[2009] The Blind Side

blind_side_posterIdeally, an annual review of Best Picture nominees covers a large spread of potential zeitgeist defining ideas and representations. Part of what a year represented also depends on a plurality of other moods and ideas that make up, together, a large majority. The Academy might not choose an overwhelmingly representative favorite – and in the age of more than five nominees, the job is more challenging and without “coalition” the majority rules without mandate. So perspective is required to temper the idea that “the winner best represents the gestalt for the year”: a slim majority winner might doom an otherwise close runner-up to a shelf the annals of film history. In a winner-take-all event, no other method exists, unless the Academy can choose from only two candidates. But this defeats the purpose to spread film across media spectra and reach more people with a slew of “good” movies released that year. The cataloguing of [as of 2015, 528 films] tells the story of the industry from front to back and top to bottom. Of course, since the invention of the moving picture, millions of producers have gathered casts of actors and crewpeople to make films that span the world and decades of compounding history. Narrowing a year’s worth of film to any small number is reductive, whether five or ten or somewhere in between. And yet the exercise lives on.

The Blind Side is an additive to a recipe for which no one asked. Its inclusion on a list of ten required nominees startled the film’s producers. Admittedly, Sandra Bullock – in an Oscar-winning performance – worked this script to suck some message out of a dry rock, but the rest of the film felt as if it was both condemning stereotype and profiting from it. The screenwriter, adapting a thoughtful Michael Lewis book, took liberties with protagonist Michael Oher’s story to better serve an emotional manipulation that asked the reader to ignore a white savior motif in favor of a triumphant and soft-spoken boy who could not have “survived” on his own without the help of the White Man. The verisimilitude of this assumption is lightly racist and heavily manipulative, to the point where, once the initial do-gooding wears off, the audience roots for Oher’s success in spite of his supposed saviors. That the Academy felt this to represent 2009 speaks to their lack of faith in American emotional intelligence and an overall infantilism toward race. Continue reading

[2009] A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers have carved themselves a particular pastiche – most notably through the hyper-specifc self-reference and high-flying humor that’s usually black, or dark, and wrapped-up in some macabre topic. The brothers, Joel and Ethan, have been increasingly efficient Hollywood mainstays since their debut, Blood Simple, premiered in 1984. Through two intense periods of classic releases, the Coen Brothers have only created for themselves a wider range within which to work. Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, even over a 20 year hallmark, have all defined the Coens as Oscar-worthy writer/directors and opened doors to funding an star power in O Brother, Where Art Thou?No Country For Old MenTrue Grit and Burn After Reading. Their collective status have also granted them access to higher budgets and wider audiences all of whom can find something to which to relate. The Coen Brothers have carved themselves out an eponym and the command of Hollywood’s collective attention the way Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorcese do.

So what the hell is A Serious Man?

Their 2009 Jewish FargoA Serious Man plays from the left-field in the Coens’ roster – even for the men who once crafted an entire movie around Jeff Bridges’ ability to smoke marijuana and drink Kahlua all day. In short: A Serious Man is the nebbish version of The Big Lebowski if The Big Lebowski took place in an innocuous neighborhood close to FargoA Serious Man plays off almost every single Jewish stereotype, but for film’s sake each one is laughably overexposed. First, there’s the family: Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) a helpless family man, stuck in an unloving marriage to his wife and to his job, who experiences every possible failure all the time. For such an unstable person, he’s remarkable consistent and serves as a foil to A Serious Man‘s undulating cast of misfits. In minor roles, his family and his colleagues – and to a lesser extent his rabbis an lawyers – help to exacerbate his stereotypically Jewish neuroses: most spectacularly his utterly failed attempts to be a mensch. But it’s not for want of trying – the man Larry Gopnik is instantly likable and the Coens do a mystical job of keeping him sympathetic for the whole of A Serious Man even through his trials of not being able to do anything with gumption and panache. The methodology in A Serious Man recalls the Coen Brothers’ long résumé but something about the subject matter is simultaneously foreign and strikingly inherent to the Brothers’ upbringing and ascent to the top of Hollywood’s elite. Continue reading

[2009] The Hurt Locker

Recently, for no reason in particular, I’ve been obsessed with war.

I don’t know why I have a desire to see violence or connect with a soldier’s turbulent and uncertain lifestyle; I neither condone nor seek to kill or injure my enemy, and while my life is in transition, the uncertainty is more about approximate life choices. Certainly not about life or death.

Nevertheless, I find myself more and more identifying with a soldier and what it means to be one-track, one-day-at-a-time. 2009’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, bridges the gap between a warman and a civilian to a remarkably relatable T. Director Kathryn Bigelow inserts us, the readers, into the middle of the Iraqi conflict, but not as a demure bystander. We’re not confronted with the disaster story of a personal tragedy or a shaky upbringing that led to a damaged soldier with a death wish. Instead, our conflict exists extant the horrors and violence of war. The camera work and the haziness of what’s “right,” inserts each of us into the uncertainty of a bomb squad, whose task it is to defuse IEDs and uncover some of the layers of war not related to conflict or even guerrilla warfare. We’re concerned with this teams’ move on a minute to minute basis. Compelling tells half the story.

The phrase, “the hurt locker,” is an interesting one, as it’s relatively obtuse as a straightforward metaphor, but shockingly obvious if we peel back the layers. For me, a hurt locker is a place to store despair, hate, anger, annoyance – negativity; it’s an organizational tool through the lens of war. For our bizarrely autonomous team, the hurt locker is more literal (still figurative) – in a place where death is relevant and imminent the hurt locker is a function of a solider’s mind to quickly switch on and off the feelings to achieve a task. For our soldiers, who seem to operate without direct command, it is essential that the hurt locker exists to keep a clear head when lives are at stake. But what happens when lives aren’t at stake?  Continue reading