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?

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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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According to Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects will be his last film — for a while, at least. “The tyranny of narrative is starting to frustrate me,” he explained to New York Magazine not long ago about his decision to do other forms of art. “Or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”

I want to celebrate that decision. Just because Soderbergh’s so good at his craft doesn’t mean the work is necessarily enjoyable to him year after year. Anyone who’s read the Harry Hole novels by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø can see that you can be eminently skilled at something and yet find that your job is slowly killing you. And so, upon seeing this last Soderbergh film and wrangling for the last 24 hours with its ending … well, I think I’m okay with his taking a break. film-sideeffects-500-3

After seeing the film with superior friend and excellent human being Aldine, we sidled up to a bar to debrief. (The timing of our debriefing was important, as we planned to follow up by stuffing ourselves so full of Ethiopian food as to be incapable of higher thought). The bartender asked if the film was good. What does one say to those questions?

Here’s a provisional answer: there’s a sweet spot in the film, during its second quarter or so, when you have no idea where the story is going. It keeps tipping out of your reach, tempting you with possibilities and then feinting in new directions. Is this going to be a story about a Lazy Psychologist? about the Bad Pharmaceutical Industry? about the Guilt And Responsibility? about the Subconscious Gone Wrong? When I say sweet spot, I mean that I stepped out of myself for the moment and wondered if this was going to be the best thriller ever.

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I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? you see, this is how the tyranny of narrative works; I started telling you about Soderbergh’s last film, and then started telling you about the bartender who wanted to know whether it was good — and all because that’s how it followed in my life (except for the intervening 24 hours, in which Aldine and I had a successful trip to Nieman Marcus and drank more cocktails). I should at least offer up a squib of the film’s plot. A proper film comment always lays out the plot.

How’s this: Emily (Rooney Mara, looking not at all like a girl with a dragon tattoo) brings her husband home from prison after a term for insider trading, but all the while she’s slipping into a terrible depression, a “hopelessness,” she calls it. Not that anyone would doubt it, with her big eyes and little-girl teeth and pale, pale skin. In one particularly grim moment, she gets into her car and drive straight into a brick wall. In another even better moment, she accompanies her husband to an uncomfortable cocktail party on a yacht with some of his former colleagues, only to see herself distorted in a mirror and lose it.0fbdfc7545f4a27773187dd4bbef4389

The psychologist who takes her case, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), earnestly seeks out appropriate pharmaceutical help by ticking through a list of anti-depressants, many of which she has taken and rejected in the past for their debilitating side effects; he even consults with her prior psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones, doing an exaggerated version of “I am a professional”). Eventually they settle on a new one called Ablixa (oh, lordy, how I love that minor plot point alone).

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Ablixa’s awesome. Emily gets her sex drive back, enjoys happy days in the park with her husband, and ceases feeling nauseated. The only side effect is an alarming tendency to sleepwalk. And thus the film hustles us toward that perfect sweet spot of the second 30 minutes or so, as it establishes a dark undertone to the narrative, gives us a horrifying scene of violence, and proceeds to pull us in different directions as the director inspires you with the pleasure of trying to guess where it’s going.

Side-Effects-Jude-Law

Now, I’ll tell you what I told the bartender: yes, it’s good. You always know when you walk in to a Soderbergh film that you’re going to be interested, that the cinematography will be unusually evocative, and that he’ll offer up some surprises.

But what I found so odd about Side Effects — and so disappointing — were the specific ways the film ultimately commits to a storyline, and the film’s overall determination to be as crystal clear as possible. And as that narrative emerges in all its clarity, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Not least because it trots out some old chestnuts (I won’t reveal them here, but honestly, Steven?); but most of all because you feel as if Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, decided the whole story needed to be over-explained and wrapped up in an excessively tidy box with a bow, as if it was no longer a thriller about the unknowns of real life but in fact a repackaged Ocean’s Eleven in which we have clear good and bad guys.

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Now, I get it about the tyranny of narrative. Even in the academic business we create narratives, so often adhering to one genre or another. But what I don’t understand is why someone in Soderbergh’s position would feel so tied to tidy, wrap-it-all-up tales given the vast storytelling creativity out there (to wit, this year’s The Master). I consider Soderbergh to be one of the most creatively free directors out there. Why doesn’t he experiment with alternative endings?

I’m complaining, and yet what he does with that early portion of the film — he toys with us in a way that’s so enjoyable to watch that I’m already looking forward to his return to directing.

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One more note: during our drunken debriefing Aldine wanted to know my favorite Soderbergh films, but my phone’s battery had died and we couldn’t remember all of our favorites without internet assistance. So here’s a short list of mine, in rough order:

  • Out of Sight (1998) — totally my favorite Soderbergh ever.
  • Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
  • Erin Brockovich (2000)
  • The Informant! (2009)
  • The Limey (1999)
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Looking forward to seeing you back sometime soon, Steven, once you’ve got your groove back.

One key scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant new film has Lancaster Dodd (aka The Master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) drive his daughter Elizabeth, son-in-law, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) out to a wide expanse in the desert and tell them they’re going to play a game called Pick a Point. You look to the horizon, find a far-off landmark, and ride a motorcycle as fast as you can in a straight line toward that spot. Master hops on and roars off, exhilarating in the speed and direction while his daughter cheers him on from their starting point. When he returns, Freddie dutifully but unenthusiastically takes his turn on the machine. Elizabeth still cheers. At first the Master enjoys watching it too. “He’s going really fast,” he comments to no one in particular. Then his face alters, as he’s hit with waves of ambivalence.

One can read so many things into that face. After seeing it, we argued about moments like this for ninety minutes afterward, surprised to find such different opinions about the film’s central concerns. That’s what makes this film so rich: its open ends beg you to comb over its conversations and vignettes.

I wish I’d gone to see this film with a psychologist, for it most fundamentally asks whether a damaged psyche can heal (and doesn’t offer a rosy answer). Not that conventional psychology is the answer. By the latter days of World War II Freddie is already so far gone on self-destruction that he gets marched in to see a couple of army shrinks, but their clunky approach to the talking cure hits no targets. Self-medication is Freddie’s game. He self-administers cocktails made with virtually anything — paint thinner, photo processing chemicals, Listerine — which permit him to keep slurring his words, living in a haze, remaining mostly unemployed.

But the film also treats the intensity of a relationship between one as utterly lost as Freddie, and the Master who thinks he can help. Can we call it “help”? Or should we term it love? Just what Freddie and Master get out of their relationship is never clear, nor do we really understand the intensity of their bond. No matter. It’s supposed to be open-ended. It’s the most compelling male relationship I’ve ever seen onscreen.

Don’t be fooled by the notion that they are Master and acolyte. Sure, this is partly a story about an L. Ron Hubbard style charismatic leader who inspires a cult-like following based on an idiosyncratic concoction of psychology, hypnosis, past-life regression, compelling storytelling, and a good singing voice. But you’re not watching this film to learn anything new about cults or charisma or the psychology of followers.

Because Master is not really in control. Nor is he entirely successful as a charismatic leader — why, just look to members of his own family for doubt. Even his apple-faced new wife (Amy Adams) has more iron control packaged into a glowing, pregnant, schoolmarm-ism than Master could ever demonstrate. Master is not drawn to Freddie simply to control him.

Nothing could make a better contrast/ incongruity than the two men’s bodies. Years of dedication to drink have left Freddie gaunt, with weedy chicken arms and a stooped frame, as if his ravaged kidneys won’t allow him to stand up straight. You’d never guess Joaquin Phoenix is only 37 years old, for his thinness in this part is well-nigh alarming — equivalent to the horrors of Christian Bale’s skin and bones in The Machinist (2004). Meanwhile, no one looks so self-satisfied, porcine, and gleaming as the Master. Especially when stage-lit in front of Freddie’s camera, as below. When Freddie only gets more emaciated throughout the course of the film, the thought flicks across your mind that it’s as if Master were eating all the untouched servings on Freddie’s plate … and perhaps getting additional nourishment from Freddie’s oh-so-available soul, like a Dementor in Harry Potter.

What writer-director Anderson does in bringing these men together is allow them to develop a relationship beyond the bounds of the roles you might expect here. Himself a master of creating conflicting, deeply uncomfortable situations for his characters, Anderson forces these two men to face up against each other in a variety of ways that have no clear outcomes and intermittent catharsis. Most uncomfortable of all is the realization that no matter how kooky (and creepy) Master’s psychological methods, they’re far more effective than anything Freddie ever got from straight-up psychologists.

Yet The Master is not a story of redemption and healing. In fact, if anything it’s the most honest film about treatment I can think of — so much more powerful than David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), for example — in displaying not just the uncomfortable love and transference between the two figures, but the way that aggressive psychological treatments that demand honesty, self-revelation, and forced psychological breakdowns comprise a form of rape.

Tortured by lost opportunities and deeper demons, Freddie treads water and gulps his toxic cocktails while the Master fights the law on one side and, on the other, acolytes who question his intellectual consistency. No wonder the two men cling together in this crazy embrace, alternately lashing out at one another with the only tools they have available to them. For Freddie it’s sheer physical rage. For Master it’s blarney and a nice trick for maintaining a crowd around him to sustain the illusion of relevance.

And all around them are women. Amy Adams’ terrific turn as the Master’s wife, far more talented at the job of managing a movement than he is; Freddie’s idealized memory of the girl back in Lynn, Massachusetts who got away; Master’s lovely, unavailable daughter Elizabeth; and that big-breasted sand-castle woman his buddies made on the beach, only to have a drunken Freddie feign aggressive sex with it and ruin all the fun.

Like so many self-consciously “serious” Hollywood films, this is about men — but the difference here is that this is a film fundamentally concerned with gender and sex so much so that Freud would have had a field day. From male bonding to psychological rape to a couple of fantasy sequences and Freddie’s pathetic impotence, this film shows that Anderson has a lot more sensitivity toward women than his prior films would suggest.

I’m telling you, this is not an easy film — nor does it have the grandiose spectacle of Anderson’s earlier films, like There Will Be Blood or the occasional sweetness of Punch Drunk Love and Magnolia — rather, it’s a brilliant work about a male relationship conditioned by sex and love and women and trauma and appalling amounts of hooch. Nor can I imagine an actor this year who does more to inhabit his role than Joaquin Phoenix. Without a single remaining ounce of flesh to fill out his haggard face, emotions ripple across it, forcing him to hunch his back all the more under the weight of guilt and defensiveness. This film will not answer any questions for you; you’ll walk out, as we did, bouncing questions off one another (what was it about the singing? what about forcing Freddie to walk back & forth across the room?) until gradually your conversation helps you wrangle this id of a film into a more manageable shape. Oscar contenders: this is a shot across the bow.