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.

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“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.

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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.

Oscars Combat: Dirty Wars vs. The Act of Killing

Obama is gonna get verbally fricasseed by Jeremy Scahill if “Dirty Wars” wins the Oscar for Best Documentary.

But it won’t win. “The Act of Killing” will. Because “The Act of Killing” is a portrait of humanity’s badness that crawls inside your mind like an alien spider, laying eggs there that take forever to hatch.

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This is the second battle in The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series. Previously, we hashed out who should win for Best Supporting Actress. Click here for that. It’s short. Next will be Leto vs. Fassbender. 

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There’s an old ex-reporter in “The Act of Killing,” whose blatant B.S. gets smacked down. As I watched it I wondered what life will be like when lazy, incurious hacks like Chuck Todd (NBC News White House correspondent) and his ubiquitous ilk are one day pretending they didn’t willfully ignore the most important story of Obama’s terms.

Quick background. “The Act of Killing” takes place in Indonesia, where the military overthrew the government in 1965 and began killing anyone it labeled “communist.” At least a million people died. The film’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer, asks some of the most prolific killers from that time—Anwar Congo murdered roughly 1,000 people, many by strangling with wire—to reenact the killings for their own movie. The result is surreal and disturbing. Anwar has a physical on-screen reckoning at the end of the film. I still can’t get it out of my head.

The part I want to talk about here, though, involves a man who was a reporter during the massacres. Between takes where they recreate an interrogation scene, he talks with one of the killers while Oppenheimer’s camera rolls.

“I declare I never saw anything,” the old ex-reporter says. “Now, seeing your reenactment, I realize you were so smooth that even me, a journalist with such sharp senses, I never knew!”

“I’m surprised,” the former mass killer says, his eyes almost rolling. “Because we didn’t hide what we were doing. If you didn’t know, I’d be shocked.”

“I didn’t.”

“We were in the same office and we didn’t hide it.”

“I never knew.” There are a few awkward beats and the old ex-reporter continues: “You were so smooth, and I rarely went up to your office.”

Then Oppenheimer speaks from behind the camera, which he doesn’t do more than a few times in this film, but even he can’t take it. “Your publisher directed the torture,” Oppenheimer says.

“No!” the ex-reporter says.

Oppenheimer: “He said so himself.”

“That’s not true!”

“He and the other leaders decided who was killed,” Oppenheimer says.

Then the former killer chimes back in: “Look, I’m not calling you a liar, but logically. . .” He starts talking to Oppenheimer and the camera. “But this man, a journalist distancing himself from these things . . . that’s predictable. But logically, we didn’t hide. How could he not know? Even the neighbors knew! Hundreds were killed. It was an open secret.”

That is predictable.

Now let’s jump to “Dirty Wars.” Jeremy Scahill is the main character in the movie, an investigative reporter followed by cameras as he digs into the killing of innocent Middle Easterners by US bombs and paramilitary commandos.

Scahill goes first to Gardez, Afghanistan. An old man with dark, angry eyes tells him about a night raid. “My son, my other son, my daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter, all killed on a single day by American soldiers. In the attack, two women who were pregnant were killed.”

“I didn’t want to live anymore,” says another man — eyes, likewise, dark and colorless — who was taken prisoner by the US and whose wife, sister and niece were killed. “I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans, but my brother and my father wouldn’t let me.”

The Americans told the survivors they had intel that 50 Taliban were hiding out there. This was beyond untrue — the slain were pro-American, and some had even fought with the Americans against the Taliban.

The movie starts with that raid. Scahill wants to figure out why the people in Gardez were attacked. His investigation spirals into the stratosphere when he looks into other attacks on innocent villages. As he’s digging, there are shots fired within earshot. Back home in America, he is threatened by government officials who don’t like his stories.

The film flashes back to clips of Scahill when he was on the news-show circuit promoting his book “Blackwater,” about private contractors who got into shootouts in war zones. In one scene, Scahill goes on Bill Maher’s HBO show and faces down Chuck Todd, the aforementioned NBC White House correspondent.

“Journalists have done nothing to hold the White House accountable now, Chuck, or under Bush.”

Then Jay Leno, who was also a panelist that episode, interrupts to ask Scahill “Why are you still alive? Are you paranoid? I’m serious.”

Todd and almost everyone on TV and the internet who cover Obama are in Washington DC daily, and the stories they deem most important always involve what Democrats and Republicans say about each other.

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Are the latest complaints about Obamacare bigger than this: One of the poorest tribes in Southern Yemen was bombed by American forces who claimed there was an Al Qaeda training base there. There was no base. Forty-six people, many women and children, died. A local Yemeni reporter investigating the bombing was locked in prison. When he appeared in court, his teeth had been pulled and he had scars on his chest. (Also, his lawyer’s offices were attacked.) When public outcry mounted over the reporter’s imprisonment, the president of Yemen agreed to set him free. Then he got a phone call from Obama, directly. Obama convinced the president to keep the reporter imprisoned. White House records, available online, prove that Obama called Yemen to keep the reporter locked up.

Chuck Todd will one day deny he ever knew the president was bombing children and keeping innocent reporters locked in jail to be abused.

Or killing a 16-year-old American teenager who went to look for his father, the American anti-American Anwar Al-Awlaki. Obama drone-bombed Al-Awlaki, and was happy to brag about that one. He did not ever explain his decision to subsequently drone bomb Al-Awlaki’s son. Does the son have to die so he can’t avenge the father, like “Godfather II”?

If the president of the United States killed an innocent American teenager because he feared vendetta, that’s a big story. Except it isn’t. Debt ceilings and state dinners are, if you’re the NBC White House correspondent.

“Even me, a journalist with such sharp senses, I never knew!”

Scahill speaks with Al-Awlaki’s father before the drone bombings, when he was trying to get the US Justice Department to explain how it could legally justify killing Al-Awlaki. Then he speaks to the father again, after his son and grandson are dead. His eyes are completely different. They’ve gone dark, like the survivors in Gardez.

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“Dirty Wars” is more important than “The Act of Killing.” It’s a work of astonishing journalism, investigating one of the most important stories in the world—the killing and imprisonment of innocents, ordered by the president and covered up by Congress and mainstream American media.

“The Act of Killing,” though, is psychological superart. At the beginning of the film, Anwar Congo is literally dancing the cha cha on a site where he personally executed hundreds of people he knows did not deserve to die. Over the course of the movie we watch him try to recreate with costumes and makeup the ghost that haunts him when he attempts to sleep each night. He describes the one victim he can’t stop picturing (“All I could think about was why didn’t I close his eyes?”). We watch him put on zombie makeup and gangster clothes and act out the end of his victims’ lives, and almost totally break down. We watch him dry heave, in a futile attempt to expel demons.

I kept putting off writing this blog. Both these films really messed with me. In “Dirty Wars” you see a dead baby in the aftermath of the bombing in Yemen. Its little body gets held up for the camera by a furious family member. In “The Act of Killing,” confessed mass murderers brag about how gangster they are (“gangster” means “free man,” they explain over and over) and describe how they switched from beheadings to wire strangulations because they tired of smelling and cleaning so much blood. An elaborate dance number includes choreographed belly dancing, Anwar in a black robe, another gangster in skin-tight neon drag, and actors as massacre victims thanking their killers.

I saw the nutzo dance number at the beginning and end of “The Act of Killing” as a representation of just how insane it is to try and justify killing innocent people.

I wish Superman hadn’t killed Zod at the end of “Man of Steel.” The ending to the last (fantastic) episode of “Sherlock” really bothers me now.

I hope there’s a tie for Best Documentary. Can that happen? I hope there’s a tie, but Scahill gets to talk more than Oppenheimer at the podium.

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Oscars Combat: Jennifer Lawrence vs. Lupita Nyong’o

Patsey makes death sound so sweet when she’s begging Solomon Northup to kill her. It’s the essential tragedy of the most tragic character in “12 Years a Slave”: Killing her, she says, through tears and a smile, would be “an act of kindness.” Solomon can’t run because he doesn’t want to die; here’s someone whose life is that much worse than his.

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“American Hustle” is nominated for an Oscar in every acting category. Deservedly. And the best performance was Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” She has the fewest screen-time minutes of the top four actors, which helps because she can focus her power on fewer scenes and make them count that much more. nyongolove.getty

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Patsey picks over 500 pounds of cotton per day. The other men in the field can barely crack 200. For this she is singled out as extraordinary by Epps, the plantation’s insane owner. Epps is sadistic. He strokes Patsey’s neck and calls her Queen of the Field. At night he rapes her. His wife is jealous. She maims Patsey with a heavy glass bottle thrown point-blank to the face, and with a skin-tearing scratch through Patsey’s cheek.

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Lawrence outshines the other “American Hustle” actors because their characters all have to reckon with her. She’s socially on offense, always doing something. She befuddles Christian Bale’s character, her husband, to where he’s stuck staring with a pained and helpless expression. The couple has amazing fights in the movie, and she always wins, even though she’s the one who starts the house on fire, or almost gets him killed by mobsters.

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After the first scene of cotton weighing, when Patsey’s shown to be so much more industrious than the others, we get a short scene of her sitting outside, humming and braiding corn husks into dolls.

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The dolls are dark and light, together just fine. Patsey has such a sweet, gentle soul. She’s a beautiful person. This movie’s universe has absolutely no sympathy.

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If there’s a single character in “American Hustle” with the best claim to hate Rosalyn it’s Amy Adams’s Sydney. Sydney has more skin in the con than anyone else, because she took the check from the FBI agent’s hand. She’s caught red-handed. And Rosalyn is messing with everyone to not be bored. They’re also romantic rivals for the same man. Yet when they’re finally facing off in that bathroom, yelling, even Sydney gets ensnared by Lawrence’s sexiness. Lawrence plants a sudden sticky kiss on her lips, and then cackles maniacally.

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Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant because she’s perfect as this character experiencing specific horrors at the hands of a monster. Patsey. Patsey, man. Jesus. She has to beg to be clean, please, just once, can’t she use soap because she’s earned it? She has to be stripped and whipped for trying, one time, to be a normal person. She has to beg for her own death, and be told no. How would someone in that situation act? Exactly like this. It’s beyond heartbreaking.

Lawrence brings her unique personal energy to Rosalyn. Sheer awesomeness is why Rosalyn is so memorable. IMDB.com says “American Hustle” director David O. Russell told Bale “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” Much of the dialogue is improvised. That cranks the pressure on the actors. They have to inhabit their parts to where what they do comes naturally. Lawrence’s character scares everyone on multiple levels. And she’s funny.

That’s why I’d vote for Lawrence. Impossible choice though.

Omar Comin’ to “12 Years a Slave”

Omar is on the boat that takes Solomon Northup to slavery. The bad wolf of “The Wire”—Obama’s stated favorite character on that beyond-classic TV show—appears, at first, with a metal mask chained around his face, like Hannibal Lecter or Bane. He vows to fight, tries to fight, gets killed, and thrown overboard. He lasts maybe five minutes of film time, a mystery warrior who chooses to rebel. Solomon dumps his body and watches it drift out to sink below the waves. There’s a message there: Don’t fight.

This is an amazing cameo by the actor Michael K. Williams. He survived a prison stabbing attack in “The Wire,” but his “12 Years a Slave” character is dispatched via stabbing in practically no time. Slavery was so much more perilous than the modern-day Baltimore drug game.

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I used to play handball with a guy who explained between games that modern government welfare was like slavery. Poor people are relying on the government for their food, he said, and for their shelter. That was the extent of his argument. “Slavery.”

Sarah Palin said the other day in a speech “When [our debt] comes due, and this isn’t racist … but it’s gonna be like slavery … we are gonna be beholden to a foreign master.”

These two won’t be seeing “12 Years a Slave,” but they should. The evil of slavery (personified by Michael Fassbender as a villain, Epps, destined to be remembered forever) was rape, torture, and demented physical and psychological abuse.

Solomon runs once—and happens upon one of the movie’s scariest, most graphic scenes. Another message from on high: Don’t run. Just like the boat death of Omar was a message not to fight.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce calls Sarah Palin Princess Dumbass of the Northwoods. Unless she’s willing to say on-the-record that “12 Years a Slave” isn’t accurate, Princess Dumbass should shut up about comparing anything to slavery. Everyone should.

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My wife said the movie made her “physically uncomfortable,” and demanded afterward to be taken straight home to hug our baby. So much for a drink. There were sobs throughout the theater as we left.

“The Passion of the Christ.” That’s the last time I felt so physically afflicted—in the face and gut—over a movie character. (Maybe “Boys Don’t Cry,” too.) Except in this case, visceral sadness and sympathy are a byproduct of an exciting, interesting flick filled with great actors playing compelling characters.

Scene after scene is just excellent. When Solomon wakes up in chains it plays like raw horror. Then there’s the auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) walking among his kidnapped slaves, many stripped naked, hitting them and pulling on their faces. A family is split apart despite an appeal to the auctioneer’s decency. (There’s no decency.) A little later, we watch the kindest of Solomon’s owners, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), preaching gospel over the sound of a mother weeping for having lost her children. Ford’s religion probably makes him feel better about enabling such a wretched institution, but it can’t cover the basic wrong he’s committed.

The whippings in this movie make that famous Denzel Washington scene in “Glory” look G-rated by comparison. Even something as simple as a letter being burned in the dark takes on profound meaning because it’s filmed so thoughtfully by director Steve McQueen and the filmmakers.

And oh, God, what happened to Patsey? Epps’s wife is a Hitchcockian monster (think a meaner Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca”) who torments poor Patsey with physical attacks that make you cringe. And what Epps himself does to her is so much worse. Patsey, man. Patsey. She could pick 500 pounds of cotton a day. . . .

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Other favorite cameo, besides Omar? Paul Dano. He shows up to be evil for a while, squeaking like he squeaked as Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood.” Is “12 Years a Slave” the best movie since “There Will Be Blood”? It’s a fair comparison, since both films feature the main character beating the hell out of a shrieking Paul Dano. Kudos.

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See that rope behind him? Messing with Paul Dano had some seriously vicious consequences for Solomon.

How many acting Oscars can one movie be nominated for? We’re about to find out. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, for so many scenes but especially when he sings at the funeral. Fassbender, for sure. Dano? Paul Giamatti as the auctioneer? Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, is gonna be a Supporting Actress favorite. Just wait. Sarah Paulson as Patsey’s jealous tormentor is gonna get a look, as well.

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This blog had some fun previously with Brad Pitt’s “World War Z.” Pitt produced “Z” and that movie seemed an indulgent vanity project. It stripped away everything but the title from a beloved horror novel to make a zombie blockbuster without any good zombies.

But Pitt’s production company also made “12 Years a Slave,” and Ejiofor said it was Pitt’s star power that made the movie happen.

He puts himself in the movie, toward the end. Brad Pitt gives one of the very few featured performances that won’t get nominated for an Oscar, but that probably doesn’t matter. I imagine Pitt swung the deals to get this movie made and put himself in there because he simply wanted to be in something so great.

This is the best film of his career. He said so.

There’s a scene where Fassbender’s Epps is chasing Solomon with a razor. They run through a muddy, shitty pig pen and as Epps is jumping the fence he catches his knees and flips forward to smash into the ground. He growls. A pratfall like that is normally meant to be funny. In this case, it’s an instant of surreal physicality driving home two points:

1) This is a ridiculous, insane situation.

2) The acting, writing, and directing in “12 Years a Slave” are amazing in ways both big and small.

This is the best movie of Brad Pitt’s career, and he was in “Fight Club.” It may go down as one of the best pictures ever made.

An Oscars Rant for Oscars Night

Liam Neeson’s beautiful wife, in real life, died. Since that happened he has acted in a lot of violent rolls. He also starred, last year, in “The Grey,” as a suicidal widower battling a pack of wolves in a snowy forest. Neeson channeled the sadness of an ultimate real-life tragedy into a poetic, angry performance. It is total crap he isn’t nominated along with Daniel Day, Denzel and Joaquin Phoenix. F*ck Hugh Jackman.

As any character other than Wolverine.

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Phoenix seemed an Oscar lock when “The Master” came out in September. He drinks chemicals, fights fat strangers, fingers a sand lady and becomes the broken dog of a cult leader. Daniel Day hit the party late, on Christmas, because that’s how real gangsters roll. Of course he would crush it as Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: [pounds his hand on a table as his cabinet squabbles] I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! I wonder if any of you or anyone else knows it. I know! I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!

There’s a blockbuster article in the new Esquire about the SEAL who fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. He scoffs at the raid scene in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but calls the portrayal of the CIA analyst who found bin Laden “awesome.” He’s right, it is awesome. Jessica Chastain is awesome in that flick, and she would probably win, except Jennifer Lawrence was such an intimidating, likable, unpredictable widow in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Lawrence freaks us out, befriends us and lets us into her damaged psyche. Bradley Cooper must have this woman; she’s too intriguing to let go.

And Robert De Niro destroyed it as a classic movie dad and a sympathetic nod to all the tortured sports fans out there.

Speaking of Esquire, the magazine also had a short writeup of “Django Unchained” headlined “Catharsis of the Year.” It included this: “(N)early three hours is filled wth slaves being whipped, dogs chewing slaves to death while bystanders watch, slaves being forced to gouge out one another’s eyes, slave women being given to houseguests the way one might give a basket of decorative soaps, slaves dying of thirst in burning holes, slaves having their balls cut off with red-hot blades, and so on. The amazing thing about watching all this is that it’s all perfectly Tarantinoesque, but it’s also for the most part historically accurate. Tarantino himself has neatly pointed out that you cannot make a film as lurid as slavery was in reality. He’s right. While you’re watching the filmic violence, the fact that these horrors really happened keeps intruding. The monstrosity of real history in the United States surpasses any pretend violence. It’s physicality is why Django Unchained is so necessary. … Lincoln is oddly bloodless.”

In “Avengers,” a team of superheroes battles an alien horde coming through a hole over Manhattan. In “The Hobbit,” dwarfs fight monsters. “Life of Pi” is about a boy trapped with a tiger on a life boat in the middle of the ocean. And “Prometheus”? “Prometheus” is a state-of-the-art atheist creature feature and the only film all year to harness the 3-D medium’s potential to make eye-popping artwork. These are the special effects nominees, and I don’t know how you pick a winner. More than any other, that’ll be the race I’m watching tonight.

The fat tear Anne Hathaway blinks off during her singing scene in “The Miserables” is so perfectly timed that she’s gonna win an Oscar for it.

Go Denzel.

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