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Thursday, Feb 1, 2007


A new month, a new line up on your local premium movie channels. Granted, in celebration of African American history, it would be nice to see more efforts by minority moviemakers. But Hollywood and its distribution arm being what it is, limited access for works outside the marketing mainstream are not that easy to come by. Until they get their aesthetic head screwed on right, here are the potential entertainment avenues one can explore, starting on 3 February:
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Premiere Pick


Rize


They call it krumping and it got its start when a kids party clown from South Central Los Angeles decided that urban gatherings needed something more than magic tricks and balloon animals. It wasn’t long before the fad became a phenomenon, with crews setting up and competing against each other in mesmerizing demonstrations of passion and movement. Introduced to the style by some dancers on the set of a music video, photographer and director David LaChappelle decided that someone needed to make a film about this new street theater. The result is one of the best statements on the artistry inherent in the human body ever created. While the personalities featured (including Tommy, the man who started it all) have compelling individual stories, when they start dancing, they speak a unique universal language that transcends their sobering situations. (3 February, Showtime, 7:30PM EST)

Additional Choices


King Kong (2005)


It was a personal dream of Peter Jackson to remake this Hollywood horror classic, and the New Zealand auteur did the big ape proud. This is one of the best films of 2005, grossly undervalued by critics looking to slam the man responsible for the stellar Lord of the Rings trilogy. (3 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

Running Scared


Don’t come looking for Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. This 2006 attempted action film by South Africa’s Wayne Kramer (The Cooler, Mindhunters) centers around a drug deal gone bad, and the disposal of a dirty gun. Some may find the forced fireworks compelling. Others will simply be bored. (3 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


The Benchwarmers


With only Napoleon Dynamite‘s Jon Herder to recommend it, this low brow comedy (also featuring Rob Schneider and David Spade) is your typical ‘dorks against destiny’ sort of effort. If you like your humor limp and uninspired, with enough references to bodily fluids and groins to get you grinning, by all means sign up. (3 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick


In the Bedroom


In 2001, actor Todd Field came out of what seemed like nowhere (he had been making independent short films since the early ‘90s) to direct this devastating look at a family falling apart after an unusual tragedy strikes their home. Featuring amazing acting turns by British heavyweight Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, and enough moral twists and turns to flesh out the suspense, what we end up with is a kind of corrupt American Gothic, a movie that expertly illustrates and then shines a glaring light on the dark side of the human condition. Unsettling and uncompromising, it’s no wonder Field went on to make one of 2006’s best efforts, the stagnancy in suburbia drama Little Children. Such a one two punch assures audiences that this is one filmmaker to watch in the future. (3 February, IFC, 9:05PM EST)

Additional Choices


All About My Mother


Spain’s Pedro Almodovar looks at all facets of womanhood in what many have frequently cited as his masterpiece. Indeed, this complex story of love and loss feels more like a summation of his brilliant career than a singular cinematic effort. (6 February, IFC, 9PM EST)

Cape Fear


Martin Scorsese tread carefully when conceiving this remake of the 1962 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum classic. By upping the ick factor – both physically and psychologically - he ended up equaling (and some say, surpassing) the original. (6 February, Sundance, 10PM EST)

The List of Adrian Messenger


While it’s mostly a sly whodunit, this John Huston film also employed a weird gimmick to get audiences in the theater. Five famous stars played cameo roles in heavy disguise. The results were rather odd, to say the least. (7 February, Sundance, 7:15PM EST)

Outsider Option


The Battle of Algiers


There is perhaps no better time in global history to revisit Gillo Pontecorvo’s devastating look at the chaos and corruption of war. Dealing with the near impossible task of defining what exactly is revolt, this documentary style masterwork touches on terrorism, sovereignty, individual rights and governmental rule. By employing a group of unknowns (some not even professional actors) and using a riveting cinema verite style, Pontecorvo illustrated the personal toll armed conflict takes, delivering scenes of staggering brutality and bravery. For his work, the director was nominated for an Oscar – a rarity for a non-American. Even today, the film still has a heavy emotional and political impact. As a matter of fact, rumor has it the film was screened by Pentagon officials as part of strategy sessions on Iraq. Not bad for something made 40 years ago. 


(4 February, Turner Classic Movies, 10:15PM EST)


Additional Choices


The Beguiled


Not your standard Civil War drama. Clint Eastwood is a prisoner at a Confederate All Girls School. There he learns the hard lesson that war may be Hell, but the wrath of a group of women scorned can be a whole lot worse. (4 February, Encore Western, 6:10PM EST)

Blood Simple


Like a lightning bolt shot out of a canon, the Coen Brothers announced their unique genius with this nasty post-modern noir. Believe it or not, the filmmaking duo only got BETTER after this. (5 February, Flix, 11:15PM EST)

The Madness of King George


With many of the original cast repeating their roles for the big screen adaptation, this delightful drama from playwright Alan Bennet looks at the royal who lost the American colonies, and the insanity that undermined his rule. (6 February, Movieplex, 7PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jan 31, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: Doris Wishman redefines “the roughie”.

Bad Girls Go to Hell



It’s the lure of the city that calls them, the bright lights matching the twinkle in their eyes and the sparkle of their high hopes. Sensible shoes wear a groove into the pavement as deep as the despair in their hearts as they learn that their fantasy easy street is actually a bleak boulevard of broken dreams. Few survive, and even fewer stay. For those with drive and determination, something close to a living can be squeezed out from in between the hustle and bustle. For others, it’s back alleys and underground clubs filled with sleazy users just waiting for the new crop to rotate in.


And it’s these lost, lonely and desperate women that become the focus of the urban roughie movies of Doris Wishman. In a career that fluctuated between innocent nudist colony films and all-out hardcore pornography, no one understood the metropolitan landscape and its ability to steamroll one’s soul better than Doris did. Her bleak, brave tales of big city seduction and violent passions reflected the times and tenure of America circa 1965-66 better than any mainstream movie or filmmaker. Bad Girls Go to Hell is a masterwork of miscreant behavior and a lost love letter to a social era where men feared the sexual power of women and would do anything to keep it neatly in check.


In the film, our heroine Meg Kelton goes about her daily chores. As she is cleaning the kitchen and taking out the garbage, she is attacked and savaged by the brutish landlord of her apartment building. When he later threatens to tell her husband about the incident, she meets him at his apartment, where she is again assaulted. But this time she bludgeons the bully to death. Frightened and alone, she heads to New York, where she encounters a series of good Samaritans, each with seemingly innocent offers of help. But sooner or later, each situation turns indecent and Meg finds the lecherous landlord’s murder catching up with her.


The creation of the so-called “roughie” is a complicated and critical step in the forward momentum of drive-in and grindhouse adult entertainment. Prior to its appearance as part of the exploitation oeuvre, sex on film was either naughty or nice and usually a little of both. The nudist camp saga showed skin as part of an imagined scientific examination of the lifestyle (mixed with a little tabloid titillation). The nudie took it one step further, making the location insignificant and the amount of body bared ample.


Later, tease would turn into flat-out fornication, where no one shed their clothes unless they meant to press and prod the flesh. These soft-core sexcapades would even veer off into wild and warped “ghoulies,” where gore and murder were added to spice up the sordidness. The roughie, however, existed in that strange middle zone between the tame and the tawdry, in an arena both twisted and tantalizing. The formula was simple enough: feature the man/woman or woman/woman dynamic as a seedy balance of lust and violence, where a man would slug a woman as soon as kiss her, and the woman would sheepishly respond to both.


In these urban decay dramas, sex was power, used to control and contain. Women who understood or flaunted this knowledge were shown the back of a hand or a belt. Only men were allowed to exploit the act for any interpersonal gain. But sex was also seen as comfort, a means for lost souls to find that temporary moment of connection, where loneliness concedes to lingering caresses under the sheets. However, these acts of sensual salvation were always punished. Men did not want women comprehending the power and the glory that existed as part of their physical make-up, aspects never to be explored together.


Socially, it is understandable where this cinematic philosophy comes from. The ‘60s were a time of great sexual and personal liberation, where women came into their own as sensual and political beings. Gone were the meek mousy housewives of the ‘50s. In their place were ripe, passionate pieces of erotic fruit. Before the games of suburban roulette, where husbands took back control and traded vows (and wives) for keys to the kinky kingdom, the roughie marked a time when men attempted payback for the loss of sexual and gender power. And in the soiled, soggy streets of the metropolis, within the walls of its catacomb like apartments, the battle of the bruised sexes played out.


There is no denying that director Doris Wishman understands this metropolitan landscape, aware as to how to translate its power and pulse into a raw cinematic sensation. She focuses on the little moments, the small slices of the city that exemplify and accurately paint a portrait of life in New York. She refrains from long shots of Manhattan, or perfectly framed compositions of tall buildings scraping the sky. Instead, she leads us down back streets and into tiny neighborhoods and boroughs where people struggle to exist. We linger in the city’s few remaining open spaces, desolate and serene as large monolithic apartment blocks overlook the fertile land like greedy developers. In these sequences she captures the city as simultaneously oppressive and infinite, the cell structure living rooms opening onto streets of endless seduction and sin. And like the magic that only the movies can provide, the monochromatic color scheme creates the only sense of black and white that will exist in this world filled with gray areas. There are no winners or losers in this Gotham, just the walking wounded, waiting for someone to dress their battered bodies and shattered lives.


As a director, Wishman never cast for beauty or good looks. She wanted her actors to embody the desire, the defects, and the destinies of their characters. She picked men who exuded Scotch and cigarettes, wearing their wounded male pride on rolled up shirtsleeves stained with blood, nicotine, and lipstick. As for the women, they all had hair piled high on their head like a bouffant crown or frame, and bodies bound under fishnet unitards and undersized brassieres. Their aura silently screamed desire and fertility from beneath their weathered unusual attractiveness, their glamour and good looks offset by the sharp edges of a life unfulfilled and the severe vogue of the current fashion. Everyone seems exhausted, as if beaten down so hard by the world that Hell was still somewhere high above. Acting talent or temperament was of no concern. As long as they looked the part on screen, Doris would find a way to make the performance work. It has been noted that, like Fellini, Wishman never recorded live sound with her films. Everything, from effects to dialogue, was dubbed in later during post. While this is not always true, it does exist here and it adds another layer of foggy, depersonalized confusion as to who and what we are watching. Characters become moral enigmas, too astray to speak in their own voices, too dulled and sullied by life to own a distinct, individual personality.


In her films, Wishman employs standard melodramatic plot lines and then inverts the parameters to impose illicit acts and criminal vice into the fray. Bad Girls casts our heroine as a carnal Candide, living from one sexual misadventure and debasement to the next. No circumstance is safe for her, not the kindly couple with the room for rent, not the lesbian hooker with a gold plated dime store heart. For Meg, men and women are a constant threat, one looming over and ogling her in ripe desire for defilement. She finds herself caught in a never-ending pool of prurience that comes when one forsakes their virtue for a life of vice. While this may be reading too much into what should be a standard exploitation narrative, Bad Girls does have something to say about the social and biological politics between man and woman, between the so-called weaker sex and the caveman king of the castle. There is no courting, no sweet talk or handholding. It’s a story of men looting women like sexual candy stores, stuffing their mouths and grabbing goodies by the fistful. And all these unlucky ladies can do is grind and bear it for another vanished day.


Newcomers to the genre may wonder what all the amateurish fuss is about. After all, there are probably 75 shots of shoes in Bad Girls Go to Hell alone. Wishman loves to move away from the action, from the groping and humping and onto inanimate objects like a fruit basket or a clown wall hanging. Some will argue that this is done to avoid the decency and censorship laws, but a trained eye looks deeper, and sees a message. These are not acts of love. This is not an erotic exchange. This is violent, rough sex play for authority, and no one needs to see it directly. Wanting to watch means acceptance and compliance. The extended shot of a desk set symbolizes the deplorable nature of what is going on. But what about the continuity errors, the bad dubbing, and the horrendous under/over acting? Again, all of it exists to set a tone and tarnish the tales being told. Doris Wishman was a woman making movies about the corruption of woman. Her celluloid crime scene is riddled with the evidence of honor usurped, of dignity fouled.


 


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Tuesday, Jan 30, 2007


Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to dismiss Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. Oh, he’s just a glorified genre director, some might say, pointing to his initial forays into fear with such works as Cronos and Mimic. Others look directly to his comic book efforts, from the only decent installment in the Blade series (#2) to his magnificent makeover of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and deny his inherent ability. Even his defiant history lesson from 2001, Espinazo del Diablo, El (The Devil’s Backbone) is viewed as more of a ghost story than a grand artistic statement.


But with the release of Laberinto del Fauno, El (Pan’s Labyrinth) and the surrounding critical clamor, Del Toro is finally finding the respect that his films have long mandated. And there’s a good reason for all the accolades. Without modifying his cinematic approach, and staying true to his vibrant vision of a world constantly weakened by elements both fantastical and fatal, this fascinating fable of a little girl’s hellish existence amongst the Post-war Fascists of Franco’s Spain is simply stunning. It’s a testament to human will and the power of the mind to make substitutes and sacrifices for the horrors all around us.


When we first meet Ofelia, our world-weary juvenile heroine, we immediately see the toll this national uprising has taken on its people. It is written all across her wrinkled brow. She’s a tired child, her face formed into an almost constant state of sorrow. In her hands she carries several books, her only escape from an existence without security, without love, and most recently, without a father. All of these factors will play an important part in Del Toro’s designs. He will take this innocent’s fears, amplify them via an alternative narrative based in classic Brother’s Grimm-like fairytales, and create a kind of commentary on the harsh realities of life during wartime.


Moving from the city to the country, Ofelia is at the whim of her situation. Upon arrival, she meets a friendly face in Mercedes, one of the few adults who actually considers Ofelia more than merely an under-aged nuisance. At this point, we expect the movie to be a kind of indirect parent and child partnership, a desperate rebel sympathizer and an impressionable kid trying to stay safe inside a realm of deception, despair and death. Ofelia’s actual mother is pregnant, the suggestion being that she sold out her husband and carried on with the corrupt Captain Vidal, resulting in the spouse’s death and her current delicate condition. Indeed, the subsequent marriage and move to a more secure rural location is killing her, making Ofelia even more fearful of her status.


Within this setting, Del Toro then subverts the story. Instead of focusing solely on Mercedes and Ofelia, both characters take off in different directions. As the maid with radical motives helps the freedom fighters in the hills, Ofelia explores the garden maze just off the primary path to the Captain’s headquarters. There, she finds the fairies of her books, and an earthen spiral staircase that leads to the realm of the title faun - a half man, half beast who holds the keys to the child’s chance of survival. He will provide her with three challenges, each one testing a specific mantle. If she passes each one, there’s a promise of passage into a realm of happiness and hope.


It’s here inside this rather complicated set-up, battles with fantastic creatures juxtaposed against real life combat, the gaining of magical objects and powers presented alongside the spilling of actual blood, where the movie finds its focus. But surprisingly enough, Del Toro is not trying to spin a simultaneous allegory – Ofelia’s trials vs. those of Spain in general. No, in each one of the little girl’s tests, choice is a key component. In essence, Del Toro is attempting to describe and define conviction, to show how opportunity meshed with option creates decisiveness, and with it, purpose and assurance. Indeed, Ofelia’s adventures are all about defiance and discovery, centering on confrontation with hope the ultimate prize.


Take her journey into the lair of the Pale Man. She has been warned by the faun Pan not to eat or drink anything found on the disturbing figure’s table. She is to pursue her goal and nothing else. Yet the little girl, given over to feelings of being left out and ignored, can’t refuse the inviting items spread out along this baneful banquet. She makes a minor decision, one she thought was meaningless since it was so insignificant in the grand scheme of her quest. Yet the repercussions are truly terrifying, and the long term ramifications lead to one of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s most important points. Del Toro is showing how one small decision can snowball into a life or death disaster – and how we never consider the consequences at the time we make the choice.


A lot of Pan’s Labyrinth plays on such subtexts. When we learn that the house doctor is also a rebel sympathizer, that Captain Vidal is a tripwire psychopath that can kill a man as easily as he can order a meal, that an unborn child can become a bargaining chip in the ongoing clash between people and politics, we recognize the director’s complicated designs. He is showing us how most people parlay their everyday existence into a series of conflicts and compromises, living with the judgments they make and suffering in silence with the secret strategies they find important. By giving us the little girl’s learning curve, and placing it alongside people who have already discovered these lessons, Del Toro is piecing together his own puzzle – and the images it shows are unsettling indeed.


There will be those put off by the brutality of Franco’s soldiers, their mindless destruction of their fellow Spaniards all in the name of “winning and losing”. Vidal even states that the reason behind the genocide is really just a matter of supporting the proper position. “They just don’t recognize who won” he says, and he wants to make sure that the individuals plotting their resistance pay the price for such ignorance. Unlike The Devil’s Backbone, which was more supernatural in its tone, Pan’s Labyrinth is a bloodier, more visceral experience. While not obsessed with gore, Del Toro does not shy away from the grotesque that accompanies hostilities. Torture is not downplayed – its physically corrupting consequences are shown in sickening, shocking realism.


But it’s the fantasy facets that really astonish us. Bringing an unbridled imagination to the movie’s main setpieces, Del Toro delivers amazingly memorable entities, from the insect like fairies to the giant toad who holds a magic key in its mucus-lined mouth. Pan himself is a combination of the seductive and the sinister. We can never truly decipher his motives, and there are moments when we wonder if he too is manipulating Ofelia for some other ominous purpose. From a purely visual standpoint, Pan’s Labyrinth stands alongside the works of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam for unbelievable optical flair, and just like these amazing auteurs, Del Toro’s incorporation of such material is seamless. We never once doubt that what we see is being experienced by Ofelia, or the other characters in the film.


With its flawless performances, amazing combination of exquisiteness and cruelty, and careful narrative construction that builds to one of the more superb endings in recent memory, Guillermo Del Toro has finally delivered his mainstream missive, a film that argues so effectively for his abilities that it can’t be easily dismissed as the ravings of a horror nut or a superhero scenarist’s filmic fluke. No, when the history of foreign film is finally written, Del Toro and his fellow Mexican filmmakers (Alfonso Cuoran, Alejandro Iñárritu) will argue that, in 2007, they illustrated that, as a language, cinema is both international and insular, a product of both the artform and the individual working within it. And no one has more inner demons to deal with and defend than fantasy’s new agent provocateur.


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Monday, Jan 29, 2007


If you’re into cinematic cheese, this week brings a heady combination of campy cheddar and goofy Gruyere. Even our SE&L pick is one of the Fall’s least anticipated films (though we here at the blog dug its ADD inspired trailer), while the alternate title is one of horror’s most repugnant offerings. In between, you’ll find failed jingoism, lame lampooning, sobering science fiction, and one of the most misguided action films ever helmed. It’s enough to make you save your disposable income for next week’s stellar line-up. In any case, here are the selections for 30 January:


The Marine


Every once in a while, even the most considered film fan needs a cleansing motion picture purgative. A few weeks back, the Jason Statham epic Crank was the entertainment ipecac du jour. This time around, Vince McMahon and his WWE-based film division give John Sena his own ‘80s throwback action film. Presenting the simplest of stories – a former jarhead must save his wife from wisecracking jewel thieves – and lots of explosions (no, make that LOTS of EXPLOSIONS!!!) first time filmmaker John Bonito shows great adeptness at creating cinematic fireworks. An extended chase scene along a busy highway crackles with kinetic energy, and the many fight scenes rely heavily on Cena’s ‘boytoy as bruiser’ abilities. If you want big, dumb and loud, this is your E-ticket to excess.

Other Titles of Interest


The Arrangement


Based on his own novel, Elia Kazan’s story of second chances is one of the director’s least remembered efforts. Featuring Kirk Douglas, a very young Faye Dunaway and Deborah Kerr, the tale of a rich man looking for happiness after a near death experience is a dense, performance-based piece from a man known for eliciting amazing acting turns. 

Farce of the Penguins


On paper, it should work. Comic Bob Saget sends up March of the Penguins, dragging famous ‘voices’ Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Alexander, Lewis Black, and Gilbert Gottfried in for the South Pole satire. Unfortunately, nature footage supplemented with silly jokes is just not that funny. Some may find the combination clever. Most will prefer the original doc.


Flyboys


Dean Devlin, famous for strident summer blockbusters like Independence Day and Stargate lends his producing cred (and rumor has it, own money) to this superficial story about American flyers who volunteered to help the French before America entered World War I. Nothing more than an old fashioned ‘why we fight’ effort loaded with up to date technology.

Gymkata


After his success in International Gymnastics, it was hoped that Kurt Thomas could translate his athleticism into the action hero genre. The result was this loony movie, a strange story of a small country, it’s militarily strategic land, and a weird competition called The Game. Add in the title talent and you’ve got an amazingly misguided mess.

Looker


Before he was known for his mega-blockbusters like Jurassic Park (and on TV, ER) Michael Crichton tried to make serious sci-fi in the face of the growing Star War-ing of the genre. Ahead of its time, this bit of plastic surgery speculation offers Albert Finney, James Coburn, and a terrifying take on the ‘anything for beauty’ ideal.


And Now for Something Completely Different


Maniac


Boy, did this movie cause a fright film firestorm when it was first released. Featuring a sleazy sexploitation vibe, and autopsy like make-up effects by noted terror technician Tom Savini, this seedy addition to the slasher genre found filmmaker William Lustig delivering a dark and disgusting take on the new slice and dice fad. About as far removed from Halloween and Friday the 13th as you can get, what we have here is a disturbing story of a man (Joe Spinelli) who kills and mutilates women to compensate for the abuse he experienced as a child. Placing their freshly shorn scalps on mannequins, he hopes to quell his pain and anger. Considered horribly misogynistic at the time, the decades have not really lessened its grotesque grindhouse impact.

 


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Sunday, Jan 28, 2007


It’s about time we faced facts as film fans. The Oscars are really out of touch. It’s not just the usual omissions and snubs – this year’s avoidance of Dreamgirls no exception – or the ‘holier than thou’ hierarchy it lords over all other awards. No, it seems that, ever since the ‘70s renaissance in cinema, the Academy has missed opportunity after opportunity to reward actual artistry. Say what you will about the last five Best Picture winners – Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago and A Beautiful Mind – but all except one will remain an aesthetic afterthought when it comes to a final filmic analysis. Indeed, looking back to Midnight Cowboy in 1970, the one time studio shill fest, designed as a kind of self-congratulatory salute to itself when it began in 1929, is starting to stink of industry insularity all over again.


When Crash defeated everyone’s odds on favorite, Brokeback Mountain, last year, people seemed to sense that all was not right with the glorified golden statue. It was rare that such a hit or miss production, a film that received as many pans as it did praise walked away with the top honors of the year. Listen to people pontificate, and they’ll point to Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, and Titanic as recent examples of the big show getting it wrong. Granted, the alternates for each one of the aforementioned is hard to delineate – it’s hard to argue that The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, or Elizabeth deserved to be in the same category as Saving Private Ryan (which Shakespeare beat for the award). No, what cinephiles fail to take into consideration when criticizing the Oscars is that many of the great films, many of them considered classics of the artform, never even make it to the nomination phase.


Take the 2002 BFI List of the Top Ten Films of All Time. Vertigo (#2), The Rules of the Game (3#), Tokyo Story (#5), 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6), Battleship Potemkin (#7) and Singing in the Rain (#10) all failed to make the Academy cut. Of the rest, The Godfather films (#4), Sunrise (#8) and 8 ½ (#9) actually won, while Citizen Kane (#1) received a Best Picture nod, but was beat by How Green Was My Valley. While its easy to argue the BFI selections, what’s obvious is that a yearly awards ceremony, especially one guided by politics, campaigning, knee-jerk pop culture reactions, and occasional outright incompetence can’t be counted on to determine the greatest movies ever made. Indeed, as stated before, it can barely get the choices from specific years correct.


This year, Dreamgirls was crowned the de facto winner by more than a couple of cinematic know it alls. As far back as October, those in the know (meaning anyone invited or privy to exclusive industry screenings) picked the Chicago wannabe as musical manna from Heaven. As the minority representative of the cinematic song and dance renaissance, those lucky enough to warrant an early glance were praising the performances and the filmmaking as if no other movie could walk in its superiorly crafted footsteps. When that joke of a journalistic organization – the Foreign Press Club – picked the late December release as its Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, the Oscar nom was signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mail that memo to the people over at Price Waterhouse. When Selma Hayek and AMPAS President Sid Ganis announced the five choices for 2006’s Best Picture, Dreamgirls didn’t make the cut.


Bill Condon and crew shouldn’t care. They are in very good company. United 93, a film debated and deconstructed since its early April release was also supposed to be a shoe-in. So was Little Children, the Todd Fields scourging of suburbia and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuoran’s amazing future shock social commentary. Sadly, they will all have to settle for vindication in the lesser categories. Then there were those complicated, occasionally misunderstood movies that made several Best of Lists – The Prestige, The Fountain, Inland Empire – that many felt really represented the best of what post-millennial moviemaking had to offer. Even Borat was bandied about as a potential Oscar choice, since the industry is always willing to reward a newcomer who brings something fresh and original to the overall dynamic.


On the flip side, almost all of the five films that finally made the cut have major detractors. Aside from The Departed, which got universally glowing reviews, and The Queen which has parlayed its pitch perfect performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen into more than a little comprehensive appreciation, each potential winner has its fair share of critics. Probably the clearest two examples of contentious nominations are Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. Each one has loud detractors – the main condemnation being that each effort is cloying, scattered and lacking real narrative focus – and, oddly enough, both are now the favorites to win the award. It’s Crash all over again, except this time, there’s no agenda-oriented darling waiting to be disappointed. Indeed, with no one film making the pitch as overall favorite, Oscar has done something strangely similar to its decisions of the past – it has picked a group of nominees that tend to flatter the film that eventually wins.


In this case, if Little Miss Sunshine picks up the trophy - as it did recently at the Producers Guild of America - it will be seen as a victory for the small, independent feature, a direct slap in the face of a film like The Departed that has big budget, high profile performers filling out its artistic reality. Babel – a real example of love it or hate it histrionics - has the same A-list pedigree and when it took home the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture, it pushed its way beyond the rest of the foreign filmmaking pack. Letters of Iwo Jima remains the wild card, Clint Eastwood proving more popular among Academy members than he is elsewhere in the entertainment community. For most groups, this look at the war from the Japanese side, featuring a non-English speaking cast and dialogue delivered in subtitles, was a better Foreign film choice than Best Picture candidate.


Now there are some who contend that Oscar really reserves recognition for the year’s best in other, less prominent categories. They point to examples of wins in Best Original Screenplay (The Coen Brother’s Fargo, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) and Best Director (Ang Lee, Roman Polanski) as ways of determining artistic merit. This year appears no different. Paul Greenglass gets back for the United 93 snub here, and Children of Men finds itself fighting for recognition among the Best Adapted Screenplay throng. Even overlooked efforts like The Prestige appear in the technical awards (Art Direction and Cinematography) and some unlikely nominees– Marie Antoinette, Apocalypto, The Good German – turn up here as well. They would call it “spreading the wealth”. Most film fans would consider it avoided complete embarrassment.


It’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards, an organization that failed to recognize the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa (and, NO, those late in life Honorary nods don’t count). And there are times when they get it right, even in spite of themselves. But as the new millennium motors along, it is becoming clearer and clearer that a Grammys style revamp is in order. If Babel or Little Miss Sunshine wins, the chasm between critics, film community, and the general public will grow wider and more antagonistic. While no one expects a more People’s Choice approach, or even a broadening of the nomination criteria, it is clear that the same issues that plagued the documentary branch (which still is less than perfect) are complicating the major motion picture picks.


By moving the awards up a couple of weeks, and avoiding the intense lobbying that went on in year’s past, Oscar is trying to remove both the predictability and the relevance from its annual love-in. While many might see this as a step in a positive direction, those whose tastes run more toward the unusual and eccentric will continue to see their choices ignored, their well-honed aesthetic substituted for a mob rule mainstream mindset. And as long as this kind of collective approach continues to dominate the Academy, their all but predestined picks will continue to fall further and further out of classics consideration.


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