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Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.
It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).
An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.
Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:
2013 – 12 Years A Slave
2012 – Argo
2011 – The Artist
2010 – The King’s Speech
2009 – The Hurt Locker
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – No Country for Old Men
2006 – The Departed
2005 – Crash
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002 – Chicago
2001 – A Beautiful Mind
2000 – Gladiator
1999 – American Beauty
1998 – Shakespeare in Love
1997 – Titanic
1996 – The English Patient
1995 – Braveheart
1994 – Forrest Gump
1993 – Schindler’s List
1992 – Unforgiven
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
1990 – Dances With Wolves
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy
1988 – Rain Man
1987 – The Last Emperor
1986 – Platoon
1985 – Out of Africa
1984 – Amadeus
Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.
The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.
This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.
While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.
Stephen Hawking is one of the most eminent minds of the last century, yet he may be as famous for coping with disability as he is for expounding on the universe. A similar tension runs through James Marsh’s adaptation of Jane Hawking’s autobiography. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the source material, Stephen’s scientific breakthroughs receive relatively little screentime, the film’s focus being on Stephen and Jane’s relationship. The sequences between Jane and Stephen are often touching without being mawkish, and at no point does Stephen appear simply as an invalid. Equally, however, his condition is not glossed over – Jane’s care for Stephen is an integral part of their lives. Some sequences emphasise Stephen’s physical difficulties as well as Jane’s courage and resolve to help him, and the portrayal of managing disability makes the story of the Hawking’s bond believable and compelling. Much of this is down to the committed performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne has already received a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and is a strong contender to win both the BAFTA and the Oscar. His is the type of performance award givers love: a real person who overcomes great adversity in the form of a disability that requires a difficult physical performance. Redmayne achieves a remarkable transformation, his motions and speech steadily becoming restricted as Stephen’s motor neuron disease progresses. Over the film’s narrative of forty years, Redmayne also ages into the role, becoming indistinguishable from popular images of Hawking, his face and body eventually fixed in a recognisable but not caricatured contortion. Redmayne continues to perform Stephen’s soul as well, his eyes speaking volumes of intelligence, sorrow and humour in the later scenes when Stephen becomes mute. But while Redmayne attracts the awards buzz, the equally-nominated Felicity Jones is just as impressive in the less showy role of Jane, and Jones shines in the role of a woman dealing with extraordinary pressure, enormous demands and difficult choices. Her performance is more subtle and restrained, never erupts into histrionics and generates significant empathy.
Perhaps ironically for a film about a scientist, the less effective aspects of The Theory of Everything relate to artistic choices about the science, both narratively and technically. Most grating is the cinematography: early sequences have a distracting blue filter, and many sequences are overexposed, the excessive light in the frame becoming off-putting, while a scene that should be a moving reunion is spoiled by an obvious and clumsy increase of sunlight. Many scenes are shot in soft focus, people’s faces as well as objects given an indistinct edge that makes the substance of the film too nostalgic, the inclusion of home movie footage adding to this unnecessary irritation. It is also disappointing that little is made of Stephen’s discoveries – mathematical equations may not be the most dramatic material, but scientific breakthroughs and Eureka moments can be, clichéd though they are (see Interstellar for an instance of using this cliché effectively). The film’s climax uses reversed action, echoing Jane’s earlier summary of Stephen’s research as “turn back the clock”, and this is also clunky and unconvincing. Overall, The Theory of Everything is an unbalanced equation: the human side of the story is well written and very well acted, but the science is less convincing, constituting both an underdeveloped narrative thread and distracting stylistic flashes.
It is that time of the year when critics decide which films they enjoyed the most and pompously declare that these were therefore the best. In keeping with tradition, I have compiled a list of my top twelve films of 2014, as well as a ranking of every new release this year (with links to my earlier reviews). As always, I missed films that I know I should see, and I will manage some as they come out for home release. But at the end of 2014, here are my top twelve, presented in suitably musical order:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
The movies gave to me
12 Wanted Men
11 Interstellar trips
10 tanking Furies
9 Turing tests
8 alien Skins
7 Gone Girls
I am Groot
4 Apey Dawns
3 Wall Street Wolves
2×6 Slave Years
And the Pride of miners and gays.
Here is a more detailed view.
Top 12 of 2014
A joyous, moving, tear-jerking tale of life-affirming courage and socialist unity.
A searing story of socio-historical importance that cannot be ignored.
A relentless and laugh-out-loud rush of hedonism and debauchery.
An unflinching portrayal of the demise of peace.
A compelling reinvention of a classic figure.
A hilarious, rip-roaring rollercoaster of weirdoes in weird places.
A dark tale of contemporary relationships and trial by media.
A haunting and mesmerising portrayal of embodiment and otherness.
A subtle drama of wars both intimate and global.
A visceral trip through the hell and camaraderie of war.
A staggering journey into wonder.
A grim tale of world-weary espionage.
An inspiring story of courage and redemption with a strong political message.
Laugh, grimace, gasp. Repeat.
Thrills, spills and surprising tears.
A spectacularly deranged rendering of a timeless tale.
Superhero thrills encased in a conspiracy narrative.
A grim, gritty tale of determination and obsession.
A powerful dystopia that applies a teenage angst metaphor to all ages.
A brilliant collage of resonant images, narratives and lives.
A relentless dystopic escalation.
A surprisingly intimate tale of faith and politics.
A beautiful warts-and-all portrait of artistic obsession.
A mournful weepie that deftly avoids the pitfalls of mawkishness and excessive sentimentality.
A brash, bold, blistering action thriller.
A mournful tale of love and grieving.
A beautiful tale of dreams, flight and love.
A creative vigilante thriller with surprisingly progressive politics.
A fun if flimsy action adventure.
Salome & Wilde Salome
A fascinating exploration of obsession and mystery.
Darkly humorous if slightly repetitive revenge thriller.
The weakest chapter of the Middle Earth saga.
An imbalance of tone makes for dissatisfying and inconsistent time-travel paradoxes.
More of the same and lacking in innovation.
Hollow tale of ultimately tedious double-crossing.
Sweeping visuals that fail to make up for retrograde gender politics.
Turkey of the Year
Please. Make. It. Stop. esaelP. ekaM. tI. potS. .potS .tI .ekaM .esaelP aMek. aePles. ptSo. tI.
These transforming words are more fun than the film.
So that was 2014! Who knows what cinematic delights will be along in 2015? The Shadow knows… wait, that was what evil lurks in the hearts of men. Silly me! Anyway, bring it on, 2015, do us proud!
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…
Star Wars (1977)
The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. Contact (1997)
Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Solaris (2002)
Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. WALL-E (2008)
One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. Interstellar (2014)
The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite.
Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.
Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.
This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.
Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?
The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.
For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.