Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Oscar Buzz Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary!

Well, the moment is here again. The Oscar Buzz is celebrating its fifth anniversary with the familiar rapturous applause. But how do I choose to remember this occasion? I looked at the previous years and found that sticking to Oscar-related number themes was a good idea. So, I began thinking: What goes with five? At worst, this could be an essay on FIVE Easy Pieces, at best I could rank "The Big Five" winners, which sounded a bit dull to me. While I was looking, I saw another trend: personal stories that connect me to these movies. It's why I decided to go with something less obvious. I would try and pick the year with five Best Picture films that I felt represented me the best. It doesn't necessarily have the best, but I felt this could be a launch pad for a personal remembrance of how cinema has impacted my life. So, why does the Class of 2002 stand out above the rest? I'll tell you why after the jump.

Scene from Chicago
Coming to the final conclusion was both easy and difficult. For starters, there's an unfortunate amount of years where I haven't seen 100% of the Best Picture nominees. While I had strong feelings about 1994's class, I hadn't seen Four Weddings and a Funeral. Even if 1967 had one of my all time favorites (The Graduate), I didn't have strong feelings on the other nominees. The only year that I had strong opinions on that could even compete with my final pick was 1981, which was the year that Chariots of Fire beat Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds, On Golden Pond, and Atlantic City. My main worry is that that year would be largely a cynical attack that I've made a few times related to what I feel is the worst Best Picture winner of them all. I wanted to focus on films that could explore my personality, interests, and reasons for loving the Oscars. It's why I landed on 2002, which included winner Chicago and nominees Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Pianist

To be honest, no year comes as succinctly to my identity quite like this year. I'll admit that many years have films that I have stronger feelings about, but this was the year that stuck with me as I grew up. I returned to these movies and found appreciation where I hadn't before. I understood the intersection between ingenuity and awards so well, and its five selections ran the entire spectrum of genres that I would grow to love. It had musicals, epics, Holocaust dramas, stories about writers, and of course Martin Scorsese's ultimate flawed masterpiece. To differing capacities, I find this line-up insanely rewatchable and feel that it was in part because 2002 was a year where I was too young to appreciate nuance, but had a nostalgia and awareness for certain cultural landmarks. Yes, some of my love for 2002 comes from the fact that it was the last time a musical won Best Picture (and the only in my 28 years alive). However, it was just a formative year where cinema, much like the era, was starting to form around me.

Scene from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
It would be wrong to start at any point besides The Two Towers. As a teenager growing up in the early 00's, it was one of those formative moments in cinematic history on par with the original Star Wars trilogy. This wasn't just a fantasy franchise, it was a technical achievement that proved that people could care about orcs, dwarfs, ents, elves, wizards, and of course Gollum. Speaking as The Matrix trilogy was the previous phenomenon to let us down, it was exciting to see a trilogy that used technical skills to visually stimulate the audience. It was like witnessing the future on celluloid, which I had the pleasure to see on the big screen in between reading box office reports of the trilogy's everlasting strangle-hold on all of pop culture. It was a glorious time and, even if Return of the King gets most of the credit, The Two Towers remains my favorite of the three and actually every film since (I tried to get into The Hobbit franchise, but the passion feels absent).

But why does this film stand out? It was a large part of my youth, even if I was far from a fantasy kid. The legend of Andy Serkis began with this movie as Gollum became a hero on the courts of middle school. Who wouldn't want to imitate "My precious" in that sly voice? I maintain that he is one of the greatest achievements in 21st century cinema, even if you can argue that countless battle scenes were cooler or that Gandalf storming in at the end of the movie was brilliant. The movies also have a personal attachment because my father, who was insistent on buying all three extended editions, watched them nonstop as he worked on various projects in his workshop. They were our form of bonding, up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark or T2: Judgment Day as movies that we both liked. It was just the right intersection that what we cared for was the same as what audiences elsewhere did.

In hindsight, the part that baffles me a little is that audiences were so invested in a trilogy that got mocked for being, combined, almost 12 hours long. In some ways, I still suffer from a certain impatience that makes longer movies a bit of a chore. However, the massive scope was my first exposure to what epic cinema was. I took in everything on the screen and was stuck in wonder, being thankful that I grew up in a time where these movies were new and exciting. Even if my interest in The Academy Awards wouldn't come for another few years, 2003 was one of those years where I witnessed a phenomenon on par with Gone With the Wind when Return of the King annihilated the box office and won every Oscar it was eligible for. I remember listening to Radio Disney the following day and hearing "On Oscar night, everyone was saying the 'f' word." It was a joke meant to imply fantasy, but even in that way Peter Jackson's magnum opus taught me to tell cornball jokes.

As a bit of a shameful confession, I don't have strong feelings about The Pianist besides the Krystallnacht scene. For whatever reason, it isn't a Holocaust movie that I revisit often (especially in comparison to Schindler's List). Even if my friends in later years claim its brilliance and that it's one of Adrien Brody's finest performances, the film doesn't have a lasting memory. However, it's one of the few serious movies that I remember watching as a young teenager in large part because of the aforementioned Krystallnacht scene, which was a visceral experience. I remember the sight of broken glass as bottles were tossed and wondering what was going on. I had never seen such an odd event of world history depicted on film before, and I wouldn't really understand it for another few years until I took a history class in high school that addressed World War II in deeper clarity.

Like all good people in Oscar circles, I remember Brody's Oscar win where he kissed Halle Berry. I remember the countless essays asking "What is he doing?" when he made a movie after this that didn't feature Wes Anderson in some capacity. Still, it's a minor work in my general empathy for the Holocaust. Besides Schindler's List, my reference points vary from Life is Beautiful to the powerful memoir "Night" by Elie Wiesel. "Night" had a bigger impact on me than the more popular "The Diary of Anne Frank," but the ability to personalize a horrific event was nevertheless what made these events hard to forget, even when I had a sunny disposition and was thinking of other things. It was sad when Wiesel died last year and part of me regrets not really having an appropriate medium to address how much "Night" meant to me, a white Catholic who at best has Jewish friends that I know impersonally. I've been invited to Passover, but never have I heard a first hand account of the Holocaust beyond "Night." 

Over the course of my life, I have also visited the Museum of Tolerance three times. For those who aren't aware, it's a museum dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. One of the aspects is that you get a card during the tour of someone who was taken hostage. As you go through the tour, you see the images, sit in a recreated gas chamber, and listen to accounts meant to humanize the experience in ways that make you feel the impact. I have been three times at differing points of my life, with the most recent being 2011 where my friends and I got put with a group of students from a Jewish school. When the tour was over, we were given an opportunity to find out who these people on the cards were. Some were living while others met an unfortunate fate. Still, the experience before enhances the surprise and anxiety that comes with that discovery in ways that you wouldn't expect.

I suppose that I could even speak about how Roman Polanski fits into my life. I agree that his personal life is reprehensible and he should be trailed for it. However, his other films have made it much more conflicting, even after The Pianist with films like Carnage and Venus in Furs. Still, I love Repulsion and Chinatown with a deep sincerity that makes it difficult because I do think it takes a hurt man to make those films as brutal as he does. His stories regarding the Holocaust are sad, and the death of Sharon Tate makes his story even more uncomfortable. Still, part of me wonders how he gets out of bed in the morning, both for the bad things he's done and the bad things inflicted upon him. While I do think it will be tough to assess his work isolated from everything else when he passes, I do think he's nothing but a fascinating individual whose life I find very tragic. 

Scene from Chicago
Here's another shocking detail: I didn't like Chicago when I first saw it. I forget why that was, but it was such a secondary film in my life that the memory completely faded besides that it won Best Picture and that phone saleswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That's how low I thought of the movie at the time. That's why I think revisiting it in the past few years is a bit shocking. But before I share that story, I thought that maybe it would be best to share more personal memories that I hope enhance the remainder of this story.

In some capacity, I have always loved movie musicals. Among my earliest exposures to the genre was West Side Story, which remains a popping spectacle whose music hasn't left my ear drums. I remember once being enthused when I saw a framed picture from the movie at the airport. Still, it is the perfect embodiment for what I look for in musicals. It was upbeat, catchy, and had some killer dance moves. I am not sure what age I finally embraced the genre openly and began searching through all the classics, looking for what were my favorites. What I do know is that my appreciation has only really developed in my post-high school years after I took film classes and saw the genre as art. I wasn't straddled with the myth that Mama Mia! was a great representation of musicals because it was the only one released. I could look through history and see the masters at work: Donen, Sandrich, Berkeley, Minnelli, Kelly, and of course... Fosse! How could you not love Fosse? He is the man who made the amazing Cabaret and the best ode to self-indulgence ever with All That Jazz

Like all of film, I was able to see musicals as a legitimate art form. In 2005, my great-uncle died and I was left his old DVDs. Among them was The Exorcist, which is a story for another day. However, Chicago was another one in there, and that's when I first saw it: as a 16-year-old with an insecure need to like guys stuff. Again, I didn't know that musicals could be reputable. I hadn't even thought of how sparingly legitimate ones had been made in the 21st century. I just knew that it was odd. I think all of this adds up to a disarming experience where a few years ago I saw the movie and was amazed solely at the editing in the "All That Jazz" opening number. Of course, I was also surprised to see McNulty in something besides The Wire. I'll admit it wasn't the greatest musical of all time, but it was one that felt criminally underrated, even if I remember my college journalism teacher once playing the soundtrack and praising its view of journalism (at least it isn't Newsies in that regards).

I've heard the soundtrack in various parts of my life since that day. I've even heard it at a friend's burlesque show in England when "She Had It Coming" was part of the pre-show house music. I'll admit that I don't think of the secondary songs that much, but I do hold it in higher regard because I'm mad that I didn't care more when a legitimate musical actually won Best Picture. I knew Les Miserables wouldn't win, but I loved it hard anyways. Even if I admit in hindsight that La La Land is a bit sloppy as a traditional musical, even that stung a little to see reduced to mockery. Still, Chicago is among the best musicals that have won, and I think that the story is far richer than audiences expecting pomp and circumstance will get. It's an upbeat jazz era (another thing: I kinda fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald's version of the jazz age many years ago and find "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" to be one of my all time favorites) musical about murder. There's even a great drama about it called Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers, which is pretty charming but definitely for different reasons.

Scene from The Hours
My earliest memory of The Hours ironically is what turned me off from seeing the movie for over a decade. As a child, I watched The Tonight Show faithfully and was excited when I got to be in the same room as Jay Leno on three different occasions. I remember once that he joked about how bad The Hours was, and I had the perception that it was THAT kind of movie. It was something self-indulgent that wouldn't appeal to me. My perception of Nicole Kidman during the time was also pretty bad, as I think my teenage anti-Tom Cruise phase made anyone within his circle a bit of a pariah to me. Even the fact that I controversially liked Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close despite later feeling like it was manipulative didn't even get the Stephen Daldry bump that being impressed by most directors would get.

I forget what finally got me interested, but I put it on when Netflix had it on demand. Like most of these stories, it was a later in life experience that happened after I had matured a bit beyond my 13-year-old brain where I got movie advice from Leno. Beyond the triptych nature, I found myself enraptured by its intertwining themes of depression. The one that stands out the most is Kidman's portrayal of Virginia Woolf, who I knew little about going in. Somehow her story of insecurity connected deeply that I was able to overlook the prosthetic nose and be taken in by the emotions of her walking into a lake. Even if Daldry gets flack for being melodramatic, I still found his balance to be superb, even on par editing-wise with stream of conscious techniques like Cloud Atlas. It helped that the performances of Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep were also some of the best that I had seen.

My relationship with Streep has been fraught at best, if just because that's how I have to be. I don't like that she's been nominated for sometimes mediocre work that nobody cares about. I believe that better actresses have deserved to be nominated in her place. The unfortunate tangle is that earlier this year, my opinion of "She is overrated" could be mistaken for the belief of a right-wing politician (which I like to believe that I am far from). I'm not saying that she is always bad, but her constant praise is misleading and harmful. For instance, I liked August: Osage County, but not because of Streep. As a fan of witches, it's also annoying that her Into the Woods nomination is the only witch performance with an Oscar nomination. Still, this and Doubt would have been reputable third Oscar material. When she has charisma, it produces some incredible work, like it does here.

I'm also intrigued by the LGBT themes that run in Streep's story. Throughout my teenage years, I like to feel that my understanding of LGBT themes has evolved in a positive manner. Milk was a formative movie for me because it coincided nicely with the Prop 8 protests. Tom Hanks, who is unconditionally tied affectionately to me, gave a phenomenal performance in Philadelphia that I feel went a long way towards positive change. Even in recent years, Carol is a film that I cherish greatly and feel that it's one of the few moments where gay movies were allowed to be more than acknowledging gay behavior. It was a story of romance that was so pure and honest that gender doesn't matter. It's a powerful story that, much like many incidents here, may be told another day. I'll admit that The Hours isn't the first LGBT movie that I think of, as I am more invested in Woolf's story tapestry. Even then, the story effectively shows the complexity of women through the 20th century in ways that are effective in their simplicity. 

I choose not to discuss depression here, as it would only make this piece longer. I admit that it's a piece of why I love The Hours and personally hold it dear. Still, it's the artistry that finally got me to accept Kidman as one of the modern virtuoso. If you don't believe that she's great, you probably just need to watch her 2017 output. Lion, The Beguiled, Top of the Lake: China Girl, Big Little Lies, and possibly The Killing of a Sacred Deer all show just how charismatic she is. Still, her entire filmography is great, and this is one of those few Oscar wins that I'm not entirely mad about, even if I wished that the movie spent more time on Woolf and her fascinating life. Still, it's one of those films that surprised me years later in ways that I was not sure I was ready for. Part of me feels like it still gets short shrift, but I do think it's another reason that 2002 is an incredible Best Picture line-up.

Scene from Gangs of New York
Finally, if there's one director that I could apply shorthand for and get my point across, it's Martin Scorsese. Who doesn't love him? I have made a conscious effort to see every fiction film of his in theaters since The Departed in 2006 (yes, even the blip of an existence for Silence). He is one of those filmmakers that is thankfully culturally accepted as brilliant and manages to do whatever he wants with usually financial success. I could talk about why Taxi Driver remains a personal favorite of mine. I could discuss how After Hours reminds me of desires I had as a teenager to stay out late. I could even argue about how Silence makes me look at my own faith. Unlike the previous films on here, I'm probably going to stick strictly to Gangs of New York because I feel that it is underrated, or as I like to call it: "Scorsese's flawed masterpiece."

It isn't his best, but I am a big fan of films with expansive goals that strive for something greater. This was a brief moment when Cameron Diaz could've been a great actress. It's one of Daniel Day-Lewis' greatest films, and I feel set the template for later collaborations that Scorsese did with Leonardo DiCaprio. This film has so much just in ensemble and casting that is interesting. It's a side of New York that doesn't get explored often in cinema. Even when Scorsese made a period piece like this with Day-Lewis (Age of Innocence), it didn't have that spitfire grit to it that compelled you from the opening frame. Even the mediocre works of latter day U2 made for a decent song that played over a rather impressive finale. Even if this was secondary, Scorsese proved that he knows how to make art.

While I love this movie, I don't have as many revelations to share as I did on the other four. The best that I could say is that I enjoy it and find myself returning to it at weird points of my life. For instance, I watched it over two nights when I came home stressed from late night work during the Christmas season. It was one of the more pleasant parts of my night, as it was also the moment when I lost it and accidentally ruined my cell phone by sticking it through the washer. Not all Gangs of New York stories are tied to chaos, though most have an irony of being a few strings short of negativity. I remember once joking that "Cameron Diaz was in a good movie?" and my friend responding "If you consider Gangs of New York a good movie." Later on, my Cultural Anthropology teacher recommended it as extra credit, though I ended up hating that class anyways. 

Scene from The Two Towers
So in a lot of ways, movies have helped to define who I am in some capacity. While I like to think that I would have great stories for years like 1994 (Quiz Show is the best, people), I don't think that they would give a better sense of me as an individual. While this blog is intended to explore cinematic history as it happens, I do think that there's something to understanding the people behind the words, and few years embody my identity quite like 2002. As you have seen, these movies unveiled a lot about myself that I like to think is interesting. I don't think that this was the best year for movies, but I don't have a single memory-free movie on this list. 

But the most important and impressive part is that I have somehow been running this blog for five years now with varying degrees of success. I am proud of myself and the work that I have accomplished. I admit that reality has made it sometimes a hassle to dedicate proper time, but I hope to continue to do this as long as it remains fun. I wonder what memories lie ahead for year six. Maybe they will be some of the best that I have ever had. Even then, chronicling movies I kinda dislike such as Silver Linings Playbook still produced some of my most memorable cinematic writing memories. Here's to the years ahead, and hopefully they are just as good as what's been done so far. 

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