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Anti-Film School’s Academy Awards Coverage: The Best Picture Race

by Charles Beall

Throughout the next month, I will be contributing articles about the Oscar race this year.  To start things off, let’s talk about the big race, Best Picture.

9 Best Picture nominees

When the Academy announced that there would be a new voting system to select a Best Picture nominee (a film has to have 5% of first place votes to gain a nomination), I aired on the side of skepticism.  At first, when the Academy announced that there would be 10 nominees two years ago, I cried foul.  This is the Academy Awards!  Why would we sully it by letting in five other films?  However, take a look at these ten films (the first five released in 2009 and the last five in 2010, respectively): District 9, The Blind Side, An Education, A Serious Man, Up, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone.  Aside from The Blind Side (total turd), these ten films are exceptional “unconventional” films that never would’ve been nominated if there were only five nominees.  Sure they can’t win, but they definitely were deserving of a nomination for Best Picture.  I decided that I liked this 10 Best Picture nominee system.

However, per the new Academy rules, there could be anywhere between five and ten nominees for the films of 2011.  The movies that were to be nominated had to, as I stated, receive 5% of number one votes.  So, with this complicated system, I assumed there would be between five and seven nominees.  Yet, there were nine.

Here are the tiers these films fall into:

(Note: films with an * are films I have not seen yet.  I can only give the impression I get from them, whereas the films I have seen, I can attempt to attest to why they were nominated.)

The Five– these would’ve been the five nominated films if there were only five nominees:

The Artist*
This is a film that has Oscar written all over it.  A nostalgic look at Hollywood, a silent film in black and white, and a feel-good, original idea, this movie is the kind of warm hug Academy members like.

The Descendants
The Descendants is the tailor-made, quirky Fox Searchlight Oscar bait we’ve all come to expect, yet don’t let that detract from how great of a film it is.  Alexander Payne is a wonderful filmmaker and this film, his first since the incredible Sideways, goes along with his theme of middle aged men “coming of age.”  Anchored by a wonderful performance by George Clooney (I think he deserves the Oscar), The Descendants is worthy of the respect heaped upon it, and even though it oozes of “Oscar prestige,” it truly is a great American film

The Help
The Help is the type of crowd-pleasing hit that the Academy loves to recognize to show that it isn’t a bunch of out-of-touch, pretentious white people.  I enjoyed The Help, yet I have some reservations about it.  First, it is entertaining without being overly confident in itself; it doesn’t wear its message on its sleeve.  We know that segregation in the South is a disgusting stain on our nation’s history, yet The Help doesn’t delve into how blatantly horrible it was to make the actions of the white people in the movie seem more noble than that of the Help.  With that said, it almost does go off the deep end.  Yes, it portrays the bravery of certain white women and certain African American women, but it comes off that without the white women, the Help would’ve never had their story told.  The film teeters on that cliff, but the filmmakers realize that that is too easy of a plot device, so I commend them for not taking the easy route.

While I would’ve liked a more “intense” portrayal of racism in the South, The Help suffices for reaching such a wide audience.  The film is honest and takes its time to develop its great characters.  In a year with only five nominees, I wouldn’t have selected The Help; however, when there are ten spots, I think it is deserving as one of the ten nominees.


Hugo
Hugo is a marvel and the best film I’ve seen this year.  This love letter to film, imagination, and life is completely engulfing.  As Scorsese’s first 3D film, he utilizes the technology to add, well, another dimension to the story.  There are no gimmicks and you are literally immersed into a world that could only come out of careful planning and love of source material.  I cannot praise this film enough, and in any year, this would be in the top five, if not number one spot.  Hugo deserves all of its 11 Academy Award nominations.


Midnight in Paris
The Academy loves Woody Allen, which is ironic because Woody never shows up to the ceremony.  However, if there is any comeback film for Allen after some flubs in years past, it is Midnight in Paris.  This is such a cute, original movie that offers an escape for not only the main character, but for the entire audience.  This is one of the best movies of the year and worthy of its four nominations.

The “honor-to-be-nominated” Crew– if there were five nominees, these wouldn’t have been nominated, but with the current voting system (and the former 10 nominee system), they are:

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film is a simply beautiful, undeniably maddening meditation on life.  If there were only five nominees for Best Picture, this wouldn’t have been nominated (even though, I believe, he would’ve been nominated for Best Director-the Academy would oftentimes nominate a director whose film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture) but with the new system, it got in there.  There is an almost cult-like following for this film and I was honestly surprised that it was nominated.  It is a unique film, and this definitely “diversifies” the Academy’s canon of nominated films.  It won’t take home the big prize, but it definitely has been honored with its 3 nominations.


Moneyball*
A movie about math and baseball, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Brad Pitt.  I haven’t seen it, but heard it is great.  This is the Academy trying to be cool, I suppose.


War Horse*
Steven Spielberg.  World War I.  Epic.  Is the Academy still sorry for snubbing Saving Private Ryan?


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close*
This smells Weinsteinesque (more on that later).

Harry Potter WAS NOT snubbed

Fans are crying foul on the “snub” of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 in the Best Picture race.  Folks, there was no snub.  This film did not deserve a nomination for Best Picture; it was the worst film in the franchise.  Now, before you call me a death eater or a Slytherin, I urge you to do some soul searching and ask yourself if this really was the movie you thought it was.

Now, in defense of the Academy, they have opened their minds somewhat when it comes to films of different caliber.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, was nominated for 30 Academy Awards, winning 17 (including a clean sweep for The Return of the King).  Yes, the Academy has been stingy on which films they nominate (fantasy/science fiction-wise), but The Lord of the Rings films were exceptional, bridging fanboy/girl devotion with a mass audience appeal.  That isn’t to say the Harry Potter franchise didn’t do such a thing; it did, but not to the extent of respecting the source material in such a way that the LOTR filmmakers did.

Now, as I stated earlier, ask yourself if the final film really was that incredible.  Take a look at both the entire final book and the penultimate film in the series.  Both of these took their time developing both the story and the characters; the final film did not.  There was a checklist of obligatory plot points to be filmed and they were done in such a rapid succession that one did not have time to emotionally process what was happening to the characters we have grown to love.  The final LOTR film was 200 minutes.  The final Harry Potter film was barely over two hours.  With so much story left in the second half of the book, the filmmakers didn’t develop it into drama; they shot it and sent it off to 3D rendering.

Is the Harry Potter film series terrible?  Absolutely not.  I believe that for such a massive, original world that J.K. Rowling created, the filmmakers did a reasonably excellent job in adapting it for the big screen.  However, after seven well-made films, the eighth just floundered, portraying itself as something that it was not and seducing loyal fans into thinking it was the best in the series.

Don’t hate on the Academy for this “snub.”  There have been sequels that were nominated for Best Picture (and some that won) that were far more deserving than Part 2.  True, The Return of the King won Best Picture for two reasons: it was a great film, but also the conclusion to a flawless motion picture trilogy.  That is what gets rewarded by the Academy, not an “easy” sequel to an otherwise great film series.

“But The Blind Side was nominated for Best Picture,” one might say.  I know…I never said the Academy was perfect.  However, there is a huge difference in an unworthy film getting nominated for Best Picture and an unworthy film not getting nominated for Best Picture.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 falls into the latter category.

In conclusion, it must be said that the Harry Potter film series, as a whole, stands as a landmark in motion picture history, and for that, both as a lover of the series and as a cinephile, I sing its praise.

What should’ve been the “ninth” and tenth films?

I put “ninth” in quotes because, while the 8 films that were expected or had a reasonable chance of being nominated for Best Picture were, the ninth film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was a shocker.  There is a hardcore group of fans of this film, and while I have not yet seen it, I can tell you that it is one of the worst reviewed films of the past ten years (according to Rotten Tomatoes) to be nominated for Best Picture.  So what happened?

As I stated earlier, the way the Academy has changed their voting rules over the last three award cycles allows films like Loud (and The Blind Side) to sneak in and nab a spot.  What happened with Loud is that there were 5% of people who loved this movie so much that they put it as the number one spot on their ballot among the list of 300 plus eligible films from 2011.  There is a great article from Entertainment Weekly that explains this whole system, and the link to that is right here:  http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/01/24/oscars-best-picture-why-nine-nominees/

So, now that you have your head wrapped around that, let us look at which films were “bumped off.”  I believe that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Bridesmaids were bumped off by Loud.  Some may argue that The Tree of Life also was a surprise, but with its devoted fanbase, I think it was always a shoo-in for a nod.  As explained in that Entertainment Weekly Article, Tattoo and Bridesmaids were probably voters third or fourth pick for their favorites of the year, which would’ve helped in other years, but not this one.  So, Academy members, if you find yourself passionate about a particular movie next year, make sure it gets your number one spot.  If The Dark Knight Rises is as incredible as its predecessor, you know what to do.

So, that concludes my analysis of the Best Picture race for 2011.  There will be more to come before and after the Academy Awards, so keep checking Anti-Film School for more updates.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

by Steve Habrat

No film has scared me like Dawn of the Dead did when I first laid my unsuspecting eyes on it. I had seen some brutal films before, but I had never experienced the onslaught of carnage that tore at me with unstoppable force. I was electrified by the film, vaguely aware that there was much more going on behind the stationary scenes of gut munching. The film is, yes, a full-fledged assault on the view. This is why it scares us. Director George Romero just does not let up, backing us against the wall and indirectly beating us into submission. I believe that Dawn of the Dead and I were bound to be together. The strange ways I kept stumbling upon the film in my youth and the ways in which I would end up seeing it. Sometimes it seemed to defy coincidence. I first heard about Dawn of the Dead when I was around eleven years old. My dad purchased me a horror magazine that contained a list of the 50 Scariest Movies Ever Made. I had to have it. I was drawn to monsters and horror films after having seen Dracula, Frankenstein, and Night of the Living Dead at the tender age of about five years old. One evening, my brother-in-law at the time was flipping through the horror magazine and everyone seated at the dinner table was yakking about horror films. As he flipped through the pages and the debate about what was the scariest film of all time raged on—everyone had their own opinion, my sister and mother both argued it was The Exorcist, as my mother said she would leave the room when the TV spot would play on the tube—he suddenly halted on Dawn of the Dead. He turned the magazine around to face the dinner table and asked if anyone there had seen it. Everyone shook their heads and said no. He then began to describe the film to everyone, saying the film actually showed its characters having their stomachs ripped open and the innards devoured. I was mesmerized.

A few weeks later, on Halloween night, I spent the night at my sister’s apartment. My brother-in-law suggested that we order pizza, grab some caffeine heavy soda, hit the video store, and rent some classic horror movies. A triple feature (now you have a clue where my undying love for double and triple features of gritty, scratchy classic horror films on Halloween comes from)! He told me to pick one out and I ended up with Salem’s Lot in my hot little hands. I had seen a picture of the main vampire in the film and was cast under the spell of his glowing yellow eyes. I thought he was really spooky. My sister grabbed Se7en, another movie I had never seen and was mostly unfamiliar with. My brother-in-law suddenly exclaimed, “OH AWESOME! Dawn of the Dead! This is the movie I told you about!” I was apprehensive. I didn’t know if I was ready to see people getting ripped limb from limb. All while eating pizza, might I add. He insisted that I had to see it, as it was the sequel to Night of the Living Dead and it was a must-see.

We saved Dawn of the Dead for the last movie we watched that night. It began with Se7en, bridged with Salem’s Lot, and ended with me pinned to the big comfy chair that I sat in while I watched a man’s head explode, bikers have their stomachs torn open as easily as someone rips a piece of paper in two, a zombie get the top of his head chopped of by helicopter blades, and multiple gunshots to ghouls heads that leaked rotting brains. All in shocking color. I liked Se7en and Salem’s Lot, but Dawn of the Dead made it hard for me to sleep that night. Only two other films have affected me the way that film did and I have made it my quest to seek out other gore heavy horror films in a personal quest to see if I still hold on to some sort of sensitivity to extreme gore within a film. To this day, the closest I have come to being repulsed is while watching Cannibal Holocaust, a film that upon it’s purchase, the cashier asked me if I was sure I wanted to purchase it. I replied yes, that I collect gore heavy exploitation films and I make it a point to see as many in my lifetime as possible. She said okay and bagged the purchase. It didn’t compare to seeing Romero’s masterpiece the first time. I am beginning to think that nothing ever will compare to the life altering moment. Seeing Dawn of the Dead also made me realize that I truly loved movies and I never wanted to be without them.

Two years went by between my viewings of Dawn of the Dead. I never forgot the movie and I always thought back to it. The horror of being surrounded by an endless sea of zombies desperately wanting to eat your brains was horrifying to me. Even the tagline “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth” frightened the bejesus out of me. Then, by chance, after one of my friends loaned me a recorded version of Romeo & Juliet on VHS, I noticed that the label on the side stated that there was another film on that tape. Dawn of the Dead ’78. I made it another double feature the night I received that tape. I had originally wanted to see the contemporary update of the Bard’s tragedy, but I ended up wanting the film to hurry up and end so I could scare myself again with the blue tinted zombies desperately trying to find a way in to the Monroeville Mall. Dawn of the Dead and I had found each other yet again. It was a match made in horror movie heaven.

I watched Dawn of the Dead several times while I had that tape. I lost count at how many times I studied it, marveled at it, and pulled the covers a little higher over my head the night after watching it. The next time I found myself blessed with a copy of the film was when it was getting the special edition treatment on DVD. A four-disc set that contained the original cut, the director’s cut, and the European version, which was slimmed down to focus more on the action and gore than character development, was finally bestowing itself upon fans. I still to this day don’t care much for the European version of the film. I like the characters, Roger, Fran, Stephen, and Peter. Peter, next to Batman, is the ultimate bad ass in my eyes. Thank you, Ken Foree, you are a living God. One Saturday, my friends and I took a trip to the mall and we began exploring the FYE that was still thriving at that particular time. I always moseyed over to the horror section to make a mental note of which horror movies to see or which ones I had to add to my rapidly growing collection of fright flicks. On that day, I found the four-disc collectors edition of Dawn of the Dead. The set wasn’t supposed to be released until that coming Tuesday. I could barely control my excitement. I immediately snatched it up and dashed to the register. I emerged from the mall that day as one of the happiest human beings on the planet. I finally had my own, glorious copy of my favorite film. I probably resembled one of the consumer-obsessed zombies of the film that wonderful Saturday, but I didn’t care. I spent that night watching the documentaries, watching Romero lovingly recall making the film, and flipping through the comic book that came with the elaborate set. I still to this day will not lend the set out to anyone for fear it will get broken, stolen, or dinged up. My version is still as perfect as it was the day I brought it home before anyone else had it in his or her careless possession. We were together forever. And Dawn of the Dead could scare me all it wanted to.

I’ve chosen to avoid breaking apart the actual film for this review simply because, like Night of the Living Dead, it has been analyzed over by countless other film historians and critics. Heck, if anyone was to doubt that I don’t fully understand this film inside and out, just contact my old roommate who watched the film with me one evening over a couple of beers. He experienced as I enlightened to the tiny details one may not pick up on while seeing it for the first time. The film is sensory overload. There are still moments that creep me out big time while I watch in a daze. Stephen aka Flyboy (Played by David Emge) being stalked by a zombie through the boiler room of the mall ranks as one of the most traumatic. Or how about Frannie’s (Played by Gaylen Ross) encounter with a Hare Krishna zombie hell-bent on sucking the meat from her bones? She doesn’t even have a gun to blow the ghoul to smithereens. Or how about the blacked out final siege, which finds countless characters getting chewed to bits. It’s tense, peculiarly claustrophobic, and inexorably unpredictable. Romero only lightens up once through the whole thing, when he literally hits his zombies in the face with pies. Don’t get too chummy, his brief sense of humor quickly turns back into a stone-faced glare and the horror explodes at the viewer.

The film is multi-layered and extremely influential. It seemed appropriate to me that it would be remade in 2004, as we are now, more than ever, obsessed with consumerism. Romero was ahead of the curve and it seems like many don’t want to give him the credit he deserves. The master has also described this film’s approach as more of a comic book than it’s predecessor. While it is heavier on the action, it still manages to scare the shit out of you once or twice. I understand that today it is unintentionally funny, as many will get a few belly laughs over the blue zombies and obvious make-up lines. But if we take the film on it’s own terms, as a serious, pensive, and pulverizing, we can find much to shake our very core. Entertainment Weekly called this film “Devastating”, and I have to agree. With it’s bleak ending (not as bleak as Night) and carnage it leaves the viewer steeped in, you will walk away from this in pieces. Romero chews you up, spits you out, and puts you through the wringer. Just like one of his zombies would do to you if they had their way. It’s also what any good horror film should do to its viewer. Dawn of the Dead is an undisputable masterpiece that is a must-see for anyone who loves zombie films, and more importantly, worships at the altar of horror. Grade: A+