Before I get into Morgan Spurlock’s doc Super Size Me, I feel I should backtrack a moment to my last review. If you’re following this, I’d previously mentioned a series of reviews focusing on films the Academy was likely to nominate for this year’s Oscar-fest. I’d gone out to the multi-plex to check out The Aviator and Ray. I’d just bought Collateral on DVD. I finally caught Million-Dollar Baby. I knew intrinsically that the old Academy voters would likely overlook the best film of the year, I just wasn’t sure how grossly. The distain I harbor for those myopic voters is palpable. I mean when the best film of the year gets LESS Academy recognition than the schlock that was The Phantom of the Opera and A Series of Unfortunate Events, what does that say for our society as a whole?
As a producer/director/editor myself, with all the right credentials and training, I know a thing or two about how films are made. I know what takes thought and planning. I know what requires a true creative razor to cut through the mundane and obvious directorial choices. There is something to be said for pitch perfect obvious directing. Searching for Bobby Fischer is an example of a flawlessly directed film. It hits all the right notes with a precision that is both human and artful. While there is nothing extraordinary about the film’s direction, it is nearly perfect.
What incensed me to such a degree this year is that there was a film out this year that has climbed my personal rankings as the single best film to date; surpassing Bobby Fischer, Goodfellas, Se7en, Blade Runner, et al. This film was brilliantly creative and equally brilliant in its beautiful humanity. Any endeavor like this film could have stumbled and been regarded as a fascinating experiment, or a plain failure. No one could argue that it wasn’t at least trying to do something unique, which alone is worth something in my book. I’m of course talking about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
I could and will go on at length about why this film is to me the very essence of brilliance. But right now, what you need to know is that in no less than six categories was this masterpiece absolutely robbed out of the recognition it deserves. Those categories: Direction, Editing, Actor, Score, Cinematography, and Visual Effects.
Direction is the most egregious of the crimes. With all due respect to Taylor Hackford and Clint Eastwood, I’m sorry your direction was uninspired. Obvious choices, simple and understated moments, and transparent manipulation of stories that are at their core straightforward do not make for Oscar worthy direction. Good movies, good directing; neither was great. Clint was riding off Morgan Freeman and Hillary Swank, while Taylor was blessed by the second best performance from a former In Living Color cast member this past year. Michel Gondry opened the door to a new world within our own memories. He used the camera, soundtrack and visual effects to bring the audience into our characters’ minds — literally. He gave us the most human and intimate moment in recent memory in one of the films quietest beats, and he did this by pulling out the best performance of the year from Jim Carrey. Michel was robbed. If the Academy is scared to confront the status quo of rewarding epics and biopics, then if nothing else, they should have recognized the art of man who turned in something undoubtedly brilliant. And — if he’d lost the award to Scorsese for history’s sake, that would have been ok with me, if only because he too is a director who has shown his brilliance before (although not so much with The Aviator.)
I’m sitting in front of my Avid MC 9000 as I’m writing this, so if anything I’m certain I understand editing. Rudimentary cutting for pacing or dialog is key to any well-edited film, but I can tell you that any Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the week follows these rules. I assume most Academy voters don’t have a clue about editing at all and just hand the nominations to whichever films they felt were overall the best, with the exception of Collateral which took Sideways’ editing slot. Apparently they figured the actioner was cut more tightly than the roadtripper. I loved Finding Neverland, but what was spectacular about the way it was cut? Nothing. The same is true for Ray and Million-Dollar Baby, just very good plain cutting. The best two films of the year as far as editing are concerned were The Bourne Supremacy and Eternal Sunshine. Eternal Sunshine used its cross cutting for a much deeper impact, so I’d give it the nod over the very well paced popcorn flick. Either way, both films used ‘what we see,’ ‘what we don’t see,’ and ‘when we see it’ much more effectively than all of the nominated films.
Quick ones: I can’t argue with the nominations of Depp, DiCaprio, and Foxx. They all turned in great performances. Clint Eastwood I have serious issues with. Perhaps I’ve just seen him and that character too many times before. Perhaps the movie was just too formulaic, and therefore his character felt flat to me. I didn’t see Hotel Rwanda, but Don Cheadle is a hell of an actor. I do think though that Jim Carrey was snubbed because he was Ace Ventura back in the mid-Nineties. There are two precise moments in Sunshine that stand out to highlight how nuanced and inspired his performance was: pulling on Clementine on the beach trying to hold on to that one last memory as she’s trying to go off, and sitting with her on the steps at the beach as he narrates how they met and she ate his chicken. If you haven’t seen the movie, see it, if only for these two scenes.
Cinematography: Phantom of the Opera? Phantom of the Opera. Yes, it was dramatically lit and well shot overall. But seriously, Phantom of the Opera? No. This is a mistake. With any decent budget and A-tier lenser, any film can have the richness and depth of the photography of Phantom. Eternal Sunshine was gritty but beautiful, something unique and HARD to accomplish.
Visual Effects: Harry Potter did have nice effects, but is it anything we haven’t seen before? I have the same issue with Spider-Man 2. CG animals and bad guys are truly a triumph of the digital age of filmmaking. What set Eternal Sunshine apart from those films is that it used all those same techniques for a completely different result. The last few years, we saw Gollum redefine CG characters, this year we saw Gondry reshape our thinking of how a visual effect can be used to further story.
Score: Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine played a huge role in setting the tone for the characters without ever undermining the subtlety of the picture. In many ways, the score helped create the hyper-reality of memory. As a film nerd, I of course love everything John Williams does, but does he need a nomination every time a Harry Potter comes out? Limony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is just a joke, and being here in the score category is almost shameful. Honestly, did the score save that disaster from itself? No.
Naturally, if you’ve caught on, I believe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to be the best film of my generation or maybe any generation. Although I am sure the hard-core cinephiles of the 1970s will no doubt dispute this claim. Should it have been nominated for best picture then? I think so, but I understand the game of Hollywood. Fine, don’t give a challenging picture the recognition it deserves. At least recognize it the other areas where it is due, it’s not like giving it some due credit in a category of Phantom of the Opera or Lemony Snicket is going to rile the masses to protest the ceremony.
Right, the review of Super Size Me, I almost forgot. Super Size Me was a fairly good pseudo-documentary. Morgan Spurlock is a very talented producer who was able to mold and spin his footage to create some decent dramatics and story arc, oft overlooked in the documentary arena. I would have like to have seen a more clearly defined resolution or moral. I came away feeling like I’d seen a bad adaptation of Fast Food Nation, a deeply researched and insightful book. He touches on issues such as the lawsuits being (now) re-filed against the fast food companies for endangerment and obesity, but never makes a point to say whether we should be personally responsible or blame it on the fast food giants — it was a big looming point to overlook. By the end of Super Size Me, all I felt I learned was eating nothing but McDonalds for a month is bad for you. It basically ended with a resounding ‘duh.’