Tag Archives: Oscar Nominated

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a familiar story powerfully told in this Oscar nominated documentary from Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Farm: Angola, USA). By that, I mean this: Nina Simone’s story is familiar to those who’ve lived in close proximity to or have studied artists and the emotional makeup that often times drives them forward while also driving them mad. In the realm of popular music, Brian Wilson and Loretta Lynn come to mind.

The movie’s title, which comes from a Maya Angelou poem, drives the thesis of the film, which uses Miss Simone’s own voice in the form of interviews and concert footage to sift through the details of her remarkable life to find out just what happened.

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?” – Maya Angelou

The story opens in 1976, as Simone takes the stage at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. After she’s introduced, she takes the stage and stands at her piano in an odd pose as the applause dies down. After the room has gone silent, she remains frozen, creating an awkward moment reminiscent of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art – a move designed to seize control of the moment by putting the crowd off balance perhaps.

What Happened, Miss Simone?Finally, Simone takes her seat, and after some nervous patter and adjusting of the microphone, she acknowledges a promise made long ago never to perform at jazz festivals, once again raising that question: “What happened?!” From there, she says she’ll answer the question by taking us all the way back to the beginning, which is where Garbus takes us next, filling in the biographical details of Simone’s early life.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. The film hardly mentions her parents, but her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid. Simone began taking piano lessons by the age of four and quickly showed promise at the instrument, which she played in the churches where her mother preached.

Two white women, one of whom employed Simone’s mother, saw Simone’s talents and endeavored to see that she received training, which led to a goal of Simone becoming the first African-American female classical concert pianist.

In addition to lessons, the women began a fund which was used to send Simone to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute. Simone was rejected, and believed that her denial was solely based upon the color of her skin. From there, she went to Julliard, where she studied until the money ran out.

Having to earn an income, Simone began playing in nightclubs, which her mother opposed. This led to the adoption of the new name and, at the demand of a club owner, the addition of singing to her playing. Soon after, her career took off in earnest.

Because of Simone’s rigorous training, she was a hit with the jazz musicians who respected her technical ability as much as her soulful playing and singing. As the 60’s hit full swing, Simone was established as a rising star in popular music.

Along the way, she met her husband, a New York vice squad sergeant named Andy Stroud, who retired from the force and became her manager. At first, Stroud’s firm hand and devotion were welcomed by Simone, but as the years went by, their relationship became volatile and marked by physical abuse that became so bad, Simone wrote in her diary of wanting to commit suicide.

As Simone’s star rose, it was Stroud who was pushing her, keeping her to an aggressive schedule that positioned her with the jazz fans as well as the more mainstream pop fans. The money began to pour in and their coterie of friends included the biggest names in African-American culture and politics: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and his family, who were neighbors and confidants.

Simone and Stroud had a daughter, whom Simone formed a complicated relationship with. Wanting to be a good mother, Simone also wanted to be a star (with a busy schedule orchestrated by her husband/manager). It seems like being Miss Simone won out over being just mom most of the time.

As the 60’s were marked by the violent deaths of one African-American civil rights activist after another, not to mention the general violence against African-Americans that was occurring all over the south, the accumulative effect on Miss Simone, who became increasingly political throughout the decade, came to a head after the murder of Dr. King in 1968. As her politics, along with her music and live performances, veered towards the radical, record sales began to dwindle, as did demand for her live performances.

In 1970, Simone left Stroud, her daughter and the United States and eventually settled in Liberia for some time. At first, she seemed liberated by the freedom from responsibilities and the oppression of racism, but her inner demons seemed inescapable. As the decade wore on, the need to earn a living sent her to Europe, where bad luck, bad decisions and bad health sent Simone into a tailspin.

Simone’s bouts of “anger” devolved into madness, and with the help of an old friend/side man and a former business partner, she received medical help in the form of a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a regimen of prescription medication that helped her to cope while slowly destroying her motor skills in the process.

When we catch up to Simone at Montreaux in 1976, we have a different understanding of the significance of this unlikely return. Earlier, we witness an interview, where Simone expounds on the meaning of freedom. After groping for an answer, she finally settles on the answer – no fear. Having settled in on that answer, you can see that she has struck a deep nerve within herself that the interviewer completely missed.

In that 1976 performance, Simone confronts an audience member who has distracted her. When the moment passes and Simone returns to the music, she’s obviously rattled and takes a beat to re-compose herself. The look in Simone’s eye is not the same as the self-possessed artist of 1960, who’d yet to feel the crushing weight of celebrity, the crushing defeat of the murder of dear friends and the crushing accumulation of whatever those demons were that pursued her, be they mental illness or something else.

What Happened, Miss Simone? paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive artist with a towering gift who performed a profound act of fearlessness in giving us, in her art, herself.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

I went into Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom knowing very little about the conflict it describes. Maybe that was a good thing, because today at lunch I got an earful from my conspiracy theorist cousin about what a bunch of propaganda the film is. I don’t know if that’s true, but regardless of the facts about the protests of 2013-2014, director Evgeny Afineevsky has crafted a powerful story about a people standing up to injustice and paying a steep price for change.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for FreedomThe film, nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this year, is an insider’s view of the events that led to the forced resignation of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

In late 2013, as a deadline approached for Ukraine’s joining of the European Union, young people gathered in the city center of Kyiv to mark the moment and ensure that it actually took place. Yanukovych was well known for his desire to align with Russia, and as the deadline came and went without a signing of the paperwork, Yanukovych moved towards the feared partnership with Putin, triggering non-violent yet vocal protest that, over a 3 month period, escalated to the point of bloodshed, killing 125 protesters, injuring hundreds more and forcing Yanukovych to flee the country in the middle of the night to seek asylum in Russia.

Afineevsky’s footage takes us into the middle of the protester’s makeshift camp and acquaints us with many of the principal figures who marched and died during that momentous three month period.

The only talking head interviews are with the protestors themselves who recount their experiences and emotions as we see the images of what they describe. What started as primarily a movement of the young soon mushroomed and pulled in older generations – doctors, lawyers, bankers and even the military who were afraid of returning to the old Soviet ways.

Even after the government employed violent tactics that escalated over time, the movement only grew until it reached a point-of-no-return as the participants described the final bloody encounter with government forces.

Having sat through many documentaries covering unrest in decades past, it’s still strange for me to see images of people decked out in skinny jeans, hipster beards and contemporary clothing in a story as old as time itself. But as long as governments ignore the wishes of the people they represent, we’ll continue to see images like the ones captured in this powerful documentary.

It’s a one-sided telling of this story, for sure, that paints the protestors as freedom fighters, innocents and crusaders for a better tomorrow, and without knowing any of the opposing sides to this story, I walked away from this movie moved to the point of tears at the bravery and dedication of those who fought and died, as well as those who fought and have to carry on.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

For a while it seemed like Christian Bale was running away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but after seeing some of the competition, I think the race might be pretty tight.

I haven’t seen The Town, so I can’t really comment on Jeremy Renner’s performance.  It doesn’t suck to be him, these days, with two nominations in as many years.

Mark Ruffalo doesn’t seem like he belongs in this group.  The Kids Are All Right is a wildly overrated movie that could have made some very interesting observations, but instead, chose a path riddled with clichés.  His performance seems like one I’ve seen him give in more than one other movie, say You Can Count on Me, for example.

All the way through Winter’s Bone, I kept wondering where I’d seen the guy who played Teardrop.  It wasn’t until I was able to look him up on IMDB that I was reminded of Me And You And Everyone We Know, an oddball indie romance.  Look him up yourself, and you’ll no doubt be nodding at the list of movies you’ve seen where he’s one of these supporting characters who looks like he might have been plucked off the street – which is a compliment, because he’s so authentic.

In Winter’s Bone, he plays the unpredictable uncle of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree.  He’s a man who’s as likely to punch his niece in the mouth as to hug her – it just depends on how he’s approached.  Hawkes perfectly blends paranoia, anger, larceny, and a sense of primal justice to become a very unlikely hero.

I’d love to see him walk away with the Oscar, but I’m afraid the numbers are against him.

Much has been written about Christian Bale’s performance in The Fighter, and it is a very impressive performance – almost showy in that old-fashioned, 1950’s way where performances often veered towards the over-the-top (see Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me).

His preparation to play Dicky Eklund reminded me of the stories about DeNiro’s preparation to play Jake LaMotta in The Raging Bull – exhaustive observation of physical tics and habits, drawn from hours of conversation and note taking.  It’s a dedication and work ethic that is tiring just thinking about it, and it has paid off huge for a guy who wasn’t even the first choice for the role.

Later tonight, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon might be wondering, “What if…?”

I have a feeling that Geoffrey Rush is going to sneak in and walk away with the Academy Award tonight.  He’s marvelous in The King’s Speech as Lionel Logue, the man who not only shows King George VI how to overcome a horrible stutter, he shows him how to be a friend.

It’s a well written character that gives Rush much room to flesh out a three-dimensional man who, despite his failure a Shakespearean acting is a highly skilled therapist.  In a fine monologue, Rush defends his lack of formal training with an account of his wartime experience helping shell-shocked World War I veterans regain their speech after witnesses unspeakable horrors.

Choosing a best performance in any category is really a fool’s errand, especially with the performances of Rush, Bale, and Hawkes.  Give it to Rush by a nose.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

I love the supporting actor and actress awards.  This is where the Academy likes to surprise us.  In 1984, Haing Ngor won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist working with American journalist Sydney Schanberg, in The Killing Fields.  And oh yeah, Ngor himself experienced the same killing fields of the character he portrayed.  He himself was a Cambodian refugee, and lost a wife and child to the Khmer Rouge.  If all that weren’t enough, Ngor was trained as a physician, not a doctor, and The Killing Fields was his first role.

Though there may not be a story like Ngor’s in this year’s field, there is room for a big upset.

Jacki Weaver’s nomination for Animal Kingdom came out of left field, and I haven’t seen the movie.  Weaver has a long career in Australian cinema dating back to Picnic at Hanging Rock.  In Animal Kingdom, she plays Smurf, a kind of godmother of a crime family.  The film has been in limited release, and a victory on Sunday would be a major upset.

Amy Adams takes a turn away from the sunny characters she’s best remembered for in movies like Junebug and Enchanted.  In The Fighter, she plays Charlene, the working class girlfriend of boxer Micky Ward.  Among the obstacles she has to overcome are Micky’s mom and sisters, who are straight out of hell.  Look for her to get KO’d on Oscar night and walk away empty handed.

Helena Bonham Carter was born for costume dramas.  From A Room With a View to The King’s Speech, she has appeared in so many historical dramas as to seem born in another time.  In The King’s Speech, she plays Elizabeth, the Duchess of York.  Her husband, the future King George VI, suffers from a severe stutter that hampers his ability to lead in a new age, where the radio has become as important as looking regal in uniform on horseback.

Though her husband has resigned himself to obscurity, Bonham Carter stays on the lookout for help until she finds Lionel Logue, a highly unorthodox speech therapist who comes highly recommended.

Thus begins her effort of orchestrating and cheerleading as her husband is subjected to an invasive course of therapy that not only breaks down his affliction but also the social structures that keep commoners like Logue at a great distance.

It’s a delightful performance, but not enough to take home the trophy.

Many kids have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, like Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon), Anna Paquin (The Piano), and Mary Badham (To Kill a Mockingbird), which has to make Hailee Steinfeld and her family feel like she has a pretty good shot for her performance in True Grit.

She more than holds her own onscreen with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and a supporting cast that includes Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.  It’s an impressive debut because not only is she in just about every scene, she has to speak her dialogue in an archaic, 19th century dialect devoid of contractions and slang.  Mattie is a precocious adolescent who worships her murdered father and applies her devotion to seeing his murderer (Brolin) hanged.  Her sense of justice is forged from a Protestantism steeped in blood and sin and judgment.  That said, she plays the role straight, allowing for an ironic humor to bleed into every scene.  True Grit is a very funny movie.

I’ll be crossing my fingers, hoping for an upset, but I’m – or rather I am – afraid that the award is predestined to do home with another.

That other is Melissa Leo, who plays Alice, the matriarch of the Ward family in The Fighter.  Alice Ward is a manipulative woman who will use anything at her disposal to impose her will.  In addition to her boxing boys, she’s raised seven daughters who are like something from Shakespeare or Greek Drama.

This nomination is the second in three years for Leo, who was nominated for Best Actress in 2008 for her role as Ray in Frozen River. It’s a vindication of sorts for an actress who is undeniably talented, but also carries a difficult reputation.

Leo is a force of nature in The Fighter, and like Alice’s younger son Micky, she won’t be denied her title.  Pencil her in as the Oscar winner.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Actress

For the Best Actor race, I used a horse racing analogy to establish the odds of the nominated actors.  Let’s stick with that device for the Best Actress race because Natalie Portman is looking like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes.  Not literally, of course, but in the sense that according to the previous awards and various pundits, she’s way out in front of the competition, which is made up of great actresses in roles that either haven’t been seen much or didn’t match the mania of Portman’s unstrung ballerina.

Nicole Kidman, nominated for Rabbit Hole, stars in one of the movies no one has seen, which is too bad.  Kidman has had an interestingly uneven career, veering from crap like Australia and Bewitched to daringly original projects like To Die For and Margot at the WeddingRabbit Hole is among the latter, but according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it was shot for $5 million, but has only made back $2 million.  How does that happen with talent like Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, a director like John Cameron Mitchell (Short Bus), and Lionsgate distributing?  Hopefully, the Oscar buzz will cause more people to see this movie.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as an overburdened Ozark teenager out to find her missing father, in Winter’s Bone, is a strong debut performance that promises more nominations to come.  Ree Dolly is a 16 year old who has to take care of two younger siblings and a mom who’s lost to mental illness.  Her father is a meth cooker who’s disappeared while on bail.  Facing homelessness, she journeys into a hardened world of drug dealers and murderers, most of whom are related by blood.  Had it been a supporting role, I’d be predicting her as a winner, but she’ll have to settle for the nomination this year.

Michelle Williams is one of my favorite actresses, and Wendy and Lucyis one of my favorite movies over the past few years, so her nomination for Blue Valentine was a very pleasant surprise.  She plays Cindy, a young woman in a failing marriage who hungers for more.  Blue Valentine gives us snapshots of the relationship, from the sweet beginnings to the bitter end, and Michelle Williams gives a fearless performance that confirms her position as one of the best actresses in Hollywood.

For a while, Annette Bening was being presented as a rival to Natalie Portman for Best Actress.  After seeing The Kids Are All Right, I can only guess that the hype came from her publicist.  Of course, sentimentality and popularity has as much to do with the Academy Awards as merit, and for that reason alone Bening would have a shot at winning.  There’s just not that much to her role, which is more of an ensemble or supporting role than it is a lead.  She’s wonderful as the uptight, type-A half of her relationship with Julianne Moore.  She keeps her performance from veering into a cartoonish, two-dimensional villain.  Rather, she gains our empathy for being the person in her relationship who feels the pressure of being the sole bread winner.  Forgive the sexist analogy, but she’s like the traditional husband who has the weight of providing for her family squarely on her shoulders.  Sadly, there’s too much melodrama and not exploration of her stresses in this overrated movie.

From the very beginning of Black Swan, you know Natalie Portman is in trouble.  A grown woman who sleeps in a pink room, surrounded by stuffed animals, music boxes, a smothering mom who never cashed in her dream, and no dad in sight is a caution.  And then we get to know Natalie Portman’s Nina, a dancer with the New York ballet, a girl who is driven and high-strung.

She’s also at the tail end of her prime, but fears of being passed by seem to be swept away when Nina is cast in the lead in the company’s production of Swan Lake.  But rather than being a boon, the role becomes a curse, as we watch Nina’s hold on her sanity loosen to the point of letting go.

It’s a role to die for – I’m talking about the film role – and Portman more than meets the challenge of capturing both the pampered little girl in pink, who has never really had a boy friend, and the type-A career girl, who is pushing herself past her limits to achieve a dream that may or may not be her own.  Portman’s physical appearance contributes to the tension.  She lost a lot of weight for the role – to the point of appearing nearly pre-pubescent.

Helping her along the path to mental exhaustion, like a perverse Scarecrow in a balletic Wizard of Oz, is Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the artistic director of the company, who manipulates his dancers mercilessly to get the performance he envisions.

Once she’s been cast as the lead, jealous rivals accuse Portman of having slept with Leroy, a charge that hurts and baffles Nina.  Having lived so pampered a life, she can’t imagine using sex as a tool or tactic.  That said, she’s not really up for the challenge of playing the Black Swan.  She’s so technical and precise that she’s incapable of cutting loose and letting her base instincts take over.  They’re repressed to the point of not existing.

As she frets over her lack to connect with the sexy, dirty side of herself and the character, Nina begins to hallucinate.  At first, it’s small, but it grows and grows until it’s hard to tell what is real and what is imagined.

Natalie Portman will win the Academy Award for Best Actress this year, and it’s an honor that’s well deserved.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Actor

If this were the Kentucky Derby, Colin Firth would be going off at even money and you’d be looking to box him with some long shot, like Javier Bardem or James Franco, to make the bet worth walking all the way to the pari-mutuel window.

That said, let’s take a look at the field anyway, just in case Firth stumbles down the stretch.

I haven’t seen Biutiful, so I can’t comment on Javier Bardem.  We’ll say he has no chance, which is ridiculous given his award a couple of years ago for No Country for Old Men.  Scratch him.

Jesse Eisenberg was wonderful in The Social Network, but wearing a hoodie and a wrinkled t-shirt for two hours worth of film time doesn’t add up to a substantive enough performance to warrant an Oscar, despite perfectly capturing the white-hot intensity of a dot-com jillionaire.  Give him a 2-in-10 chance at winning.

It doesn’t suck to be James Franco these days.  He’s hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway, he’s studying literature at Yale, he

went to the Rhode Island school of design, cool directors want to work with him, he does soap operas, he recently made sport of himself on 30 Rock, and he stars in 127 Hours.  Surely this guy will be around for a long time, provided he doesn’t burn himself out, which is a good thing because I don’t think he’ll win the Oscar this year.  His performance as Aron Ralston, the hiker who cut off his own arm – which was pinned to the wall of a remote canyon by a boulder – to save his life is finely modulated, capturing the hubris of a 20-something year old guy who probably never considered his own mortality until it stared him in the eye, followed closely by the regret and sadness that comes with understanding what this will put his family through.  Give him a 4-in-10 chance at winning.

A lot of people I talk to automatically assume that since Bridges won the Oscar for Best Actor last year (Crazy Heart) there’s no chance he’ll win it again this year for True Grit, but it was only a decade ago that Tom Hanks won consecutive awards for Philadelphia and Castaway.  That said, Bridges has a formidable mountain to climb.  First, there’s Colin Firth, who he beat out last year (A Single Man).  Then there’s the material – True Gritis a western, and a very funny one at that, which doesn’t bode well when placed next to a highly regarded costume drama.

While guys like Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman have retreated to silly and irrelevant roles, Jeff Bridges has enjoyed a long prime, with no drop off in sight.  Rooster Cogburn could have easily become a cartoon, but Bridges and the Coens went deeper, and what we end up with is a layered character who is part blowhard, part cold-blooded killer, part raconteur, and part hero.  And along the way, we laugh our ass off at the verbal sparring that takes place between him and virtually every character who crosses his path.  He gets my vote, but sadly, the Academy will probably ignore him in favor of another great actor.  Give him a 7-in-10 chance of winning.

It’s good that the Academy doesn’t publish the vote talleys for each race, else we’d get hung up arguing that so-and-so only won the award by one vote, which would cheapen the honor I guess.  That said, it would be interesting to know how much Colin Firth lost by last year.  Many predicted he’d win for his stunning performance in A Single Man.  Here we are, a year later, and the same two men are back in the same position.

This year’s performance as King George VI in The King’s Speech is a showier role that calls to mind award winning performances by Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), and Jamie Foxx (Ray) who won for playing men with handicaps.  Firth brought to life a lesser known British monarch and fleshed him out with very human qualities.  His future king is a man who has it all, but is still haunted by crippling insecurities that arise from an embarrassing stutter that seems impossible to overcome.

This leads the Royal to the unorthodox and uncredentialed speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush in another beautifully realized performance.  Though they come from different social stations, The soon-to-be King must humble himself before this man in order to deal with the underlying issues of his speech impediment.

This all leads to a rousing climax involving a…speech, of course.  And thanks to Firth, we cheer for the King just as we would Rocky Balboa in one of his countless long-shot battle.  Give him an 8-in-10 chance of winning.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Picture

The nominees for Best Picture, 2011:

127 Hours: Hyperactive yet engaging true story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who hacked off his own arm to save his life after being trapped in a Utah canyon for days.

Black Swan: Trippy tale of a dancer’s decent into madness as she gives it all for her art.

Inception: Ultimately, an action movie set in a sort of Jungian dreamscape, where new age thieves not only steal dreams, but cause trouble by leaving behind counterfeit ones.

The Fighter: Real-life story of a working class stiff who overcomes long odds and a family straight out of Jerry Springer to become a contender.

The Kids Are All Right: Lesbian moms struggle to maintain a long-term relationship, raise two teenagers, and fend off the hunky sperm donor who’s interested in meeting his progeny…and one of the moms.

The King’s Speech: The Duke of York overcomes a debilitating speech impediment, a host of neuroses, and class prejudice to rise to the throne and rally England against Hitler.

The Social Network: The pyrrhic triumph of a maniacally driven nerd over his maniacally driven jock rivals.

Toy Story 3: A franchise is brought to a close with Andy all grown up and Woody and the gang coping with what comes next.

True Grit: A Protestant wet dream of a western, jam-packed with violence, vengeance, good and bad counter-balanced with a devil’s dose of laughter.

Winter’s Bone:  A hillbilly teenager, stuck looking after her mom and raising her younger siblings, goes off in search of her meth-cooking father in order to save the family farm in a kind of Ozark Odyssey.

The King’s Speech

For this year’s Best Picture race, let’s start off by eliminating 127 Hours, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone.  That leaves us with five movies.

Black Swan and The Fighter are long shots to win, which cuts the field to three.

My criteria, when looking at this award, is which movie will people still be talking about in 20 or 50 years?  Which movie is so good or so entertaining or so…special that it will stand the test of time, and not become some dated joke, like “Oliver” or “Dances With Wolves”?

Of the three movies that remain, there is The King’s Speech, the kind of movie that Hollywood loves to bestow honors upon – dignified, historical, and important-seeming; The Social Network, a very “now” kind of story that has captured a watershed event in our culture; and finally, True Grit, an earnest and old fashioned western that doesn’t appear to be couching some political message in its entertainment.  It’s a throw back, really.

True Grit

If I had a vote, it would go to True Grit.  It’s great story telling, blending humor, adventure, and solemnity.  The cast is pitch-perfect, with Jeff Bridges, perhaps the finest actor of his generation, still at the top of his game; Hailee Steinfeld not a bit stilted in her 1800’s diction; Matt Damon unselfconsciously pompous; and Josh Brolin with the difficult task of playing dumb and doing it brilliantly.  The Coens have conquered another genre, and in the process, they’ve created an instant classic.

The Social Network

This is all highly subjective, of course, but when you look at things like story, direction, acting, sets, and music, you see that True Grit matches The King’s Speech and The Social Network in every category.  That said, I don’t think the Academy will agree with my take, as westerns are usually given short shrift this time of year.

Even though it will go down as one of the very best of the Coen brothers’ films, True Grit will lose out to The Social Network on February 27th.

2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Gasland

In 2006, a guy named Josh Fox received a letter from a company wanting to lease his land for the purpose of drilling for natural gas.  Fox lives in eastern Pennsylvania on a tributary of the Delaware River.  His parents bought the land, and with the help of some friends, they constructed the house that he calls home.

The letter described the Marcellus Shale deposit, that his house sat above, as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, extending from New York to Tennessee.  The company offered nearly $100,000 for the drilling rights, and piqued the curiosity of Fox, a banjo playing writer/director.  Gasland is the result of his curiosity.

Fox starts off by referring to his parents and their friends as hippies and playing an old black-and-white clip of Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land,” which is fitting because Gasland is structured like a folk song along the lines of Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.”  These references can be seen as a warning of where he’s going.

Gasland begins with a question, and leaves the tranquil woods of Fox’s home on a quest for answers, and like a good folk song, it tells the stories of common people – who look a lot like you and I – victimized by faceless companies with generic names like Encana, Chesapeake, and Williams.

Fox does a masterful job of finding and filming people so sympathetic that you never think to question their stories.  A couple are able to catch their tap water on fire with a lighter – as it comes out of the faucet.  Others have chronic illnesses that arose once drilling began.  They are as American as apple pie.  Fox also uses an effective Do-It-Yourself aesthetic that is both beautiful and deceptively amateurish, which underscores the underdog tone of the film.

As Fox travels further west, the density of the drilling increases to a point where he enters a geographical region known as the red zone.  This refers to red dots on a map, so thick they bleed together like a stain.  Remote places like Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas are portrayed not as idyllic escapes from the stresses of city life, but as polluted as a place like Los Angeles.

The cause of all this pollution?  Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking as it’s called.  It’s a process where huge quantities of water, sand, and chemicals are shot thousands of feet down into the ground to loosen the shale deposits and free the natural gas.  It’s a process that’s been in practice for decades, but the 2005 Energy Bill enacted regulations that, according to Fox, exempted natural gas drillers from safe drinking water laws, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and just about all environmental regulation.  At the center of this regulatory laisez faire was Vice President Dick Cheney and Halliburton, the company he once ran.

Along with the tales from ordinary folk, Fox brings out respected scientists, among them a MacArthur “genius grand” recipient, who voice dire warnings of polluted drinking water and air fouled by neurotoxins that cause a host of ailments such as sterility, loss of smell, loss of taste, and a variety of cancers.

It wasn’t until hours after I’d finished Gasland that I wondered about the accuracy of Fox’s claims.  I Googled the film and found many rebuttals to the film, from natural gas industry spokesmen as well as a few journalists, and the comments weren’t your run-of-the-mill polite disagreements.  Hardly.  Judging from the venom of the insults, Fox has touched a raw nerve made worse by the nomination of his film for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Rent Gasland then read the statements from the industry people and independent labs, and then decide for yourself whether we have anything to fear.  Even if Gasland is full of hot air, Josh Fox will have gotten you to think, if not act.  And that’s no small feat.

2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating peek into the world of what most folks would call graffiti, but others call street art.  The film, a surprise nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, has become a magnet for controversy, speculation, and curiosity seekers.

At the heart of the controversy is the film’s director, Banksy, the Garbo of the street art world.  I have no idea where Banksy ranks among street artists, but one thing is certain, he’s the shrewdest of the bunch at manipulating his image, much like Madonna when she was still relevant.  He’s shot like a whistle-blower or mob informant on the six o’clock news with an omnipresent hoodie pulled up and his voice lowered a few octaves.  Of course, this only adds to the mystery.

The controversies have to do with the authenticity of the film.  Some say it’s a hoax.  Others say that it’s not.  Many see the film as a commentary on the relationship between artist, audience, and commerce. There’s been a claim of plagiarism that could end up being part of an elaborate PR campaign to drum up interest in the film.  Whatever the truth of the controversies, one thing’s for certain – the movie is great.

Banksy opens the film by being interviewed, and he quickly introduces the co-protagonist of the story, Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles.

Guetta is a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ambrose Burnside, a voluble speaker with a goofy charm and infectious enthusiasm.  Guetta owns a thrift store in a bohemian neighborhood in LA, but an aimless obsession with videotaping almost every facet of his life led him to a cousin in Paris – known as Space Invader – who was part of the emerging street art phenomenon.  Guetta accompanied Space Invader on missions into the Paris night to bomb walls with his installations of mosaic recreations of Space Invader characters.

Meeting Space Invader and his friends was a turning point for Guetta, and a new obsession was born.  Back in LA, Guetta soon met Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who would become as famous for his iconic Obama poster (think the Obama-ize feature that was popular on Facebook for a while) as he was for his Obey campaign.  Fairey was a jumping off point for meeting and collecting other street artists, who didn’t mind having the friendly Frenchman along to document work that might take months of planning, hours of sometimes dangerous application, only to have it ripped down or painted over in a fraction of the time.

Artists are like trophies to Guetta, and the relationship between him and them is like observing a mutually beneficial relationship between parasite and host.  The bombing forays that Guetta documents are exciting and sometimes perilous, and that he shared in the danger earned him a place in their circle.  Over time he set his sights on Banksy, the elusive Englishman with the nerve of a cat burglar.  As Guetta pursued Banksy on his own, Shepard Fairey brought Banksy to Guetta’s backyard when Banksy visited LA and asked for a guide to help him find good walls to bomb.

It was a dream come true that led to an unlikely friendship, like Jimmy Olson and Superman becoming drinking buddies, and as the relationship is detailed, we also see the rise of Banksy as an international art commodity, having shows and being fawned over by the art world’s intelligentsia.

Guetta’s entre into the world of the street artists was that he was a filmmaker.  The funny thing is, no one ever called his bluff until Banksy finally asked him to put together the long-promised street art documentary, in part to show critics that he hadn’t sold out and that street art was about more than hype.

Guetta never planned on turning his thousands of hours of film into an actual movie.  The cassettes were merely boxed, stored, and forgot about.  Guetta’s movie, Life Remote Control, convinced Banksy that his friend was no filmmaker.  Banksy convinced Guetta to return to LA and pursue art and have a show so that he could take over the project and make a proper film.  What he made was the story about what happened when an eccentric Frenchman tried to make a documentary about Banksy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is part shaggy dog story, part buddy film, part quixotic adventure, and finally, a snapshot of the various talents who prowl the streets of the world’s cities, leaving their mark on the walls of those cities, if only for a short while.

Thierry Guetta is as fascinating a figure as Banksy in that they are complete opposites.  It’s a shrewd move by Banksy to frame his story this way.  As secretive as he is, Guetta is like a negative image, all open and forthcoming.  Where Banksy is cool, Guetta is a dopey tag-along, a sort of kid brother to the artists he adores.

There’s one final surprise in Exit Through the Gift Shop, where Banksy seems to be making a statement about the art world that amounts to biting the hand that feeds him.  Perhaps it’s an attempt to buy back some of his street cred.  Or maybe it’s just good entertainment.  Either way, after seeing this movie you’ll never look at graffiti the same way again.

2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Restrepo

Sports announcers often use military analogies to describe the athletes and action they cover.  Players are referred to as warriors and heroes, and games as battles and campaigns.  I never served in the military, so the silliness of such comparisons slip past me, most of the time, unnoticed.  Restrepo, a documentary covering a year in the life of a platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley reminds me of how ridiculous it is to compare pampered athletes to soldiers serving anywhere and underscores how far removed we are, as Americans, from the hardships faced by our fighting troops.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger, the film’s directors, were embedded with the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during their 14 month deployment in one of the most hotly contested pieces of ground in our current war in the Middle East.  The footage they captured, both on their own and from the soldiers themselves, is stunning in its intimacy with the day-to-day details of soldiering in the 21st century.

The style of the film is similar to D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which covered Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  There is no talking head narration.  The only framing comes from interviews done with about a half-dozen of the soldiers after the tour was completed.  And so it is that we are dropped into the midst of these men and witness camp life, from the horsing around that breaks up the monotony of repetitive chores, to the chaos of the frequent ambushes that take place when squads are out on patrol.  It doesn’t get any more compelling than this.

As censorship in feature films has grown more lax and special effects have gotten more sophisticated, film makers have made movies that seem to get it right, but after seeing the real-time reactions of soldier in the midst of an ambush, without the aid of slow-motion and jump-cuts, I begin to see just how big a gap there is between the Hollywood version of war and the real thing.

The most intense scenes in Restrepo deal with an operation called Rock Avalanche, a multi-day foray into Taliban controlled territory.  Interview footage with the surviving soldiers is intercut with footage shot during the various engagements with locals and an ambush where the Taliban seemed to come at the soldiers from every angle.

One Sergeant – Rice – is shot twice, once by a rocket propelled grenade launcher, which leaves him covered in shrapnel wounds.  His descriptions of the scene and how he figured he was living his last moments are humbling to witness.

Not long after Rice is hit, another Sergeant – Rougle – is killed in action.  Witnessing the reaction of one soldier to the news of his death, I felt like I shouldn’t be seeing this – that it was too personal and none of my business.  That said, Hetherington and Junger treat the situation with respect, all the while letting us see how each of a few gathered soldiers responds to the knowledge of this loss then regroups to deal with the situation at hand.

By cutting out the familiar sounding generals, commentators, and Afghani apologists, we are left with only the accounts of the soldiers who fought in the Korengal valley – from their captain down to the specialists who followed his orders.  It’s as intimate a portrait of military life as we’re apt to get, and over the course of the film, as we hear from about a half-dozen of them as they try to process the intense fighting they’ve just experienced, it’s impossible not to care for these guys, to hope and pray that they make it back home and are able to get on with their lives and enjoy the freedom they’ve purchased for us.

Hetherington and Junger leave the spin to us, and for that we should be grateful, for the images and insights that are passed on to us would be shamefully cheapened by politics.

My rating: 9 of 10