Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And the Best Picture Oscar goes to... "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"

I've complained before about the relatively unexciting list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture, and going along with that, there's been a clear enthusiasm gap associated with this year's awards.  Surely, every year there are complaints that the Academy has gotten too arty or too snobby.  In fact, most pundits trot out a couple common examples of the Oscars "getting it wrong" in the past, presumably as a way of urging the audience not to get too bent out of shape.

At the top of that list is Annie Hall and Woody Allen beating out Star Wars and George Lucas for "Best Picture" and "Best Director" in 1977.  I know there's going to be a temptation to take a cheap shot at Lucas based on post-prequel hatred, but you have to remember that in the context of 1977, what he did was incredibly revolutionary.  Star Wars changed the face of film and cast a much longer shadow than Annie Hall.  Seemingly the Academy valued intimacy over scope.

And yet, in 1982, E.T. lost to Gandhi.  An epic bio-pic trumped what was then the most popular movie of all time.  E.T. was emotional, it was accepted by a wide audience and it had heart. Gandhi was... "important."  When was the last time you got the urge to watch Gandhi?  How many of you even own it on DVD?

Here's what really irks me about this film snobbery - it values a few aspects of filmmaking while completely discounting the artistry of the others.  It's not "Best Picture due to Most Emotional Performances," "Best Picture that Tackles a Social Issue and Reduces It to a Simplistic, Insulting Thesis or Solution," or "Best Picture due to Most Character Driven Screenplay."  It's "Best Picture." Period.  But I guess if you can make an audience cry or make them feel something "deep" like, "Wow, that was really bold to say that 'racism is bad and hurtful,'" it's enough to negate hours of blood and sweat spent elsewhere.

Popcorn movies.  That's what they call films that never will get Oscars simply because they dared to be popular.  True, often these films have serious deficiencies in story and acting.  (Paging Michael Bay.)  But what about the films that are grand adventures, that take action to new heights, propelled by a structurally strong script?  The performances might not contain some overwrought emotional catharsis, but you know what, sometimes it's just as difficult to keep characters consistent and compelling even without the crutch of letting the actor play a dibilitating mental disease or have to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

Because it's really hard to cry on cue.  Like hard.

You know what else is hard? Dangling a mile high in the air, tethered to a building while a helicopter swoops above you to get vertigo inducing shots.  If that's so easy, you run down the outside of a mile-high glass building - WITHOUT the aid of a stunt double.  Oh, and you have to stay in character completely which in this case means not losing your shit because "HOLY FUCK I'M A MILE ABOVE THE GROUND!"

Yeah, that's just as easy as acting befuddled or drawing on a memory of a childhood pet's death so you can shed a tear.

What Tom Cruise gives in Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a performance no less consistent than Meryl Steep in the Acclaimed Movie I Didn't See or what Gary Oldman did in The Movie I Saw And Thought Was Okay But Probably Never Will Need to See Again.  Cruise says his lines, he stays in character and he makes us believe Ethan Hunt is real.  He does what the script asks of him and he brings some of his own persona to it.  Ditto for all of the supporting cast.

Now you can argue that Cruise didn't deserve a Best Actor nomination.  I admit, it was a very competitive field this year.  Then again, I don't see Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow doing this...

That should have been a full-page ad in Variety with the caption "For Your Consideration, Motherfucker."

But enough about Cruise, let's talk about the movie itself.  It's visually stunning, both in the angles and in the staging of action - so that point goes to the director, Brad Bird.  Oh, and did I mention this was his first live-action picture?  Not bad for a neophyte, eh?

The story moves well, due to the solid structure that motivates the characters and the action scenes.  It's also really well-paced, - credit to the writers and the editors there.

Also with the "visually-stunning" point - the visual and special effects are virtually flawless.  Kudos to all the technical teams involved.

And acting-wise, was there anyone who wasn't convincing in their role?  Down to the last man, they embodied their parts and did what was asked of them.

I look at everything that goes into making a film - particularly a film of this genre - and I struggle to see any glaring flaws.  You might say, "Well, the characters just weren't as deep as The Descendants."  Okay, fair enough...

But The Descendants had far less complex stunt/action scenes.  The story had far fewer turns it had to sell.  So should it get a pass simply because it was technically less ambitions that M:I - GP?  Why can't Ghost Protocol get the same pass for its character arcs being less ambitious?

"Best Picture" means the whole picture - everything.  And if more popcorn films got nominated, I wouldn't bitch about this because, hey, luck of the draw.  This year we gave greater weight to the emotional than the technical.  But that's not how it works.  It seems you can entirely reinvent filmmaking on a technical level, attempt spectacle that's never been seen before, hold an audience at the edge of their seat for 2+ hours and in the end, all some ABC Family actress has to do is cry underwater to make all of that irrelevant.

Are The Artist and The Descendants really the best and most impressive examples of filmmaking this year? Or are they the "safe" choices that one can laud without fearing the loss of some kind of manufactured credibility?  Brad Bird and Tom Cruise delivered a roller-coaster ride of filmmaking where the story was propelled by some solid lead characters and a really strong cast.

No gold statue will ever convince me that is any less of an achievement than any of the nine nominees for Best Picture.


  1. Bitter: After comning to your site almost every day for more than a year and seeing your steady decline into a fanboy role, rather than your promise in your mission statement, I give up on you. If, in the context of a Best Picture Oscar, you deem MI worthy of consideration alongside The Artist or The Descendants -- or you fail to understand why Annie Hall beat SW -- you simply do not get that film is an art form that has been extremely commercializsed in the last decade or so -- but for a century was viewed as one of the world's great art forms AND one of the few things preserving that esteemed heritage is the Academy Awards. And that is still true, despite the tent pole mentality of the studios.
    As for you, I have to say -- as a lifelong professional writer -- that you need to find a new aspiration. What's out here on the Internet lasts forver, and in my opinion (and I used to work at Paramount when I lived in L.A. and ran an entertainment industry ad agency in L.A. for 10 years), no one of any importance would hire you to do anything after your stupendously uninformed performance here of late. Instead of trying to BE a mentor, you need to find one.

    1. Looks like someone gave up manners for Lent.

    2. @jtwg50 Have you ever been to an art gallery? I assume not by your distinction of film as a singular 'art'. My favourite is the surrealist, my mum likes cubism, but we'll always stop past the classicists, the modernists, photography, East Asian art, etc. As arbiter of all things art, which of these forms do you think is the one that deserves to be left in the gallery.
      p.s. Love your work bitter.

    3. Thanks Jeremy. I think you pretty effectively pointed out that his elitism only reinforced my original point rather than knocked it down. And you did it far more succinctly than I probably would have.

    4. oh no! Bitter's career is over! That's what he gets for publicly liking a movie that made something like $700 million and got 93% on Rotten Tomatoes!

      Where'd YOU work at Paramount? At the Watertower Cafe? or were you the guy who greenlit The Last Airbender?

    5. My friend made me watch LA-B, and I want to know where the guy who greenlit it is too.

    6. Jtwg50: Every age has its popular entertainment, and its "Art" that is deemed worthy by the Ivory Tower snobs of the day. Almost without fail, the Art falls out of fashion as academic trends change, and much of what used to be lowbrow "entertainment" is re-evaluated and becomes The Classics. I suspect, jtwg50, that if you lived in Dickens' age you would be among those decrying him as a hack.

      I can assure you, as someone who actually IS a professional screenwriter (which I strongly suspect you are NOT), that critics are much too easily impressed by slice of life realism. It's actually not very difficult to write the small character-based drama, whereas it's very, very challenging to write an inventive and tightly plotted action piece that delights and surprises people of all ages worldwide. Why do you suppose it is that whenever an actor or director or other non-writer decides to write a screenplay, it is always a small character-based drama? I'll tell you why: because it's the most forgiving type of script there is. Everyone fawns all over the verisimilitude, and if the story isn't tight, well, that's okay, because life is messy and flaws are "real," and blah blah blah. Your condescension is exceeded only by your pretentiousness.

    7. Great reply "Ace." Not knowing who you are, I'll just say that I hope I've enjoyed some of your work.

  2. I went to MI with my husband and frankly wasn't expecting much so I was rather surprised when I found myself not only enjoying the movie, but really enjoying it.
    I'm not sure it's best picture quality, but it's pretty damn close.
    I was hard pressed to find a movie this year that I enjoyed watching, for the pure sake of watching a movie, more than MI.

    1. This was pretty much our experience as well. My wife doesn't even usually go for action movies and she really thought this was great.

  3. Isn't the difference that the Artist and Annie Hall feel like the personal visions of people with something to say? In other words, they feel like art? Meanwhile, MI4, while technically brilliant, often feels like the work of an (extremely talented) committee? The product of an industry at the top of its game? One could argue that such a thing is exactly what the Oscars should celebrate. Personally, though, I think the Oscars should be an aspirational celebration of films that really make you feel something new, not just an industry jolly. Star Wars did achieve that. MI4 didn't I'm afraid no matter how proficient.

    That said, I would actually rank these films: (1=) The Artist/Annie Hall, (2) Star Wars, (3) MI4, (4) The Descendants.

  4. If there is a best animated feature category why not the best action movie?

    Isn't MI4 skyscraper scene any different in its suspense from iconic Safety Last?

    I think regular folks in the flyover country do not need the Oscars to recognize that Annie Hall IS different from Star Wars: they already voted with their money what they consider better for THEIR consideration.

    Despite all the Scientology-jumping on sofas hoopla, I do consider Tom Cruise one of the best actors out there. Hell, he actually brings people to theatres which is in itself an almost impossible feat right now (with streaming, Redbox etc.). You can also see him enjoying his role and care about the craft; this kind of dedication speaks to viewers and in turn makes them enjoy the movies more.

    There are already so many nominated performances that reek of ‘I do not have to try hard as an actor, because if movie goers do not like the movie is not the fault of MINE; it is the viewer’s ignorance, lowbrow attitude, even racism’ sentiment. Look, the majority of the nominated movies have titles that do not give away any clue what a regular viewer can expect from the movie…Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’? Is The Help as intriguing a title as Silence of the Lambs?

    And yes, I AM indeed Ms. Know/Question Everything…

  5. I just wrote a huge comment here and mis-clicked losing everything. It was an incredibly insightful response to the post-above and probably would have won a Pulitzer.

    Anyway, the gist of it was this:

    Reactions to films are inherently subjective. On a micro level it's easier to know when something is good or bad: editing, cinematography, even acting. Especially when it's bad.

    But to say something is the BEST is hard because the best is different for different people. I saw the Artist and while I thought it was well done I was also bored at times and didn't respond to it emotionally. The parts didn't add up to the whole for me. Now, it may have for others, I don't know.

    I saw one movie this year that made me say, "I need to see that again, immediately." Did you? Did you see one movie this year several times?

    I saw Traffic in the theater six times. I saw Gladiator five times. I reacted emotionally to them.

    The best film I saw this year was a small indie movie called LOVE, produced by Angels & Airwaves and directed by a friend of mine, Will Eubank. It was made on a micro-budget and while it has some flaws I had an emotional reaction to it that made me want to see it again.

    The thing is: we have this argument every year. Every year people disagree with the choices made by the Academy. My question is: why do you care? Why are you letting a very small group of people (5000 Academy members) of mostly over-60 white males dictate what the Best Film of the year is for you?

    The Oscars, at it's most basic, it nothing more than a peer-voted industry awards show. It's about colleagues getting together and saying, "Based on a popular vote of our members, we're going to give this award to _________ because we think he did the best work." It's not about the public and what we think. So who cares?

    Clearly, based on their history, they're not the collective authority.

  6. An entertaining and insightful post Bitter.

  7. "Drive" was what got screwed. "MI4" was the most poorly-written entry of the series. I didn't care for Ethan Hunt as much because the film lacked an emotional spine. The first film dealt with his frayed relationship with mentor Jon Voight. The second dealt with Hunt's romance with Thandie Newton. The third had the conflict of Hunt trying to sustain a marriage while being a secret agent. This one has no such hook. Instead, it's an ocassionally breathtaking series of setpieces, dragged down by a lot of scenes of "show-don't-tell" (the Jeremy Renner stuff). The manufactured Renner-Cruise thing, after being conveyed to us only through dialogue, gets wrapped with the dumbest, most preposterous ending, where everyone and their sister somehow ends up in Seattle. Lastly, I love Simon Pegg's work, but he shouldn't have to be put in the position of improvising non-stop because the script is a turd. And, dammit, I missed Ving Rhames being Cruise's principal sidekick. Well, I guess, there is the inevitable sequel. But, Bitter, the writing sucked, and, as you rightly pointed, so does the current nominee slate. The BAFTAs at least have more class. They get Stephen Fry. We get warmed-over Billy Crystal. We get tacky musical numbers. They have one number and it's Tom fucking Jones doing "Thunderball". Shaken, not stirred. Sucks.