two chapters of John Le Carre's Karla trilogy, "The Honourable Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People," once again with Tomas Alfredson at the helm, and starring Gary Oldman and The Cumberbatch.
And, with that, I, too, would like to bid everyone adieu. It has been an honour and a pleasure to take part in this with all of you, and particular thanks to our host, Nathaniel. Lots of love, gentlemen,
NICK: So much to wrap up! On the topic of Animated Feature: for the reasons Nathaniel specified, I can't make myself care too much. The delightful if slightly strained Rango earns it, though I've seen none of its competitors. I feel only a little guilty about this, because...
...on the subject of Cinematography and Art Direction, and on the subject of overcoming biases: War Horse not only defied the prejudices I'd imported from the trailer, the play (which I disliked), and a lot of online commentary, it even overcame my heavy misgivings from the first, shakiest half-hour. As it unfolded, the rotation of early 20th-cenutry British, Irish, French, American, and German film styles is both a tremendous technical achievement and a stunningly generous way to honor so many of the cultures most heavily involved in that war (and in the early decades of filmmaking). From the Hiddleston raid and ever after, I was totally impressed, constantly surprised, and very moved. It's immediately my favorite Best Picture contender after The Tree of Life, admittedly by some distance. No way I'm ever leaving Team Lubezki, but I'd love to see War Horse cop that Art Direction trophy. I'm so glad I didn't answer these questions last night, and let that be a lesson to you AMPAS voters!
As for Nathaniel's final query, I'm entirely with Mark on the Viola idea. I want at least two August Wilson movies by 2020, and her in both. (Can one be Joe Turner, and can Kasi Lemmons direct it?) I wondered if we'd ever hear about Javier Bardem again in the States after the Before Night Falls breakthrough, and based on how well that's gone, I'll hold out hope on Bichir. I hope Mark Bridges converts his first Costume Design nod into momentum toward several more... including for contemporary work. Otherwise, I couldn't help thinking about this question in the sense Nathaniel has asked it in the past: what nominees would you like to see in each other's roles? Everything I want for Michelle Williams has to do with my wish that she'd gotten the Dragon Tattoo part. Withholding comes as naturally to her as to Lisbeth. Her face is such an odd fist; she expresses through clench and through tentative release, while trying quite earnestly not to be noticed. The combo doesn't always work for me, but I'd love to see her push herself in Lisbeth's gutsy directions of genre, tone, and forceful catharsis. Lastly, when Hollywood comes re-calling on Academy Award nominee Gary Oldman, I hope the offers include roles like The Descendants lead. Post-Sirius, post-Batman Gary can be surprisingly tender, though he wouldn't have run from Matt's likability problem and might have curried our sympathy while still acting like someone a wife might have found extremely frustrating, even alienating. I get chills thinking him playing the "Goodbye, my love" scene at the hospital bed, and not the chill, singular, I got from Clooney's refusal of all intimacy.
ALI: I get a chill imagining Gary Oldman playing the "Goodbye, my love" scene in Dumb and Dumber! Kisskiss, all.
NICK: Goodbye, my loves! It's been a trip and a joy. And I'm so buying a ticket to Kurt's Bridesmaids spinoff.
NATHANIEL: I'm buying a ticket to every single one of those imaginary movies! Let me know if any of you have any secret screenplays lying around. I'll help you with the casting.
THAT'S A WRAP!
Nathaniel would like to thank this year's participants: Ebert's "Far Flung Correspondent" Ali Arikan, the chief film critic for Dipnot TV [Follow Ali on Twitter]; Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution and "Oscarmetrics" columnist for Grantland [Follow Mark on Twitter]; Nick Davis of Nick's Flick Picks and Assistant Professor of English and Gender Studies at Northwestern University [Follow Nick on Twitter]; Kurt Osenlund Managing Editor at Slant Magazine's The House Next Door [Follow Kurt on Twitter].
And we'd like to collectively thank all of you out there in the dark for reading and for your rich continuations of these conversations in the comments.
• What's your takeaway from the Symposium?
• What would you like to see key Oscar nominees doing next?
• And where would your votes go on all the eye candy categories?