Every year I lose in Oscar-night ballot-offs with my friends. Good thing I don’t bet actual money. You see, I insist on voting with my heart. To wit: last year I voted for Demián Bichir for Best Actor, in part because it suited the We Are the 99%/ Have-Nots vs. Haves mood I was in.

Do my choices amount to mere whimsy? Not at all, particularly considering the context. On schedule, the Academy disappointed us with its lists of nominees — overlooking terrific films, shutting Kathryn Bigelow out of competition for Best Director. Moreover, we all know from those “for your consideration” ads that the studios are pushing hard for their own films to get votes…because, yes, lobbying helps win votes. Moreover, the voting at this stage always entails voting against certain films almost as much as it’s a positive process. In sum, presented with a deeply problematic selection/ voting process, my methods of choosing What Should Win at Sunday’s Oscar Awards Ceremony are better than most. 

Shall we?

best actor

Best Actor(s) in which I opt for emotion over restraint (and the long shots over the bookies) by rooting for Emmanuelle Riva and Joaquin Phoenix. 

The odds-makers tell us these two don’t have a chance. Nor do I have a beef with the likely winners; of course Daniel Day-Lewis was great, and you know how much I love Jennifer Lawrence.

But Riva and Phoenix did things in these roles that I can’t shake from my mind. They took risks they’ve never taken before; I still have memories of the naked, helpless Anne (Riva) being washed by a home health care worker and crying out (“it hurts! it hurts!”); and the emaciated, twisted Freddie (Phoenix) happily pouring various toxins and photographic chemicals into a cocktail shaker for yet one more night of blankness. These are the actors who should win.

best supportingBest Supporting Actor(s) in which I give Lincoln its due and root for Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field

These are dicey categories for me, as I haven’t seen some of the most relevant films (Django Unchained; The Sessions; Les Misérables). And yet I have opinions anyway!

No one with Jones’ accent has any right playing a senator from Pennsylvania, but he was so good here. And oh, Sally Field walked that fine line between despair and self-consciousness so beautifully. 

I haven’t written about the film here. My overall take on it is that it was a beautifully acted and written piece that was marred by ham-handed directing at the beginning and end — I’m sorry, folks, but Spielberg needs to step back from the swelling violins moments. Anyway, speaking of directing ….

best picture directorBest Picture and Best Director in which I abandon all betting wisdom and root for Zero Dark Thirty and Michael Haneke

In two years we’ll look back and see the hubbub that shut Zero Dark Thirty out of serious competition and wonder what the hell people were thinking. In two years we’ll catch Argo getting recycled again on one of those cable channels and think, “Okay, it is a great story, but I can’t believe Hollywood was so utterly fucked that this film won a Best Picture Oscar.”

Hence I’m voting for Haneke for Best Director, as that was the second best film of the year.

best editing cinematogBest Editing and Cinematography in which I maintain that the Academy doesn’t know what these categories really mean, and vote for Silver Linings Playbook and nothing at all for Cinematography.

It’s the editing that made Silver Linings Playbook such a terrifically crackling comedy — I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the editing that stands out the most to me in making this so watchable. I just don’t even see there being any serious competition here, even as I have lavished so much praise on clunkier editing jobs in Zero Dark Thirty and other films.

And on Cinematography: you know what’s likeliest to win? Life of Pi! 90% of which was filmed before a green screen so that special effects could be inserted later!

Now, I understand that such filming can also be exquisite; and indeed, this was a beautiful film to watch. But I’m so exasperated that the eloquent filmmaking of Amour wasn’t nominated (and in that apartment!) as well as Beasts of the Southern Wild that I just want to spit.

best screenplayBest Screenplay(s) in which I root for some underdogs: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom.

I’ll admit it: I’m rooting for Beasts simply because it’s one of the few times a woman was recognized in this year’s Oscar ballot beyond the acting categories. Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin might not have written the best script in the bunch — that might have to be Tony Kushner’s Lincoln — but I’m sticking with my choice for political reasons anyway.

And Moonrise Kingdom. It was just so weird and creative and delightful; just thinking about it makes me want to see it again right now. Lovely.

best foreign animated

And finally: Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Filmthe only categories in which my choices have a pretty good chance of succeeding with Brave and Amour.

Let’s just summarize this by saying, I can’t be wrong all the time. I’d be through the roof if Brave pulls this off.

A few closing choices:

Short Film/Animated: please let it be Head Over Heels, the one true independent in the bunch (and a really great, creative short); see it here!

Costume Designthe one way I want Snow White and the Huntsman to be remembered.

Original Scorethe one way I want Argo to be remembered. (Or, rather, the king-ification of composer Alexandre Desplat.)

We’ll see whether I can catch up on the other short films (live action, documentary short subject) by the end of the afternoon via some creative web searches. And I’ll see you all at the red carpet tonight — during which you can laugh hilariously at my near-complete shutout.

Can we also collectively hold our breaths that emcee Seth MacFarlane isn’t as misogynistic, racist, and otherwise offensive in person as he is as a filmmaker, and/or that better human beings wrote the show? yeah, maybe not.

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The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

There’s nothing like the La Jefitas, is there? No, really, there’s nothing like it. This list of the best 2012 films by and about women — designed to celebrate those female bosses of modern film and subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry — is exactly what we need during years like this one, when not a single female director was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival or at the Oscars. I mean come on.

Plus, the La Jefitas feature much better statuettes.

Just to bring you up to date from yesterday’s winners:

  • Best Actress: Anna Paquin in Margaret
  • Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen: the abortion scene in Prometheus
  • Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass: Gina Carano taking down Michael Fassbender in Haywire
  • Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the YearWhere did all the roles for Black women go?
  • Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012: 2012 was the Year of Fierce Girls Onscreen
  • Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Most Feminist Film: Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?

Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.

Before we finish the awards ceremony, I feel it incumbent on me to discuss the sad fate of my favorite category: Sexiest Scene in Which a Woman Eats Food. This year’s films did not have a single contender for this prize — a sad state of affairs and a sure measure of the state of our world. To be sure, I had a couple of films in which a woman ate food in an incredibly unsexy way (winner: Shirley MacLaine in Bernie) but that’s not the kind of prize I want to offer at all. Filmmakers: fix this, please.

And now on to the exciting 2012 winners!

Best Female-Directed Film:

This was absolutely the hardest category to determine — I even toyed with breaking my films-only rule and awarding it to Lena Dunham for her series Girls. But in the end there was one film I couldn’t get out of my head: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles, which (inexplicably) I never got the chance to write about last year. (Also was inexplicably ignored by the Academy Awards. Do you see why the La Jefitas are so vital?)

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Now this is brilliant filmmaking with a healthy dose of sheer karma. When Greenfield began, she simply wanted to create a documentary about a couple in the process of building the largest house in America, which they had already named Versailles. “In a way, it just seemed like this incredible microcosm of society that showed our values. Both Jackie and David [Siegel] had rags-to-riches stories,” she told Vanity Fair

But after the financial crisis hit and month after month passed by with increasing stress for the family, the director realized she had to change the story of the documentary. If it started out as a story about self-made Americans and their desire to symbolize their success in a house, by the time “they had to put [the half-finished house] on the market, I realized that this was not a story about one family or even rich people,” Greenfield continues. “It was an allegory about the overreaching of America and really symbolic for what so many of us went through at different levels.”

If you haven’t seen The Queen of Versailles, run — don’t walk — to your television and load it up right away. It’ll make you laugh and cringe, but most of all it’s a fascinating cinema insight into our culture’s obsession with wealth and display. Also, just for those scenes of the chaos in the Siegel household after they are forced to let go of so many maids.

Best Uncelebrated Supporting-Supporting Actor:

Jeannie Berlin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. As the best friend of a woman killed in a bus accident, Berlin attracts the attention of the young Lisa (Anna Paquin) for all the wrong reasons. But you can see why she would appeal so deeply. Prickly and no-nonsense, independent but capable of deep love for her friends, and — most important for Lisa — lacking a need for male attention, she seems perhaps to be the perfect replacement for Lisa’s actual mother. Best of all, she wears her Jewishness on her sleeve rather than push it to the side. Her self-possession is most of all marked by the way Berlin chooses to enunciate her words slowly and methodically, which has a surprising power over the emotional mess of a fast-talking teenager, like a balm to her soul. No wonder Lisa feels so suddenly invested in connecting to this woman.

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But she also sees Lisa’s selfishness clearly, and refuses to play a role in Lisa’s mini-drama of denial. It’s a beautiful performance that seems all the more meaningful because the film was so utterly shut out of Oscar competition this year, in part due to its complicated production. Here’s hoping a La Jefita ensures that Berlin gets a lot more work and recognition from here on out (is there a La Jefita bump? let’s find out!).

Best Role for a Veteran Actor Who Is Not Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren:

Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Michael Haneke’s Amour. I only wish I’d seen this film with friends so I could debrief about it and Riva’s performance at length. It’s hard to believe that this magnificent, beautiful performer has only made 14 films since her début in 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I tried many times to write about it here but found myself inadequate to the task; suffice it to say that even with a grim story like this one, the amour triumphs in a way that the inevitability of mortality does not.

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Amour is such a perfect portrayal of a good marriage in its final stage that it’s difficult for me to speak of Riva’s performance separate from that of Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne’s husband Georges. Indeed, I don’t know how the Academy overlooked Trintignant for a Best Actor nomination; the scenes between them are so tender and honest that we’re left with powerfully mixed feelings. On the one hand, it made me desire with all my heart that I will have such a companion when I’m in my 80s (and oh, I’m almost terrified to hope it is my perfect, wonderful partner of today); on the other hand, I hope we will get mercifully hit by a train together on the same day. When it came to playing the role of a woman wrestling with rapidly-advancing debilities of age, Riva gave the role such realistic tenderness and brutality that I swear it must have taken part of her soul. As I watched so many of those scenes, I marveled — how did the 85-yr-old Riva make it through the filming, considering that she must have these same fears of aging on her mind?

Riva’s achievement is all the more impressive because of the stiff competition by veteran actresses this year. Just think of Sally Field in Lincoln and you’ll know whereof I speak; I also include Shirley MacLaine’s comic turn in Bernie and Nadezhda Markina in Elena. Truly: it was a great year for veteran actors.

Best Breakthrough Performance By an Unknown Actor:

No questions here: Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know this film didn’t work for everyone; indeed, the naysayers include big names in cultural criticism. But I believe this film constitutes a visionary outsider’s statement from a child’s point of view — a lovely statement about belonging and existence that ties together deep poverty and wild imagination.

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Wallis is so good that it makes me fret about her future — is she really a major acting talent, or a disarmingly wonderful child whose acting will vacillate as she grows older? Nor am I the only one to ask those questions. It makes me nervous about her Best Actress nomination from the Academy.

But in the end all this second-guessing is unfair to the performance as it appeared in this film, a performance that was just perfect. No child, much less any other 6-yr-old, could have gotten it so right this one time. And with that, I’m looking forward to the next role as eagerly as any of her other fans.

Performance So Good It Saves a Terrible Film … well, no, but almost:

Eva Green in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. I don’t have anything good to say about this film except that every time the evil witch Green showed up, I started having a good time again.

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That blonde wig! The facial twitches! The sex scene in Green’s office! Her gift for physical comedy!

What can we say about the film overall, except that it was confused and that it had a very few funny lines (all of which are helpfully compiled in the film’s trailer)? Yet Green was fantastic. Give this woman more work.

Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films:

They stop what they’re doing and start dancing. I can’t even remember how many times various films this year just stopped what they were doing and featured a great dance number — and I’m not even speaking here about explicit dance films like Pina, Magic Mike, or Step Up 4: Revolution. Remember the weird finale to Damsels in Distress, in which Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody sing the deliciously goofy “Things are Looking Up” and dance awkwardly through a pastoral scene? Or the final act of Silver Linings Playbook, all of it hinging on the goofy routine worked up by two (ahem) non-professionals? In Take This Waltz?

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Or the scene at the homecoming dance when the three leads let their freak flags fly in The Perks of Being a Wallflower?

Once you start to put them together, you find a lot of mini-moments onscreen when films adhered to the old theater maxim, you sing when you can no longer speak, you dance when you can no longer walk. Dancing has the capacity to take us out of the fictional magic of the narrative one step further and launch us into true fantasy. Is it a narrative shortcut? oh, who cares. I love it.

Film of the Year:

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Really: there’s just no question. This would receive my Film of the Year prize even if it had been directed by a man and/or featured a male protagonist.

Nor was it easy for me to let go of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; I even toyed with the possibility of declaring a tie. But I believe Zero Dark Thirty achieves something even beyond the former in working its viewers through the emotional aftershocks of that methodical search for our proclaimed enemy — it wants us as a culture to move away from retribution and toward some kind of catharsis.

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My appreciation for the film certainly doesn’t rest on Jessica Chastain’s performance, which didn’t work for me all the time. Rather, it’s the architecture of the overall film and the accelerating action-film aspects that lead toward an exhilarating (but ultimately distracting). Whereas poor Margaret shows in its fabric the scars of so many cooks in the kitchen, Zero Dark Thirty is just a masterful piece of work that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and Kathryn Bigelow was robbed when the Academy failed to nominate her for a Best Director Oscar.

So there you have it, friends — the year’s La Jefitas! Please don’t hesitate to argue, debate, send compliments (oh, how I love compliments), and offer up new ideas for categories. (You gotta admit, my Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films category should receive a Pulitzer on its own!)

I’m still wrangling with this statement, which I find both fascinating and possibly not quite right — so I thought I’d end my latest dry spell by crowd-sourcing it here.

Michael Moore, the activist filmmaker and writer, recently issued a strong defense of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and rejected the notion that it explicitly or implicitly endorses torture; moreover, he went on to say:

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – a movie made by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring a woman (Jessica Chastain) is really about how an agency of mostly men are dismissive of a woman who is on the right path to finding bin Laden. Yes, guys, this is a movie about how we don’t listen to women, how hard it is for them to have their voice heard even in these enlightened times. You could say this is a 21st century chick flick – and it would do you well to see it.

You see? Fascinating.

globes-hosts-fey-and-poehler_original“It was a great year for film — for women in film. Kathryn Bigelow nominated tonight,” said Amy Poehler in her opening monologue with co-host Tina Fey, to applause and a nice cut to Bigelow in the crowd. “I, um, haven’t really been following the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron.”

 

When film blogger JustMeMike and I agreed back in November to have a conversation about Zero Dark Thirty (which we’ll abbreviate to ZD30 for ease – and which is, of course, the dramatic tale of the CIA’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden), I had no idea that it would receive as many raves, nor so many political criticisms.Jessica-Chastain-in-Zero-Dark-Thirty-2012

My main concern (which I voiced to JMM beforehand): that I’d be disappointed by Kathryn Bigelow’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Hurt Locker, for which she won Best Picture and Best Director prizes at the 2009 Academy Awards.

High expectations, attacks from both sides of the political spectrum (from the left over the film’s depiction of torture; from the right over whether the filmmakers gained access to state secrets), and then the Academy failed to nominate Bigelow for Best Director this year – how does one watch a film fairly given all this chatter?

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No worries about spoilers for the first half of this long conversation – we’ll warn you when we switch over to spoiling big plot points.

JMM: Hi Didion. I’ve been really looking forward to this just as you have. So let’s get this thing going. You mentioned that you were afraid that your expectations for ZD30 were high. Now that we’ve both seen the film, I’ll lay my cards on the table first to say that I was not disappointed at all. Just the opposite — I felt the film was great. What about you?

Didion: I so agree with you. I left the theater in tears, due to a rush of conflicting emotions. I can’t quite believe Bigelow was able to convey these so effectively. I think it’s a really major film — better than anything I’ve seen this year.

Yes: fear of high expectations due to the threat of disappointment. But I’d also read relatively little about the film itself beforehand, so I didn’t realize quite where it would take me.

Can I just start by saying that the opening 1-2 minutes of the film were possibly the most amazing way to get a film started?

JMM: You mean the WTC audio?

Didion: Yes!

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JMM: The WTC voices over a blank screen led to a CIA black site was a seriously affecting jump. Especially since we have no idea of what we will see. Were you amazed because of the unexpected transition or just the impact of the voices taking us back to 9/11?

Didion: Yes: what was so amazing for me made me relive a bit of 9/11. The voices we hear are not ones we heard that day. But you find yourself lost in thought, remembering where you were. And, hence (in my case at least), realizing the extent to which that one day caused a cultural trauma for so many of us. It put me in mind of sitting in a room at school where someone had set up a TV from the A/V room so we could gather and watch the events unfolding. Surrounded by my colleagues and students, all helplessly watching something unthinkable. And then I went home and didn’t stop crying for, what, 24 hours? 48 hours? a week? two weeks?

Now, I don’t quite know how Bigelow knew to do this, or knew how it might affect people in theaters. Or how she chose the voices she did. But it was an amazing way to frame this film, because I think ultimately its tense action scenes are subsumed under its attempt to tell us something about the big wound we’ve all had for the last 11+ years.SUB-24ZERO-articleLarge

JMM: Some have questioned the legitimacy of using those voices — after all, someone could recognize them. I’ll leave that for others to decide. For me the framing was totally unexpected. I even wondered if this was a malfunction in the theater. You know — a gray screen — but I moved past it. As for me, I was crossing the Hudson River from Manhattan to New Jersey, and we were able to see the smoke and flames while on board the ferry. Later we watched on TV and from our own office windows. Yes, we were helpless as well.

Didion: Yikes!

JMM: I find the comment you make about the wound we’ve lived with these many years interesting. It will never leave us — either as individuals or as a nation….

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Didion: Can I ask you something about the film as a whole that’s been debated publicly? Torture. I was prepared to arrive here today and dismiss the charge that the film advocates for torture as a means of getting information. I could certainly develop an argument that falls in line with what Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have said: that it represents the perspectives of CIA figures without endorsing those views.

But honestly, I believe the film gets as close as possible to arguing that torture leads to information — even as it also says that torture helps to procure a bunch of misleading, incorrect, and distracting information as well. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.tumblr_mbr76hqEr21qjaa1to1_1280

JMM: I think the crux of the matter about the film’s position on torture in indeed ambivalent. Those who have decried the film claim that film glorifies torture and that the film misleads by implying that torture led directly to discovery of enough information to mount the Seal Team operation. I don’t agree with that at all, and here’s why.

The first torture scene is two years after 9/11. Not much was gleaned from this particular detainee. The film hardly glorified torture because both Dan and Maya were shown to suffer from being participants, and finally the reality of the process was that it was a combination of dogged detective work which included the sifting through mountains of paperwork, intercepted phone calls, and the development of information provided by informers. That’s why the mission wasn’t mounted until 2011.

So yes, torture was a part of it — but not the only part nor the most important part.

Didion: Really nicely put, JMM. I agree with everything you’ve said; indeed, this is a film that celebrates the dogged pursuit of reasoned, intelligent analysis of masses of information. Too right.

This film also makes it clear that this work is hard on its analysts. Not just because they’re in danger while they live abroad, but because they are so determined, so single-minded, that they lose track of other things in their lives.

This might as well be a scene of my office. Except let's just say the end result of my research doesn't exactly seem as important.

This might as well be a scene of my office. Except let’s just say the end result of my research doesn’t exactly seem as important as Maya’s.

In saying that, I don’t want you to think this is one of those films that pathologizes Maya’s determination, or suggests she’s a pathetic example of a woman with no love interest, no family back home (a tired movie trope if ever there was one). Those things are true, but I thought the film was good at saying thank god she threw herself into her work.

JMM: She certainly did throw herself into her work. By the way, have you any reactions to the way she was perceived first by Dan, then by the CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley, and finally by the CIA Director?

Didion: Right you are to note that I am sometimes prickly about these portrayals!

The film doesn’t milk it, but it shows that her male colleagues call Maya “the girl.” They do so perhaps in part because, as played by Jessica Chastain — with her tiny frame and enormous blue eyes — she doesn’t look nearly as focused/steely as she really is. At an early point, some of her male colleagues have a conversation about her in which they wonder whether she can take it (witnessing the torture, living in hot zones like Pakistan, etc) — and the scene goes like this:

Dan: Don’t you think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?
Bradley: Washington says she’s a killer.

What does all this mean? I think Bigelow chose a frail-looking, wide-eyed actor like Chastain precisely because she’s capable of provoking conflicted emotions in people. The jolt of realizing that someone as innocent-looking as she could be relentlessly single-minded is brilliant.

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Does this jibe with you? And what did you think of Chastain more broadly in the role?

JMM: It wasn’t her physical stature — the other woman analyst, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), was a bigger woman — it was the fact that they chose this work and lived it 24/7 with such an amazing devotion to it. Some have said Maya was obsessed to the point of being psychotic, I don’t agree with that. But yes — the choice of Chastain as the focal point was not something you might have foreseen. It was a great decision, and I’ll give Boal the credit for writing the screenplay that way. From another perspective — I read that Rooney Mara was also considered — but then we would have had the same physical type (tiny woman, big eyes) anyway.

So using Chastain was definitely a major plus. Which leads to another question. Which male character did you think had the biggest impact on you?

Didion: I’d like to say one quick thing about Chastain: she didn’t always work for me. I almost feel like a traitor for saying it, because by the end of the film I saw so clearly why she was a perfect choice for the filmmakers. I believe it’s because there’s something just so jarring about her waves of great hair, no matter where she’s stationed. And there are a couple of scenes early on when I had to fight to believe she really was a CIA analyst. But as I say, by the end of the film it all worked for me.

Damn you, Chastain, and your awesome hair.

Damn you Chastain and your awesome hair.

I love your question about the most effective male character, and it’s hard for me to answer. I think it was Patrick, the squadron leader played by Joel Edgerton — from late in the film when the team finally gets permission to go ahead with the capture/kill plan. He’s the member of the squad who seems most anxious about the plan. His trepidation is so beautifully portrayed.

How about you?

JMM: Let’s back up a bit — you held Chastain’s looks against her earlier in the film? I wouldn’t have expected that from you. This very fact that she wasn’t a plain Jane with dull clothes and whatever to play down her looks seems to me that you would have objected to that….

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Didion: Not held her looks against her — that’s too strong. We’re all used to having gorgeous people in Hollywood films. But her hair was so perfect in every single scene — it stretches credulity for a woman as single-minded as she was. Especially because that particular ‘do of hers takes time. It’s a problem less with Chastain than with the hair & makeup people. (Dan’s hair, in contrast, was absolutely believable.)

Dan Clarke with realistic desert hair

Dan Clarke with realistic desert hair

In retrospect I think Bigelow made choices early in the film to create doubts from the audience about Maya. Can she handle a suspect being tortured? Can she get the higher-ups to buy her theories? All of this is important to see Maya’s development over the course of the film (and the many years intervening).

But as I watched those early scenes (the first hour, even?) I wasn’t sure Chastain was the right choice. This is what I meant to say.

JMM:  Okay. I have it in focus now. Staying with Chastain’s development — I think very early in the initial torture scene, Dan and Maya go out, then return but before they return, he asks her if she wants the black balaclava mask, and she says no. That established her toughness for me right then and there. But that’s not the actress — that’s the script.

Back to the male actors. Just so I know we are talking about. There’s the scene with one guy sitting on a couch and the other tossing the horseshoes. The one tossing them says, “You really believe this story?  Osama Bin Laden? Which part convinced you?” The other indicates Maya and says, “Her confidence.” Which one of those was Edgerton?

The marvelous, trepidatious Patrick (Joel Edgerton)

The marvelous, trepidatious Patrick (Joel Edgerton)

Didion: The non-horseshoe throwing guy with the trust in Maya. The horseshoe guy is Chris Pratt, who plays a real moron on Parks and Recreation — so much so, in fact, that I just couldn’t buy him as a serious character in this film. My reaction against him was so profound simply because he’s so good as a goober on TV. (He is excellent on TV, BTW.)

Chris Pratt, who is too good a comedian on Parks and Recreation for me to take him seriously as a SEAL

Chris Pratt, who is too good a comedian on Parks and Recreation for me to take him seriously as a SEAL

One other very tiny complaint: Bigelow stacked this film with recognizable actors. Here I kept thinking, “Oh, there’s Mark Duplass and Édgar Ramírez!”

No one in film can do this face like Édgar Ramírez. Mmmm.

No one in film can do this face like Édgar Ramírez. Mmmm.

And: “Oh, I’d forgotten James Gandolfini would be in this! Hey, that’s Elizabeth Bennet from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice!” Very tiny complaints, but it did distract me a bit. Especially because I found the discoveries of no-name actors like Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker to be so wonderful.

JMM:   I recognized Mark Strong, and Duplass, Gandolfini of course — but I didn’t have a problem with them. They were identifiable actors in roles we didn’t have names for. Gandolfini was the CIA director — but I don’t think he brought anything to the role — so yes — you’re right to take Bigelow’s to task for the use of those actors.

Not Lizzie Bennet, but rather Jennifer Ehle as CIA agent Jessica.

Not Lizzie Bennet, but rather Jennifer Ehle as CIA agent Jessica.

Didion: A couple more questions before we cut to the latter part of the film (and warn people about spoilers). First, was there anything about the early part of the film that didn’t work for you?

JMM:  Not really. I went in knowing how the story would end, but not the film. Likewise I didn’t know how the film would begin — but I thought it would be a slow start and gain speed as it went on. So I won’t say that the early part didn’t work — instead I’ll say that I liked the latter parts better. Do you have something in mind that didn’t work for you early on?

Didion: Not at all. In fact, I realized after about an hour: that Bigelow has done something truly wonderful in showcasing the work of all these lower-level, on-the-ground individuals working so hard to figure out problems. To focus on them rather than the politicians or the generals isn’t just refreshing; I actually want to say it’s democratic.

Another question: which male character proved most vivid/important for you?

JMM: That’s an easy one. Has to be Jason Clark as Dan, the enhanced interrogation expert which was nothing like what he might have been doing in Langley, Second was that he ultimately decided to return to Langley, as he put it — to a “normal job.” It was good to see him make that career change. It was so difficult watching him do those things to detainees:

Can I be honest with you? I am bad news. I am not your friend. I am not going to help you. I’m going to break you.

So his character arc was very rewarding for me. In fact he was one of the few characters who really changed within the context of the film. Do you agree?Jason-Clarke-Zero-Dark-Thirty

Didion: He was great. A very appealing person — you can see how he was able to play the good guy during his interrogations but also capable of jarring brutality. I also liked the fact that you saw him age by the near-end of the film. It showed what this work does to people.

Okay, shall we switch to the film’s last hour or so? SPOILERS AHEAD!

Zero-Dark-Thirty002-730x365Once Maya gets her suspicions confirmed and the CIA commits to an operation to attack the compound in Abbottabad, the film shifts into overdrive. And I don’t mean it becomes a Tom Cruise-like action film. I thought the methodical, terrifying, and nerve-wracking preparation and detail of the compound scenes were some of the most amazing sequences I’ve ever seen on film. What do you think, JMM — did that work as well for you as it did for me?

JMM:  Did it work for me? Absolutely. In fact, this was easily the highlight of the film. Since we all knew the outcome of the mission, could Bigelow and Boal still make it exciting, and scary, and filled with tension and even fear? I think they easily hit a homerun with that. The fact that nearly all of the mission was viewed through the night vision goggles — gave the scene an otherworldly feel to it. The creeping around corners, or up the stairs…. We were placed in their shoes and we didn’t know who or what would behind the next doorway — this was just a brilliantly planned, conceived and executed piece of film.Zero_Dark_Thirty_-_still

What was it that you felt about it. Was it the feelings the scene created for you, or was it the technical visuals that made it work for you?

Didion: Exactly. The night vision goggles, interspersed with shots from the helicopter — absolutely gripping. But not in a typical action movie way — for maybe three big reasons, as I see it.

First, there’s a moment before the operation when one of the squadron figures (is it Patrick?) warns her that he has lost men in previous missions. I don’t know how to emphasize this enough: the film somehow manages to emphasize the real risk of the operation in a way that seems both gentle and devastating.

Second, the scenes of the entire mission are lengthy and fraught, almost as if it was done in real time. If there’s one thing Bigelow is a true master of, it’s developing a highly detailed and realistic military scenario that doesn’t glorify its characters, but rather emphasizes the true danger. Is there any other director who can do this?

And finally, when was the last time you saw a film that relegated its star to the sidelines for such a crucial sequence? I’m blown away by the fact that this entire part of the film hardly shows much of Maya at all. There’s something about the fact that she, like us, had to experience it vicariously.

I keep emphasizing that this isn’t an action movie kind of sequence. And yet perhaps I’m not quite putting that right. It made me so nervous I almost had the shakes!1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

JMM: Great point: the star is absent from the encounter. I thought so at the time but hadn’t thought of it since. Marvelous way of setting her aside and relegating her to watching it as we did.

The second point is also quite telling — in most previous Bigelow films, I also thought that action was handled not only masterfully, but also in a way that marked it as quite different that the kinds we were used to seeing..

Your first remark — about reinforcing the elements of danger and high risk — Bigelow outfoxed me on that one too. I expected a shooting casualty — not that a whole chopper would go down.

I wondered about the final accounting of the body. We knew from the news reports and Pentagon briefings that the body had been disposed of at sea. How did you react about the fact that Boal and Bigelow decided to NOT include this?zero-dark-thirty-torture-chastain-12172012-144412

Didion: Isn’t it strange — I didn’t think about the issue of the body at all. But I was so moved by the fact that they showed very little of the body. Again: what kind of Hollywood film doesn’t show a bloodied body? We saw more of the other bodies in the house than we did of OBL’s.

JMM: I figured since we never saw an actor portraying Bin Laden — there was no need to show any material views of the corpse.

Didion: And let me say I think this was an extraordinary choice to make. There is no grandstanding. I loved the moment when one of the SEALs says to the shooter, “You killed the 3rd-deck person” in a way that seemed incredulous. None of them can quite absorb the moment. The fact that it’s surreal for them makes it all the more surreal for us.

A rare (and ambivalent) flag shot from the film

A rare (and ambivalent) flag shot from the film

JMM: I’m with you on that. No grandstanding or flag waving. No one could use the term jingoistic to describe it.

There was one scene that caught me completely by surprise. In the sense of I didn’t see it coming: the hotel in Islamabad blown up by a car bomb down on the street. That really shocked me. And it solidified for us exactly how dangerous being in country really was.

Didion: Too right! NO idea that was coming. No wonder I was such a nervous wreck by the end.

The scene that really floored me — and the one that wound up presenting me with so many conflicting emotions: when Maya gets on the aircraft carrier. JMM, tell me why you think that scene is so powerful.

JMM:  I didn’t quite leave in tears but I thought the last few moments with Maya on the big air transport plane, totally alone — with nothing to do — no place to go — and no one to see was a supremely difficult moment for all of us. I think that particular image was deeply affecting.la-zero-dark-thirty-20121219

It spoke of the desolation one might have facing the unknown, or the sense of completion of a difficult task which means you are now facing an emptiness There was no other way to convey the moment — it was Bigelow’s point to temper the success of the mission by showing us that for Maya it might be the forerunner of hollowness or depression.

If people want to talk about torture in the negative sense, then when you look at this — what Maya is left with — this is really horrifying to contemplate.

Didion: I’m so with you. What that scene conveys is that the killing of OBL is almost an anti-climax. The best analogy I can think of is that this must be what it’s like to have a family member murdered, and one dedicates all one’s emotional energy toward catching, convicting, and imprisoning the murderer — only to realize that one still has a lot of grieving to do afterward. We place a lot of emphasis on retribution, but ultimately this film shows that Maya still just has a big hole in her soul the way the rest of us do. It amounts to a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. An amazing achievement.

JMM: Early on I said that the film has been controversial and polarizing. I’d like to talk about a part of that now. A few members of the Actors community have expressed negative perspectives. Chief among those was that they believe Bigelow and Boal were all too comfortable in portraying the torture. While they may have been comfortable about it — I don’t think there was too much of it or too much emphasis placed on the role of torture by the filmmakers. Obviously Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, and David Clennon have the right to express their opinions, but do you believe they are making a fair judgment about Bigelow and Boal’s intent?

Didion: Like I said earlier, this is a tough one for me. If I were the judge in this case, I’d insist that we look at the entire film — and the film as a whole emphasizes such humanity that I would be forced to argue the scenes of torture do not constitute an endorsement. But it’s tricky because the film takes for granted — and does not editorialize about — the fact that agents used torture on detainees, and that it helped them get information. I think Asner, Sheen et al are wrong in emphasis but perhaps close to being right about the slippery nature of those early scenes.

You?ZerodarkthirtyMaya480

JMM: Before I answer, I really don’t want to throw the actors under the bus — but I do think it is interesting that none of them spoke up after President Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed. Was there anyone, anywhere, that rose up and asked how did you get this info. Was torture involved? I don’t think a small Pakistani child called up and said you might be interested to know who lives across the street.

Didion: I think you’ve nailed something important: this film is agonizingly clear about the fact that one cannot trust the information you gain by torture. It simply amounts to yet more information, much of which might be false. Rather, this film advocates for the trained analysts whose job it is to think intelligently and in educated ways about the masses of conflicting information — indeed, about the sheer vast bulk of information.

JMM: I want to ask about a particular scene that did trouble me. And this might have been a bit of the Hollywood in the film — or make that a small bit of overriding luck. They are able to get their hands on a phone — clone it, and then with their sophisticated tools — somehow they end up driving right NEXT to the car with the courier. Did you find that believable? Talk about your needles in a haystack….

Didion: In such a long, methodical film it DID seem improbable (and quite fuzzy on the details), didn’t it?

JMM: I’ll give them time compression — it might have been many long months — but how did they get the phone — I’m a bit unclear on that.

James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini

Didion: So one of the things I said at the beginning of this conversation — a big, sloppy, grand statement — is that it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year. Is that too grand for you, JMM? You’ve seen a lot more films than I have — and have written about them wonderfully, so I imagine you have a strong opinion on this subject.

JMM: I’ll go you one better. I think this was the best film of the year and I think that I have to go all the way back to All the President’s Men to find a film based on real events that I liked as much as ZD30.

I think I measure a film by a number of standards but ultimately always ask whether I was engrossed by the film. Did it captivate me to the extent that I wasn’t bothered by the folks chomping popcorn a few seats away. I was fully and totally invested in this one — and for me, that’s a prime indicator of its excellence.

Didion: Let’s keep slathering on the superlatives, shall we?

As an academic I often find myself squirming when I think real-life events are portrayed in ways that don’t fly. So even though I have no idea what torture looks like, how a black site works, or how CIA operatives figure stuff out, I do know that absolutely none of those depictions onscreen felt phony or Hollywood-ized. For examples, see virtually every Hollywood film made about a historic event.

But I’ll go ya one further: this film is somehow also about us, about we who experienced 9/11 and have not learned to grieve. It leads us through a process of killing the architect of that attack and mass murder, but it does so such that we can get someplace beyond the drive for retribution.zerodarkthirty-2

I don’t know what to say beyond the fact that this is an amazing film — I’ve never seen anything like it. Even All the President’s Men didn’t deal with such subjects like the importance of figuring out who we are once our primary bad guy is dead. Or the fact that once he was dead, he just looked like an ordinary old man.

I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with superlatives. But I’m tempted to say it’s the most amazing film achievement of the last ten years.

JMM: Well if that isn’t the grandaddy of superlatives than I don’t know what is. But I very much liked the reference you made about “who we are”. We are the ones who created the terms Enhanced Interrogation. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil (which ties in with your remark about OBL being “like an ordinary old man”). In the Bourne film, David Straithairn says that the CIA is now ‘‘the sharp end of the stick”.

Didion: Tell me, JMM, have you seen anything else since watching ZD30, and are you now ruined for the rest of the films available in theaters at this time of year?

JMM: Like the detective said to Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Forget it Didion — it’s January — there won’t be anything good coming out for a while. Or at least until April.

Didion: Sigh. I have a long list of things to see in the theater, but I just can’t imagine I’ll be able to see them without being disappointed. How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen ZD30?44692000001_1896977864001_Zero-Dark-Thirty-rev2-t

JMM: You got that right Professor! —

Didion: Many, many thanks, JMM — what a pleasure to talk about this film. Such a stunning piece of work. [Tips her glass in the air]

JMM: My pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with you once more. I’ll raise my glass to that too!

The Academy released its Oscar nominations this morning, and they did not include a nomination for Kathryn Bigelow’s directing of the film Zero Dark Thirty, which stars Jessica Chastain.

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Bigelow and the film have already won big in other competitions. The film has won 6 Best Film prizes, and Bigelow has won 4 Best Director awards. This outpaces Steven Spielberg’s achievements thus far for Lincoln, which has received two Best Film prizes and zero Best Director prizes. All three times these two directors went head to head in a competition — the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, the Satellite Awards, and the Washington, DC Film Critics Association Awards — Bigelow won.

Let me ask the obvious: why does the Academy select up to ten films for its Best Picture category (including Zero Dark Thirty) but only five for Best Director? In the last several years the dividend between those two categories has inevitably seen female directors ignored. I liked The Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook a lot. But these films do not rise to the mastery of Bigelow’s work, nor to its cultural importance more broadly.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Academy Awards are the biggest, most visible prizes to be earned in film in the US. Too bad they reflect an old boys’ network looking out for their own.

brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.