Saturday, February 27, 2010

Muriel Award Sidebar: Other Stuff We Loved, Pt. 3 (Misc. Categories)

(Sorry about the lateness of this one - didn’t get a chance to queue it before leaving for work…)


Best Body of Work: James Gandolfini

“James Gandolfini is a big man. He can play a powerful Pentagon general (In the Loop) or a lonely Wild Thing (Where the Wild Things Are) and he’s physically impressive even when, as in the latter, he’s not actually visible on screen. But there’s nothing “big” about these two 2009 performances. Sure, he commands your attention (and both characters have some temper issues), but he does so with refreshing modesty and playfulness. In Wild Things, he’s a hurt little kid in a big fuzzy body who builds toy models he wishes he could live in; in Loop, he’s a grown-up reduced to using a little girl’s pink-and-purple play laptop to calculate troop strength for a likely invasion of Iraq, clear across the big world. Either way, he makes a vivid, distinctive impression. To say I can’t imagine any other actor in these roles is a cliche, but I can’t. Gandolfini deserves to stand beside himself as a best supporting actor of 2009.” - Jim Emerson


Best Direction: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

“History will probably be made at the Kodak Theatre next Sunday, as it seems extremely likely that Kathryn Bigelow will become the first female filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Director. But I for one grow weary of how every consideration of this filmmaker’s prodigious talent always hinges on the apparently astounding fact that she does not have a penis. Last summer, Bigelow was present for a Hurt Locker screening I attended at the Harvard Film Archive, and during the embarrassing Q&A that followed, every inquiry from the audience took a similar form: “Ms. Bigelow, we agree it’s unfair that you’re always being pigeonholed as ‘a female filmmaker.’ But speaking as a woman, how do you feel about…”

So much for a discussion of craft. A shame, as you won’t find a finer example of pure, nuts-and-bolts cinematic skill this year than The Hurt Locker. A collection of almost unbearably intense set-pieces shot on shaky 16mm cameras, the movie elicits gasps not through groundbreaking special effects or cutting edge 3-D technology, but with simple, old-fashioned juxtapositions of image and sound. It’s just great filmmaking, pure and simple. There’s a jittery kineticism at work in even the film’s quietest scenes, a pervasive threat that violence could erupt at any moment, from any direction. Death comes swiftly and without warning in The Hurt Locker — characters are here, then gone in the blink of an eye.

Re-watching the film recently, it was impossible not to marvel all over again at the dexterity with which Bigelow prolongs the tension. Think of those languorous pauses between long-range rifle cracks and the eventual bullet hits, or Jeremy Renner’s slow, almost lunar walks in the bomb disposal suit. She’s in complete command of the medium here, perversely revolutionizing the genre by making a white-knuckle action-picture in which the audience really hopes that stuff *doesn’t* blow-up, instead of the other way around.” - Sean Burns


Best Cinematography: Christopher Doyle, The Limits of Control

“Wong Kar-Wai’s better half teaming up with Jim Jarmusch for The Limits of Control had to be a visual lay-up. Doyle’s work has always had a meticulous sensuality, and Jarmusch has framed each of his films so fastidiously, it’s easy to recognize his stamp within a few seconds.

Doyle’s imagery in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park showed what he could do with the pedestrian world of adolescence - transforming mall food courts, locker-lined school halls, and basement hangouts into existential outposts on the way to adulthood. Just think what the guy could do with Spain, Issach De Bankole’s chiseled mien, and a naked Paz de la Huerta!

I’m a huge Jarmusch fan (I’m one of those who think Dead Man is the best film of the ’90s) but I was disappointed with Limits. Rewatching bits of it for these piece, I was struck with how much better it would play with the sound off (or, as Mike D’Angelo pointed out, in a foreign, un-subtitled, language). Doyle’s lens seems to have a firmer grasp — control, even — of the metaphysics inherent to each scene than Jarmusch’s rambling script.” - Philip Tatler


Best Direction: Spike Jonze, Where the Wild Things Are

“Spike Jonze deserves an award for going the distance if nothing else. Where The Wild Things Are began shooting in 2005, two years before it suffered a disastrous test screening that led to a two-year struggle to bring his vision of Maurice Sendak’s book to the screen intact (at one point, there were rumors that Warner Bros. might scrap and reshoot the whole movie to make it more kid-friendly and palatable to a large audience). Thanks to Jonze’s tenacity (and an assist from Sendak), Where the Wild Things Are made it to the screen intact, which would be admirable even if the film didn’t work. But it works beautifully - the director’s rambunctious sense of humor comes into sharp focus through the eyes of his young protagonist, Max. While there was little question the film would be visually inventive, the sensitivity and insight Jonze brings to Max’s story are astonishing. Drawing a remarkable performance from his 10-year-old lead and shooting from a authentically childlike point of view that recalls films like E.T. and The 400 Blows, Jonze helps us remember with alarming clarity the wonderful and horrible experience of being a kid.” - Andrew Bemis


Best Ensemble: In the Loop

In the Loop proved that satire is not dead, something that any viewing of War, Inc. a few years ago would immediately call to question. Turns out Terry Southern might not be rolling in his grave after all.

Like the great Southern scripts, In the Loop is funny not because of the characters (who alone might grow tiresome) but because of their interactions. When, say, Malcolm is walking around laying a litany of unfathomable profanity into a phone, it’s not as funny as when he’s in a room with others watching their faces react to his thesaurusical blasphemy.

Even when characters are trying to segregate themselves, they’re surrounded by others. Linton’s office is an aquarium and he complains about the clear windows (“Glass offices, in my opinion, are for perverts”). The louvers on Simon’s office are controlled by someone who works for him (“I’m a government minister, and I don’t have control of my own blinds”). The sequestered meeting between Gen. Milller and Karen Clarke takes place in a little girl’s room, and even though said little girl is not present, she inserts herself through her encouraging audio calculator. There is no alone time.

The fact is, the whole movie is a table top of spinning tops ricocheting off each other, propulsion offered by Malcolm’s ebullient cussing. Since there are no pockets for escape, they keep banging into each other. Bottom line is that the amazing feat accomplished is that we start taking them seriously, and because of their interactions, can imagine that the comedy has not completely shielded them from bruising.” - Martin McClellan


Best Music: Passing Strange

“Given that Passing Strange is a filmed version of a Broadway musical that won a raft of Tony Awards, you’d expect the music to be pretty fantastic. I’ll admit, though, that I was unprepared for just how raucous and diverse the sonic palette was in Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s book. As the story follows a nameless young man breaking away from his comfortable home life in California and trying to find himself in Europe, the music swings from gospel to rock, from punk to pop, from singer-songwriter sensitivity to faux-art-rock weirdness. And it all comes off beautifully; as the narartive unfolds in ways both familiar and surprising, the vitality and energy in the music first informs, then counters, the proceedings. The truth, the life of the music will stand as a representation, both good and bad, of a man looking for the real stuff of life yet continually choosing to recede into his own inner world whenever, as the people sing, “it was starting to feel real.” In light of this, the final group chant of, “It’s all right!” is a violently ironic one. But thanks to the expert songcrafting, it’s still uplifting anyway.” - Steve Carlson

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