Goodbye to Santa Fe

This portrait of my daughter and me is entitled Dynasty:

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You can do this when you live in Santa Fe. The iron throne was at the 200-year-old mall down the street from my favorite bar, near where I work. George R.R. Martin owns a movie theater in the neighborhood. (The Jean Cocteau. I love that theater. I will always remember watching Memento there with my dad in 2000.)

Martin was my neighbor. A few days before my family moved to Mexico, I saw him walking to the park. His Song of Ice and Fire books will always be bigger and better than the Game of Thrones TV show. If you are writing about the show on the internet without reading the source material, then you are an incurious hack and an anti-expert. The story is all gods.

Santa Fe, to me, is mind-blowing artwork, an annual January flood of evil politicians and suck-up lobbyists, breakfast burritos at El Chile Torreado, insanely good beer, the Cathedral, The Plaza, George R.R. Martin, and this blog.

This is my last post. There may a Flip Side in San Pancho in the future, but I have other things I want to write right now. It’s been fun, and thanks to everyone who’s been reading. Counting hits got addictive.

I miss Santa Fe, but we wanted to move.

Good luck Mr. Martin. And thank you for signing my shirt. I wear it often.

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Amazing Spider-Man, the Weeping Wuss

Spider-Man is still a teenager. Five movies and two actors in, we have yet to see a powerful badass who could hope to hang with The Avengers or the X-Men. This sucks. Spider-Man could be our greatest on-screen action hero. Instead we get a weepy teenage bitch.

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Filmmakers can fix Spider-Man movies with big action and rough-and-tumble gangster bad guys

The best comic-book movies embrace their hero’s abilities. X-Men 2 remains the gold standard, because it was a series of creative action scenes embracing characters’ powers. Nightrcrawler teleports into the White House, vanishing and reappearing as secret service agents try to shoot him. Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike use their claws to stab each other hundreds of times within a few minutes. Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison, with little balls of metal pulled from a security guard’s blood, is kind of brilliant.

The Avengers was the same way. The director had fun with the characters’ powers and their personalities. The fights are great and the banter’s sharp.

(The Dark Knight doesn’t count. No super powers. It’s different.)

The filmmakers behind Amazing Spider-Man are so proud of themselves for telling the Gwen Stacy storyline, which was written decades ago and absolutely feels dated. They are old men who don’t read comic books for fun. Instead of embracing Spider-Man’s singular abilities—web shooting, danger detection, super strength, contortionist’s agility—they emphasize Peter Parker’s angst.

The wrong guy directs these movies. The actions scenes are spaced apart, abbreviated, and terrible. The fight with Electro in Times Square is not a fight. It’s like a negotiation with a baby. (Jamie Foxx’s performance as Electro reminded me of the Kilmer and Clooney Batman movies.) The fight with Electro in the power plant is a fight—in which Electro’s electricity doesn’t damage Spider-Man.

Mark Webb directed the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer before taking on Spider-Man. “There is an incredibly innocent and tender quality to Peter Parker,” he said. Yeah, that’s not why he’s cool.

It kills me to think Iron Man has become cooler than Spider-Man. The Spider-Man character is beloved and possibly Marvel’s greatest. In the comic books he often teams up with the X-Men and Fantastic Four. He actually joined The Avengers. He’s incredibly powerful, with a singular skill set—super strength, danger detection, web shooting, contortionist’s agility. He’s smart and tough, a savvy crime fighter and vanquisher of super villains. The movies always want to linger in his formative years, eschewing what makes him—Hello?—amazing.

Peter Parker cries nine times in ASM2. Wolverine would never team up with this wimp

Where the fuck is Venom?

Johnny Football to the Browns

The grocery-store cashier saw my hat today and said “You a Browns fan?”

“Hell yeah,” I said. “We got Johnny Football!”

Our high five was so authentic and loud that people noticed.

The Browns drafted Brady Quinn No. 22 in the first round a few years ago, and that was a joke. Two years ago, overrated idiot walrus Mike Holmgren drafted Brandon Weeden No. 22, and Browns fans will remember Holmgren forever as an overrated idiot walrus who doesn’t know a fucking thing about drafting quarterbacks.

Drafting Johnny Manziel at No. 22 on Thursday night was different. It was great. It was right.

In February, Johnny Football told the Houston Chronicle “If something happens, and it’s the Cleveland Browns, I’m going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland. I don’t care if they’ve had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I’m going to be the 21st and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.”

Yes. Just yes.

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Kevin Costner Kicks Cleveland Browns Fans in the Face

Kevin Costner kissing Jennifer Garner is gross, but it’s not the worst thing about Draft Day. Nor is the disturbing subplot of his flabby neck: Will he undo the top button on his dress shirt to release that pinched wattle? (It looks so painful.) The worst thing about Draft Day is its Cleveland Browns backdrop. The explanation is stupidity or sadism or both. I bet both.

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I wore a Browns hat to the theater to see Draft Day. I am not objective. My family’s from Cleveland, and feisty relatives have inceptioned me since youth to root for this team. It’s how sports works for honest fans—our teams become our teams through personal (usually familial) connections. Like being born with diabetes, I got the Browns. They lose most of their games every year. Playoffs? Never.

Draft Day begins 13 hours before the NFL draft, an annual event when teams take turns picking the best college football players. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager of the Browns. The movie details his wheeling and dealing up to and during the draft. He also—that morning—learned his girlfriend (Garner, who works for the team as a budget specialist) is pregnant. And his dad, whom he fired as coach of the Browns the year previous, just died.

Ugh. The girlfriend and father issues are typical bad movie menu items. Whatever. The real problem is its emphasis on the first round as imperative. If Weaver Jr. nails his pick, it’s said, he’ll “save football in Cleveland.” To which I spit a Sour Patch Kid at the screen in hopes it sticks, and scoff loud enough to be shushed by fellow ticket-buying members of key demographics. Browns first-rounders have been good when they’ve been unsexy selections—offensive linemen and a cornerback. It’s otherwise been bust after epic bust year after awful year. The premise of this movie is garbage.

Not that it’s a real movie.

The NFL is a mighty brand peddling one of America’s favorite products: sports on TV. Football gives it best. Fans say thank you by paying extra on our cable bills for all the games, or going to bars and buying food and beer. I gave them money for the ugly Browns hats I wear, and my grandma gives them money for the Browns sweatshirts she sends me each Christmas.

The crafty millionaires and billionaires running this slick corporation want our eyes on days there aren’t games, to satiate powerful advertisers (mostly light beer and pharmaceuticals). Thus the draft has grown into a blockbuster television event, its first round (of seven) airing in a sweet Thursday-night slot. Draft Day is an ultimate commercial for the event: a “romantic” “comedy” and a Kevin Costner sports flick.

Costner and his pinched neck should not be kissing Garner; he looks like her dad. And I don’t think general managers talk this way. “The kid’s got a great first step, I’ll give him that.” “He’s pro-ready. End of story.” Drafting pros in every sport has become an intricate science of statistical data mining, psychology, and physiology. Analytics. Film study. Scouting. In Draft Day, Costner makes decisions based on weird conversations. “None of the kid’s teammates attended his birthday party, Sonny.” If this is really how Browns GMs work, it explains a lot and I’m glad they get fired so often.

High cruelty is filmmakers choosing the Browns for this dumbed-down two-hour ad for the first round of the NFL draft. Cleveland football is the ultimate proof that these deals we’re watching Costner swing are guaranteed to go horribly. Draft Day would have been bad if it featured any team. By spotlighting the Browns, it bends the knee to evil.

(I’ve ranted here about the Browns’ drafts before. Click here for a Flip Side freakout from the year fat asshole walrus Mike Holmgren picked Brandon Weeden over Russell Wilson.)

“The Notebook.” Gosling

From IMDB.com: Ryan Gosling prepared for his role by living in Charleston, South Carolina before filming began. For two months, he rowed the Ashley River in the morning and built furniture during the day.

Daniel Day-Lewis nods steely approval. Gosling is a badass.

“This is the only movie I’ll always say yes to watching,” my wife tells me. “Write that.”

We can take forever to pick a movie. The ordeal begins with DVD rack assessment. “Network”? I’ll say. “Midnight Run”? “Blade Runner”? No, no, no. “Dark Knight!” No. We’ll scroll Netflix options for half an hour. “Chinatown!” I’ll yell. “‘Capote,’ since Philip Seymour Hoffman just died!” “‘Bernie!’ McConaughey. Come on.” No and no.

“The Notebook” saves precious time.

“Lurgh,” the wife says as soon as it starts. “I hate the old people parts.” The old people parts are truly awful in “The Notebook.” It’s James Garner telling his wife about their days as youngsters in love. She’s got Alzheimer’s so bad she doesn’t remember.

But then we get to flashbacks—Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. I can’t help wondering as I watch this flick whether McAdams had a boyfriend when she was cast, and whether he came on set and watched Gosling convince her to go out with him by being as nice and handsome as possible. It would be like hoping the tide won’t rise.

“Wait,” my wife says. “Pause it.” She grabs the laptop. On YouTube, she brings up McAdams’s audition for the part. She’s reading with Gosling and they’re having a fight. She nails it. The camera holds only on her. You believe she loves whomever she’s yelling at, and is angry at him.

“Go back,” she says when it’s over. “Watch this.” At the end of the audition, Gosling is giving McAdams a hug. He pushes a strand of hair off her face and tucks it behind her ear. “They just met,” my wife says, “and he does that little intimate gesture.”

Instead of getting back to the movie, she next brings up a clip from the MTV Movie Awards in 2005, when “The Notebook” won Best Kiss. They go on stage and strip down to their undershirts. Gosling’s says “darfur.” They run at each other and she jumps onto him. He holds fistfuls of her hair. They kiss deep. The mob roars.

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My wife says they were a couple at the time. Hope so. Again I wonder if she had a boyfriend who sat there watching, pretending it’s cool. “They’re actors,” he’d shrug defensively.

Those scenes when it’s not old people, when it’s Gossling convincing McAdams they should be together, are pretty charged.

“The Notebook” is sweet, but it’s also creepy how they’re lying together dead at the end.

And just because that old man says he used to be Gosling doesn’t mean it’s true. He cries, firstly. Gosling doesn’t cry. He almost cries, then stops himself. Duh. And after they’re dead the movie shows photos of them as a young couple. It’s not Gosling in the photos, it’s young James Garner. Mysterious.

“The Notebook” is a great Gosling, but it’s a silly movie unabashedly embracing cliches. (Evil mustaches abound.)

It’s not even close to my favorite Gossling. “Drive” is my favorite. He says almost nothing while taking down a terrifying gangster empire. “Half Nelson,” where he plays a cynical drug-addict public school teacher, is a primal screen of a movie that earned him an Oscar nomination when he was 26. (Click here for two great minutes of acting.) “The Ides of March” sees him practically becoming Darth Vader as he darkens from idealist into a backstabbing political viper. “Lars and the Real Girl” is weird and great. “Gangster Squad” is not a good movie, but Gosling’s awesome in it as a World War I vet cop who doesn’t care about anything.

Bradley Cooper is an A-list stud now, right? In “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Cooper’s relegated to everyman, because Gosling’s in the movie and there can’t be two alphas.

The man is one of our best movie stars.

I made a pact once over a college foosball game to never watch “The Notebook.” Randy broke it first. If he hadn’t, my wife and I would still be scrolling Netflix.

“Last of the Mohicans!” No.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and Movie Critic Failure

“That was so bad,” I despaired, waiting for nachos. “I’m right, right? It was really that bad?”

“Yes!” Daniel snapped back. “What the fuck were those monkeys?”

We were staring over our beers at the Chama River Brewing Company bar. It was May 2008, after an advanced screening of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” I don’t often talk to strangers, but I couldn’t help telling the schlub two seats over “We just saw the new ‘Indiana Jones’ movie, man. Never see it. Oh my god.”

“South Park” soon made a graphic episode about how watching that movie was like watching Indy get raped by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

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The Rottentomatometer, which compiles every movie review on the internet into a percentage for each flick, shows a very high 78 percent for “Crystal Skull.”

If they serve any journalistic role at all, ubiquitous movie critics need to be calling out crap. They are too often wrong. I speak from a place of deep jealousy.

It was interesting to see Obama, between two ferns this week, say how bad an idea it was to make three “Hangover” movies, but how great Bradley Cooper is in them. Cooper also gets to be in good moves like “American Hustle.” Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence, the other stars of “Hustle,” have all served time in mutlistudio-powered franchises.

I think this is how it works for big-time actors. Yes, the studio tells them, you can make that David O. Russell movie with some of our money, but first you have to be in “Terminator Salvation.” Because we like driving gold-plated Bentleys.

There’s a scale, let’s say. At one end are movies made by talented directors with good scripts about interesting characters. At the other end are huge franchises. The huge franchises make billions for the studios, which subsequently finance the director-driven future Best Picture nominees.

Maybe critics can’t do anything about this system, but they shouldn’t enable it by endorsing obvious garbage like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Its Tomatometer was an astounding 89 percent. It is worth a billion dollars to its studio. It is an extremely bad movie with obvious, evil motives.

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A really cool guy I knew in my reporter days once told me his daughter hanged herself because of “Twilight.” He called the books “evil,” and thought I should write a story about what they do to young girls’ minds. His daughter insisted on being called Bella in the months before she died—the main character’s name—and gushed daily about how dreamy Edward is. Edward is the sexy high-school vampire Bella loves.

I ran with the story just long enough for suicide experts to explain why “Twilight” did not cause my friend’s daughter to kill herself. She had other (extremely sad) issues.

“Twilight” didn’t help, though. As we’ve discussed here before, “Twilight” is absolutely about sex, but it never says so explicitly. Immature entertainment consumers, around the ages of maybe 12-15, obsess over “Twilight” because of its love story, but they don’t realize almost every page or minute of movie is about characters who want sex but fear its consequences. That strange message seeps in before kids are smart enough to understand it.

I don’t think people understand how bad “Twilight” is. Bella gets so distraught when Edward dumps her that she starts riding a motorcycle too fast, without a helmet. Bella and Edward are confusing, dangerous role models.

Before the “Catching Fire” Blu-ray gets to the movie, an ad runs for the 10-disc collection called “Twilight Forever.” All four movies, plus 100 hours of bonus stuff. It costs $75.*

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There’s an amazing scene in the first “Hunger Games” movie. Katniss is one minute from the start of the game. She hugs her friend and she’s shaking. Her lips quiver. She’s breathing hard and her neck strains as she slowly walks to a tube that takes her to the field of play. A 50-second countdown begins. She can’t move until it’s over. She looks at the other kids, and at the stash of weapons they’re all facing. Everyone runs when the countdown hits zero. There’s no sounds but a hollow tone, and the camera shakes as Katniss watches opponents start killing each other with knives and axes.

It is so scary.

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Great science fiction mines tragic truth. Children should never, ever be in a position where they’re forced to kill one another. Yet this actually happens in our real world. The government of “The Hunger Games” is a lavish, wealthy class of psychopaths who rule impoverished slums and force the children of those slums to fight and kill. The story fictionalizes real problems, riding notions like income inequality and war to a dystopic vision of the future.

But it’s a tease. And, worse, a time suck. The fear Katniss experiences of having to kill others is a fascinating theme to explore, but not for four two-and-a-half hour movies. There is a true classic here, achieved by condensing the story and focusing on its most important aspects. We don’t get to see it.

Don’t tell me it takes 10 hours to tell. “Gladiator” has Maximus go from hero general to slave to gladiator to overthrowing the Caesar of Rome, all in under three hours. Katniss can inspire riots and take down Donald Sutherland in the same amount of time.

But no—10 hours. One movie can’t make what four can. So they pad the story with a teenage love triangle that oozes awful dialogue. Scene after scene is about either Peeta’s hurt feelings or Gale’s hurt feelings. Who will Katniss choose?

These scenes of two characters looking and talking intensely to each other are boring, but “Twilight” proved they work. It’s demographic targeting—tweeny love triangles are a billion-dollar formula. “The Hunger Games” pretends it’s about kids killing and elitist opulence, but those parts are brief. Almost all deaths in the games happen while Katniss is hiding far away. The actual meat is just fluff.

Instead of an incredible single science fiction movie, Jennifer Lawrence is the star of a franchise made interminable by selling out to a formula and disrespecting our time.

It’s probably not art if Hollywood suits are splitting billions in profits; it’s probably product. The critics should be watchdogging this. Instead, they happily swallow poisoned Subway sandwiches these megamoney franchises are branding. I’m telling you, Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” is so much better than “The Hunger Games.” No matter what the internet says.

Katniss gets attacked by computer-animated monkeys in “Catching Fire.” Monkeys. What the fuck?

* There’s also a trailer for “Divergent,” another “Twilight”/”Hunger Games” rip-off love story destined to make a billion dollars and be taken way too seriously.

Spike’s “Oldboy” is Great Art

If you like crazy in your coffee, try “Oldboy.” It’s art.

The original 2003 Korean “Oldboy” and the new Spike Lee remake both have a brilliant and intriguing opening act, and hammer killings. They have the most evil twist ending I’ve ever seen, and I watched all the old “Twilight Zone” episodes. I defy anyone to watch either flick and say they saw that coming.

If you haven’t seen “Oldboy,” you might still agree it’s crazy, because you might know the Virginia Tech killer took his own photo posed with a hammer like the poster of the original “Oldboy,” and sent it to media outlets. This is interesting in the context of how truly dark the violence and psychology of “Oldboy” becomes.

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Let’s leave it there.

There are flashes of goofy old Kung Fu movies in the first act of Spike’s “Oldboy,” when the main character, Doucett, is locked in a creepy hotel room for 20 years. There’s a TV, a poster of a bellhop, some unconvincing wallpaper, and not much else. Bad Chinese food is delivered daily, but Doucett doesn’t get to leave or talk to anyone. He knows he’s being watched. He goes nuts, then he gets a grip by exercising and writing letters to his daughter.

He gets out, unexpectedly, and tests the fighting skills he learned emulating those movies on a gang of douchey jocks. He brutalizes them. Later, in a single long shot without an apparent cut, he fights dozens of goons in two hallways and beats them all down with a hammer and their own weapons. He spins around them, grabbing their knives and bats and stabbing or pummeling them. It’s cool.

Not as cool, but definitely scary in the perfect way, is Sharlto Copley as the villain, Adrian, who locked Doucett up for so long. He is RIDICULOUS. It’s tempting to decide Copley’s overdoing it by being so weird, but he’s not. You can’t overdo a character with this guy’s background, going to these insanely extravagant lengths for revenge.

“Oldboy” flashes back occasionally, but Spike takes the present-tense characters into the flashbacks with us, so they’re like Scrooge watching Christmases past, invisible. One truly surreal scene shows Adrian and Doucett watching Adrian’s father move from room to room, blowing away every member of his family with a shotgun. Both kids (Adrian and his sister) eagerly offer up sex before they’re blasted. The dad concludes his rampage by shooting off the back of his own head while past and present Adrian both watch. The cinematography, with the shot following the dad around the house like it’s a third-person video game, is excellent work by Spike.

I’m not gonna give away the twist, partly because I don’t want to even write the words, but I am gonna give away the very last scene, so . . . .

. . . . Doucett is back in the room, presumably until he dies. He’s happy. It’s satisfying for us and him because this is exactly what he deserves. He wasn’t just bad, he was truly horrible—disgusting to his family and at work; so drunk he wound up puking on himself in the gutter.

Josh Brolin nails the drunk scenes. He checked into rehab for alcoholism around the time “Oldboy” came out. This is interesting in the context of how an actor can channel his own demons into a great performance. Let’s leave it there.

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When I told my wife how much I enjoyed Spike’s “Oldboy,” she said “You like everything.” I heard the same thing from colleagues when I was reviewing movies for the newspaper. I like a lot more movies than the general criticsphere, that’s true. But that’s because most critics have grown full of themselves and forgotten what art is.

Movie (and, worse, TV) critics all over the internet watch something, make a quick decision about it, and then work to convince readers certain things they didn’t like make a movie bad. I read these guys every day, and I’m jealous and bored and fascinated.

It’s easy to decide “Oldboy” is too violent or gross or overacted or whatever. But it’s a movie that wants to blow our minds and succeeds, whether you “like” what you’re seeing or not. Spike Lee is an artist, and he’s not boring, and I love that.

You know what isn’t art? You know a movie I didn’t like? It’s also newly out on DVD. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was beloved by the critics, but it’s the opposite of art. It’s pure product. We’ll come back to this.

Oscars Combat Legendary: Gump v. Pulp v. Shawshank for 1994 Best Picture

Movie glory is Bruce Willis moving slowly down the steps of Zed’s pawn shop with a samurai sword, his face and tight white T-shirt drenched in blood. And Winston Wolf arriving in under 10 minutes to coolly rectify The Bonnie Situation. Jules quoting Ezekiel 25:17. Jody, face pierced all over, smiling as Lance says “Three!” and Vincent stabs the adrenaline shot through Mia Wallace’s breastplate.

Pulp-Fiction

“Pulp Fiction” is a classic for so many reasons, but the Oscar for Best Picture of 1994 went to “Forrest Gump.” The nominees that year were “Pulp Fiction,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Forrest Gump,” “Quiz Show,” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

It’s the first three we remember. Especially and empirically, it’s the first two we remember—”Pulp Fiction” and “Shawshank.” The ones that didn’t win.

With “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” staring Academy Awards voters right in their faces, why did they give “Gump” the award?

Ease is why. Ease explains “Dances With Wolves” over “Goodfellas.” Some movies are simply built to win Best Picture.

Let’s start with Quentin Tarantino’s gritty masterpiece. It’s as advertised: pulp. The characters are all bad guys.

But it’s pulp rendered as astonishing cinema. Tarantino’s film studio is called A Band Apart, after the Jean-Luc Godard film “Bande à part” (“Band of Outsiders”). Like Godard’s movies, “Pulp Fiction” will be studied in classrooms forever. It’s self-referential past the point of post-modernism—a movie that knows it’s a movie. It jumps time, beginning and ending the same place, killing its most prominent character halfway through and then bringing him back. When Mia Wallace traces a box in the air to call Vincent a square, the box appears and then vanishes.

In the film’s first scene, Honey Bunny screams at customers in the diner “I’ll execute every mother fucking last one of you!” When we relive that same moment at the end of the movie, the line has changed to “I’ll execute every one of you mother fuckers!” Tarantino didn’t mistakenly let the line change; he was reveling in the freedom to play. He even inserts a supernatural MacGuffin in that briefcase. Movie!

John Travolta has a dance scene! And that whole date with Mia takes place in a restaurant that’s entirely an ode to old movies.

“Pulp Fiction” is funner than dodgeball, its dialogue and cleverness and giddy violence all mixing into a blast of a movie. But it’s also a precise work of smart art. Again: It will be in liberal arts curricula forever.

And yet it lost. “Pulp Fiction” is a masterpiece now and it was a masterpiece then. In 1994 critics like Siskel and Ebert were beside themselves over how great “Pulp Fiction” was, devoting an entire show to it. And yet it lost. It lost Best Picture to “Forrest Gump.”

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This is the last installment of The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series, since I’ll be snowboarding all weekend. We’ve already debated Best Supporting Actress, Best Documentary (that one’s rough), and Best Supporting Actor. Go Fassbender. “The Wolf of Wall Streetis second or third for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture. This one’s supposed to be about Best Actor, but it’s really an excuse to talk Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects.”

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Let’s recall that “The Shawshank Redemption” set an all-time record for most rentals in 1995. When TNT started airing it, they couldn’t stop because the movie’s cable ratings, likewise, set records. A lot of us missed it in the theater, but we’ve caught up. (“The Big Lebowski” is similar that way.)

There are no truer indicators of how much we like a movie than how often it is rented and watched on TV, and “Shawshank” kicks the ass of both “Forrest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction.” When the American Film Institute listed its Top 100 movies of all time in 1998, “Shawshank” wasn’t on it. Nine years later AFI released the list again, and “Shawshank” was No. 72, above “Forrest Gump” (76) and “Pulp Fiction” (94).

Craziest of all is this link. IMDB.com keeps an ongoing ranking of the movies reviewed most favorably by its users. “Shawshank” is No. 1 on that list. Today. Has been for years. No. 2 is “The Godfather.”

“Shawshank” is inspiring. Andy Dufresne didn’t kill his wife, he was just mad at her. And for that the universe saw fit to put him in prison. It’s the epitome of unfairness. We watch Andy find glimmers of humanity when he could just fold and wither into someone like Brooks. He gets beers for men working outside. He plays opera over the loudspeaker. “Get busy living or get busy dying,” he tells Red. And we think he might be killing himself. Instead he sets himself free, unveiling a brilliant plan cooked over decades, unbeknownst to anyone. This story is narrated by Red, who takes us right with him through that incredible ending—from sad to confused to shocked to delighted.

When Red’s finally out, they meet on a beach.

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BOOM! That’s a movie. For grownups, though. And its focus is friendship, which doesn’t have quite the manipulative tug of a movie where two pretty people fall in love and marry so one of them can die.

Not that “Forrest Gump” isn’t full of friendship. Forrest’s best friend dies in his arms.

Of course he does. To win Best Picture the same year “Pulp Fiction” and “Shawshank” came out, you had to pull out all the stops. Bubba dying by that river in Vietnam was just one ingredient in a sappy souffle of Oscar treaties.

It’s a perfect Best Picture nominee. “Forrest Gump” is, first of all, rated PG-13 while the other two contenders are both R. It was a movie families could go see together.

Yet it also juggled sex and violence. It’s a comedy, aiming for laughs at times, but it also portrays bravery in war and tragic love, which Oscar gobbles up.

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“Forrest Gump” is titled after its main character because it’s a movie about just this one guy. A “village idiot” turned hero. He’s strong and fast. He’s extremely honorable, willing to fight any man who’s bad to Jenny. “College went by real fast because I played so much football,” he says of getting his degree at Alabama. He makes the football All-America team and meets JFK. Then he goes to war and saves several wounded soldiers. He becomes a national celebrity and a shrimp tycoon, marries the love of his life and then loses her to AIDS.

That’s a hell of a story, and the man experiencing it has an actual, literal brain condition that uncomplicates him. He doesn’t understand meanness. He’s nice to everyone and eager to do anything. He can’t lie unless his mom says it’s OK. His goodness takes him on adventures through which he is, by design, impossible to root against.

Is he autistic? Asbergers? He graduates college and is his drill sergeant’s favorite soldier, so he’s not stupid.

Remember Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.’s amazing black-faced Oscar-nominated performance) in “Tropic Thunder,” explaining how to play “retarded”? “You know Tom Hanks, ‘Forrest Gump.’ Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping pong competition. That ain’t retarded.”

No it’s not. It’s this made-up version of an ideal person. It’s Oscar bait. The dark side of his personality was removed by writers. He never complains. He hears everything, but doesn’t understand stupid jokes. The goofy things he does are more charming than dumb.

It was easy to give “Forrest Gump” Best Picture because it was the easiest movie to feel good about. The score is sweeping in the most manipulative way, always deciding for us how to feel. There’s great rock from the ’60s and ’70 in “Forrest Gump,” but its ever-present orchestral score is pure, delicious sap. It fits right in. (Click here. You’ll recognize it.)

Therein lies the lesson of 1994. The Best Picture wasn’t the most artistic film, “Pulp Fiction,” nor the most watchable movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” The Best Picture was the one built to push the right buttons. It was the easiest to like.

Does that mean they got it wrong? They just did what they do.

The Oscars are awesome because of the nominations, not the actual awarding of the prize. Even when there are multiple right answers, rube voters will still get it wrong.

If I’m right, “Gravity” is gonna win Best Picture on Sunday.

Oscars Combat: Chiwetel Ejiofor vs. McConaughey

Kevin Spacey, in “House of Cards,” just played one of the best villains I’ve ever watched. But in 1994, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Verbal Kint, his character in “The Usual Suspect,” was a disabled “gimp” getting interrogated by a hard-ass special agent who keeps calling him “piece of shit.”

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Back when I was pickin’ beans in Guatemala . . .

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This is another installment of The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series. We’ve previously engaged the Best Supporting Actress battle, the Best Documentary battle, and the Best Supporting Actor battle. Go Fassbender. “The Wolf of Wall Streetis second or third in Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture.

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“You’re stupid,” Agent David Kujan tells Verbal. “Worthless rat cripple.” Then it turns out he’s the baddest gangster in the entire world. He was lying and faking the entire time, to escape with $91 million he killed all those men for. On top of the money, his enemies are wiped out.

That was a classic performance. Spacey deserved to win an Oscar and he did and it was great.

There are people who claim to have figured out the ending of “The Usual Suspects” ahead of time. They shouldn’t talk. Because even if you knew Verbal was Keyser Soze, there’s a moment toward the end of the movie when Kujan says “It was Keaton,” and explains why. It’s a shockingly good case. So you might have know it, but for second there you thought you were wrong.

But wait, Keaton dies in the first scene, when a ship full of something worth $91 million that isn’t dope explodes. McManus yells. Hockney: “You sure you brought enough guys?” Benicio Del Toro’s Fenster mumbles like a young, drunk Vito Corleone. There’s a suitcase full of blueprints and blackmail files. “The Usual Suspects” was a thriller about huge heists and strong men’s secrets, with a twist ending and Keyser Soze. What a screenplay! By Christopher McQuarrie.

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The movie was nominated for two Oscars and won both. 13-year-old me knew Kevin Spacey was the best supporting actor. And that “The Usual Suspects” absolutely had to win Best Screenplay. I feel the same way about Chiwetel Ejiofor this year. (Choo-it-tell Edge-ee-oh-for.)

Ejiofor is indeed that great in “12 Years a Slave.” There’s a scene toward the ending, after poor Patsey’s back is obliterated by lash, when Ejiofor stares into the camera for a very long time. It’s how we finally get to take a break from the craziness, with Solomon Northup’s beyond-addled face looking right at us.

That’s acting. That’s something especially powerful. In some of the best scenes (like the funeral), the camera just frames Ejiofor’s face and holds still while he carries the best movie of the year. (Click here for another tiresome slobberfest over Ejiofor’s performance, and here for The Flip Side’s review, ecstatic over the cameos by Omar from “The Wire” and Eli from “There Will Be Blood.”)

Ejiofor deserves to win Best Actor. And Kevin Spacey rules.

P.S. I realize this is not a clean argument. The point I’m trying, without succeeding, to make is that one of the reasons the Oscars are cool, when the Academy Awards show is so uncool, is when you love movies you find yourself rooting for some of them to be rewarded in very specific ways. I loved Kevin Spacey’s performance in “The Usual Suspects,” and that was the first time I realized movies were written, and could be written amazingly well. Heath Ledger as Joker and Day-Lewis in “Blood” and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for “The Social Network” were other times I really loved a movie and knew how I thought it could best be acknowledged. “12 Years a Slave” is probably going to win Best Picture, but I really hope Ejiofor upsets Matthew McConaughey and wins Best Actor.

Oscars Combat: Jared Leto vs. Michael Fassbender

Chrisoph Waltz may have won the award, but for me the Best Supporting Actor in any 2012 movie was Michael Fassbender in “Prometheus,” as the human-hating android David. I won’t elaborate; The Flip Side has already covered “Prometheus,” and David, here, here, here, here and here. I’m a fan.

Fassbender’s character Epps in “12 Years a Slave” changes the rules a bit when we think of movie villains. David wasn’t truly evil because he was a goofy character in a goofy movie. No such person exists. Epps, though. Epps is real. He’s a villain whose darkness permeates. You watch him and wonder “Could anyone really be like that?” The answer is frightening.

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“Strike her, Platt! STRIKE HERRRR!!!!” Then the gun comes out. “You will strike her. You will strike her until the flesh is ripped, and the meat and blood flow equal, or I will kill every n—– in my sight. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME! STRIKE HER! STRIKE HERRRRRR!!!”

Epps conjures visceral danger. He’s often drunk. He believes both God and the law are on his side. “Sin?” he responds to Solomon Northup’s pleas for mercy on Patsy. “There is no sin. A man does how he pleases with his property.” He represents torture, rape and death, and not in the abstract.

I left “12 Years a Slave” thinking Fassbender was going to win an Oscar.

Yet here comes Jared Leto, clinging to the supsonic Matthew McConaughey spaceship as it exits our atmosphere. Leto plays Rayon, a transgender AIDS patient. He’s usually in drag. Like McConaughey, Leto lost a lot of weight for “Dallas Buyers Club.” Unlike McConaughey, Leto looks ripped rather than scarily skeleton-like. Rail-thinness almost suits him.

Rayon has a hard edge. She’s necessarily tough because of prejudice she faces daily, but Leto also channels femininity and sweetness as someone who wants to be a pretty girl. It’s a good performance.

But it isn’t Best-Supporting. Partly, I think, Leto isn’t served by a bold-artist director the way Fassbender is in “12 Years a Slave.” When Fassbender is screaming in Solomon’s face, the camera gets close enough for us to almost smell his boozy breath. When he’s sprinting after someone or stomping across his plantation, the shot moves back to encompass the entire set he’s devouring.

Leto doesn’t have the same physical challenges, but some dashes of art would have helped. When he tells his dad he has AIDS, for instance, the camera doesn’t get in close or do anything to accentuate this powerful experience. It holds him in a medium-long shot. Rayon is wearing a suit (men’s clothes, which he hates).

“It wasn’t a choice, dad,” Rayon says of becoming the person his father seems so repulsed by. “Long time no see.”

“I suppose I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes, and not embarassing me.”

“Are you ashamed of me, because I hadn’t realized that.”

“Huuuuh. God help me.”

“He is helping you. I have AIDS.”

He stares at his dad from across the desk and he’s vibrating and his head’s bobbing a bit. He starts crying and apologizes.

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It’s all on Leto to pull this off, and as good as he is he never quite transcends the material like McConaughey does. The tricky part of being in a movie that’s all talking is that you have to—duh—keep talking. McConaughey finds a rhythm and holds on as it ebbs. I think I can see Leto working. He nailed the part, but he didn’t master it. There’s a difference.

Leto’s nomination is the start of something. He’s been a recognizable face in TV, music and movies. Now he’s a star, with Oscar cred.

Fassbender’s performance is the next step up for a brilliant actor who already deserved one of these. To be that scary is mastery. If he doesn’t win, I’ll always think he should have.

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