Saturday, February 28, 2009

2008, Or How Nothing Ever Changes

I wouldn’t be the first one to argue that 2008 represented a particularly thin filmic year, which offered up some interesting and unique prospects – Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, and the small-time originals penned by Courtney Hunt and Thomas McCarthy just the tip of the iceberg – but too often these films felt loaded with ideas that weren’t fully realised. One of the main themes to emerge from the year was a desire to dredge up the past; whether that be the renowned classic, the obligatory sequel, or the staple Oscar favourite. Two films were most obvious in their desire to hark back to, re-live, or even resurrect a revered golden age of cinema, and in their failings perhaps epitomise the doomed state of an artistic year (era if you want to look closer and more bleakly at it) that distinctly lacked quality.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Is this year really that much worse than 2003? Or even 2006, in which a number of films relied a little too heavily on inspired acting to make their points? Then there’s the question of whether I’m just getting fussier, but the general dislike for 2008 (at least that’s the attitude I’m guaging) seems to be dissuading me of this, and thus the apparent mini-consensus prevents me from feeling harsh for giving
Milk a B and The Reader a B- (yes, those are the two I feel most guilty about at the moment).

But back to the films, which if you haven’t guessed yet are George Clooney’s Easter-released
Leatherheads, a rare screwball outing which couldn’t even manage Renee Zelwegger a Golden Globe nomination (and we know how rare an occurrence that is) and the epic Australia, which saw Baz Luhrmann attempt everything to remind us of one of the best years in cinema, 1939, through both theme and spectacle. Sadly it failed to live up to any of the amazing films of sixty years ago.

Admittedly, there are issues as to whether Hawks’ classic comedies can ever be replicated successfully in the same vein, and further insight into this as my dissertation topic has led to social relevance suggesting that either ‘we’ as the audience, or ‘they’ as filmmakers are unable to tap into thirties’ reverence and knowledge of society, or flimsy female-led romance. A matter for discussion but in any case Luhrmann’s extravaganza sadly felt more like a Pirates of the Caribbean installment – event, event, comedy, event, event, kiss, effect, event, comedy, event etc. – than a sly, knowing melodrama, with genuinely imposing characters. Not that I’m saying the sight of Hugh Jackman’s chest didn’t impose upon me greatly, I just didn’t really get the passion his character had for both cattle driving and Nicole Kidman. For all of Rhett Butler’s ambivalence he was pretty dastardly passionate when he wanted to be, in that loner, “look at all the uneducated hicks creaming themselves over war” kind of way; although the fact that I’ve described his character in terms of a plot point makes the film all the more successful than him.

And if there was ever an example of characters evolving solely through plot points this year it was Brad Pitt’s
Benjamin Button. Come rain or shine Benjamin Button would be doing something meaningful, whether it was changing appearance (that happened frequently), falling in love, going to war, or generally overcoming a disability that only challenged him in an aesthetic sense. A cinematographic-heavy lunge of sorts would be accompanied by a philosophical statement about either age, beauty, or the unpredictability of life, and one can really see it as a nursery rhyme; anecdotal, formulaic, and overtly simple to grasp. But all this bore enough hallmarks of traditional “importance” -- forbidden romance, black female matriarchs, against-the-odds achievement – that it garnered a rather ridiculous thirteen Oscar nominations. Similar Oscar fare reared its ugly head in the form of The Reader (which I do like despite major problems), Doubt, and the completely uninspiring Frost/Nixon. For purposes of sanity, I’m refusing to mention the eventual winner of that prize until I recover from the past three months of constant awardage.

But enough of all that negative talk;
Richard Jenkins is not in my cherished top seven of this year’s Best Actor candidates, but his nomination for an April release is the earliest in the calendar since Anthony Hopkins was noted and rewarded for his menacing Silence of the Lambs turn. An achievement, certainly since the role isn’t particularly showy and he lingered in the background for much of the race. It was a similar story for Melissa Leo, whose Frozen River saw the light of day in the summer. Her buzz carried the film to an additional nomination in the Screenplay category in an altogether despondent year for Leading Actresses, but nevertheless a fiercely contested one.

The Dark Knight and WALL·E made a ton of money, which hasn’t dissuaded Academy Members of biting a line in the past, but maybe Louis B. Mayer’s philosophy still rings true 81 years later, and in a polarised environment between industry and “quality” these films simply don’t have what it takes to fall close enough to the Oscar threshold. Frankly, I’m convinced that these will be the movies truly remembered and netflixed when the film fans of the next generation come to explore this limp year.

I recently bought Inside Oscar and from reading the first few chapters the overwhelming insight into the awards process is that it doesn’t change. I’m sure that fifty-odd years ago teenagers were incensed at Around the World in Eighty Days winning Best Picture (if they weren’t they fucking should have been) and in a cultural sense they’d probably have more reason to be than our admonishment of today’s Indian tale. But whether it’s testy European humour or third-world positivity that really gets your goat, you can be sure that when the pickings are slim people will jump on the wagon for an ephemeral escape.

Personally I’m itching for a permanent escape from 2008, and after I complete my Addict awards (they start in a couple of days) I’m gonna look to the past to provide some much-needed inspiration. And not in the form of empty fairytales, holocaust movies, or political one-upmanship.

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