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The Sign of Rohmer

The theme of male apprehension either transcended or succumbed to, but always deconstructed, is at the jazzily dendritic core of the “Moral Tales.”

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The Sign of Rohmer
Photo: The Kobal Collection

I was out with friends a few months ago in a small bar on the northern cusp of San Francisco’s Castro District. A middle-class, wood- and glass-adorned affair vaguely redolent of the neighborhood’s frontier heritage, the bar facilitated an atmosphere gregarious enough to encourage my occasionally dive-skittish patronage, though the noise level, even past 10 on a weeknight, effectively curtailed anything beyond the judiciously pithy conversation one might find on Twitter. It was, in other words, an evening of summary judgments and blurby, Robert Christgau-esque opprobrium. So I was unsurprised to hear myself offer a somewhat backhanded defense of My Night at Maud’s, which had come up in contrast to salvos from the French New Wave’s more splashy enfants terribles. “Maud fits my personality,” I said, lazily wiping sweat from my glass of ale. “It’s wry, effete, and all the sex is theoretical.”

Like all generalizing bon mots, of course, this is an embarrassingly surface-caressing assessment, and attempting to apply it to the remainder of director Éric Rohmer’s oeuvre proves it inutile, particularly in light of the gender-manipulative ferocity of the “Comedies and Proverbs” cycle. True, the dry humor involved in the Gandhi-like testing of Jean-Louis’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) Catholic intellectualism by the neo-materialist goddess Maud (Françoise Fabian) is one of the film’s most accessible pleasures. But to shrug off the heady expository poetry of the dialogue and the talking-head, winter-cloister mise-en-scène as impotent—even if purposefully so—seems in agreement with those who find Rohmer insufferably tedious, or who inaccurately assume Jean-Louis is an autobiographical construct. And—even overlooking the fact that Jean-Louis has a child by his ideal female Françoise by the denouement—isn’t all sex, in a sense, theoretical, an act that burns as palpably in the mind and on the page as in the moist, messy reality?

My half-errors should betray just how uncomfortably close I am to Rohmer’s aesthetic and to how much probing self-reflection is necessitated by the act of witnessing a “boring” gab-fest like My Night at Maud’s. I first watched the “Moral Tales,” still Rohmer’s most applauded hexology, after discovering Criterion’s Region 1 release at a video store in 2006. I was despondently unemployed at the time and ensnared in a clumsy, unfulfilling domestic partnership teetering nauseously on the brink of matrimony; I had, like Jean-Louis with the impractical religion he had been born into and “kept up,” convinced myself of the partnership’s indispensible value through a series of rhetorical exercises and absurd syllogisms that were, truthfully, more stimulating than the love affair itself. And while My Night at Maud’s, and the remainder of the “Moral Tales,” failed to rescue me from the vortex of my own warped logic, it somehow suggested that my anxiously critical social perspective was hardly singular, or even damning. The scene where Jean-Louis meets a professor friend by chance in a café and then proceeds to ponder the exact probability of their paths crossing seemed like a warm, inviting transmission cutting through a glacially reticent universe. That Jean-Louis should approach Françoise with such charmingly jittery resolve was even hopeful (perhaps my quirky, inner lothario simply hadn’t yet found its muse?).

Admittedly, however, Shakespeare has a much better ground-level synopsis of the distinctive masculine philosophy of the “Moral Tales.” Hamlet, who could have easily been a Rohmer protagonist, at one juncture scolds himself for his tendency to scrupulously plan rather than hot-bloodedly act despite the infuriatingly filial ramifications of Claudius’s transgressions. But, he considers, man’s capacity for ratiocination must contain some self-preserving mechanism, ergo our propensity for “thinking too precisely on the event, a thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom, and ever three parts coward.” Within this immortally meta example of over-thinking the behavior of over-thinking it’s almost as if the melancholy Dane had been, like Jean-Louis, “dabbling in mathematics.” But it’s the recognition of hyper-analysis as a subconscious, aegis-molding extension of cowardice that resonates with Rohmer’s wit most uncannily.

This is, after all, an idea central to the skewed morality of the so-called “Moral Tales,” most of which involve one man, two women, and a protracted deliberation (who says you need a girl and a gun to make movies?). My Night at Maud’s propounds this complex psychological gnarl most eloquently via the eschatological stakes of Pascal’s Wager, which, in Jean-Louis’s estimation, become an unspoken metaphor for the unrewarding perils of straying from the righteous path. But when Jean-Louis is forced, at the film’s end, to misrepresent what transpired under Maud’s fluffy fur comforter in the coldest hour of that fateful Paris December, the scales of the wager are, for me, violently overturned, its theological and sexual applications collapsing meekly like dominoes. Muliebrity is Rohmer’s deity, and the difficulties of human communication are his enlightenment-obscuring dogma; whether interpreted for use in religion or relations, Pascal’s Wager illustrates the danger of using logic to intimidate one’s self into complacent submission. While Jean-Louis wins his woman, it’s only through acknowledging the stultifying inanity of that fear—an epiphany that, as with those of Rohmer’s most accomplished films, is self-enriching only because it is self-defeating.

The theme of male apprehension either transcended or succumbed to, but always deconstructed, is at the jazzily dendritic core of the “Moral Tales,” from the opening shorts The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career made in the mid ‘60s, to the cycle’s final, sobbing breakdown in 1972. La Collectioneuse dotes upon the hesitant attraction of main character Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) toward sexily ripening housemate Haydée (Haydée Politoff) with the same languid opulence it observes the Mediterranean country side. In Claire’s Knee, the subtly erotic desire to touch the titular teenage appendage must be sublimated in Néstor Almendros’s verdantly placid rendering of the Lake Annecy shoreline and in the painstaking precision of protagonist Jerome’s (Jean-Claude Brialy) scheme to fulfill his lightly untoward, Seymour Glass-like fantasy. Similarly, the soft-spoken Frédéric (Bernard Verley) of Chloé in the Afternoon identifies the importance of feeling auras of seduction all about him in the world as he effortlessly controls himself for the sake of a disillusioned marriage; in an interlude that seems eerily plucked from my own perversely subdued erotic dreams, he imagines himself with a female-manipulating amulet, and one-by-one he responds to the bodily surrender of actresses from the preceding “Moral Tales” with chaste propriety.

Both Pauline Kael and Molly Haskell have noted the persistence of the male gaze in Rohmer’s work, but, perhaps being women, however perspicacious, they neglect the additional dimension of doubt and bewilderment confounding his compartmentalization of lust. Nary a supple bottom or striking visage appears without the question of why such arbitrary appearances should drive a civilized man to distraction. And rather than a fable recounting a man of nebbish repute’s “tempting” by a liberated woman, My Night at Maud’s instead concerns Jean-Louis’s internal grappling with the casual permissiveness of two intelligent gals who are fascinated by his angst—when they don’t find it endearingly silly. Even the most titillating sequence in Rohmer’s entire catalog exudes pregnant nervousness: As Frédéric towels off the daintily pale lumbar region of the freshly showered Chloé (Zouzou), we sense an onslaught of inner tremors. Dividing the calm distinctions between dialectical forces is essential to appreciating Rohmer’s anthropological trenchancy and, even in his later films, to experience sexual arousal is to have a spirited argument with one’s self.

It’s a sentiment that this man, at the very least, can sympathize with, particularly because Rohmer’s mouthpieces are of the variety that troll bookstores for dusty texts while hoping to bump into the objects of their obsession, and that shop for turtlenecks with the calibrated exactitude of a painter selecting a dim shade of red for a lip shadow. It hardly matters when considering the unique effects of these darling, dramatic inventions, but I often rhetorically ask, especially when in the midst of the “Moral Tales,” how closely such predilections and anxieties resemble those of Rohmer himself. No thorough biographies have been written on the director in English; he was intensely private, using a nom de plume for both his critical career and his film credits. But testimony suggests an artist compelled by utter dedication to the process of realizing a personal vision—a love that almost certainly dwarfed the formidable one he had for movies. This is a director who successfully predicted, through strenuous study, the precise meteorological moment at which a mood-enhancing snow would fall upon Paris for a key exterior café shot in My Night at Maud’s; later, he waited a year to procure satisfactory footage of the infamous “green ray” for Summer. Is it such a stretch to envision splatter-art adorning his office walls beside year-end-earning charts as they do in Frédéric’s?

My intuited conception of Rohmer pairs the nearly paralyzing intellect and knotty woman-worship of the “Moral Tales” with a graceful self-awareness that would have kept him from languishing in the serio-comedic immaturity of his characters. (Isn’t it common practice for authors to populate their fiction with people who are just barely beneath them?) I have consciously fabricated this Rohmer out of pieces of available evidence partially as an instructive ideal; his success in spite of the ineptitudes and quiet impulses I might have shared with him provides a consoling roadmap to conquering the infernal mechanics of life. No other director has understood more visibly how the big picture of the human condition is played out in miniscule, if often agonizing, day-to-day details, and the manner in which those seemingly meaningless interactions and perfunctory choices snowball into the foundation of our collective experience. There’s a reason that Rohmer’s work, aside from his occasional period detours, lacks the pumped action and histrionics that have, for better or more often worse, become synonymous with cinema today; without the mocked-up tension of extraordinary circumstances, we feel the shifts in his films’ rhythms almost as intensely as if we were living them.

Interestingly, I’ve discovered in my research for this piece that Rohmer and I share more than a doggedly analytical outlook. Some of the symmetries are superficial: According to at least two sources, we were both born on March 20th, albeit 64 years apart (his date of birth is alternatively listed as March 21st and April 4th), and he began his career in film as a writer and critic (the “Moral Tales” were first authored as a series of novellas while Rohmer was editing a ragtag team of nascent buffs including Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Rivette at the famous Cahiers du Cinéma). Other commonalities, however, are far more piquantly intimate. In one of his most prescriptive essays, “For a Talking Cinema” (a work that, to my mind, should be more inspiring than any writings on the certain tendencies of the French), he champions the use of diegetic sound and dialogue in movies as a manner of moving beyond the sensory to the cerebral, a plateau few had reached in his eyes, or ears, since the advent of sonic technology in the late ‘20s.

With this in mind he extols the timbre-conscious virtues of The Magnificent Ambersons above the radio-oriented hubris of Citizen Kane (to which I can only add “hear, hear,” quite literally). He also cites as a crucial example of the true “talky” my favorite American director, Preston Sturges, whose influence on Rohmer’s early cinematic attempts is undeniable. Both the shorts Veronica and her Dunce and All the Boys are Named Patrick (the latter written by Rohmer but directed by Godard) tap into the crisply funny nuance of street vernacular, while his feature-length debut The Sign of Leo—featuring a jaunty rags-to-riches-to-rags plot and a hilarious cameo by a harried Godard—is something of a cross between Sullivan’s Travels and Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning. Interestingly, none of these incunabulum suggest the signature visual tenderness and mental focus that would follow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but The Sign of Leo displays a startling knack for sneering punch lines, many of them likely penned by co-writer Paul Gégauff (a representative exchange: “Is that beggar playing Bartok?” “No, he’s just out of tune.” “Well, it’s modern at any rate.”)

The box office failure of The Sign of Leo has condemned it to foot-noteworthiness in studies of French New Wave, though the sharp formal differences between that film and The 400 Blows, from later in 1959, are somewhat indicative of the ponderous divide between Rohmer and his Cahiers cohorts that would prove career-long. Rohmer stood apart from Godard and Truffaut in several ways (he was 10 years their senior, for one, and an editor rather than a critical peer), but perhaps most critically, his filmmaking style only tangentially incorporates interaction with other cinematic and pop-culture objects, a practice with which the most celebrated New Wavers arguably built their reputations. Breathless was a cut-up heist flick dedicated to Monogram Studios; Jules and Jim was a frothy, boho, CinemaScope three-way where a dangerous brand of love could catch you at the Studio des Ursulines theater. The Barbet Schroeder-produced “Moral Tales,” while international hits to a degree, were subdued think pieces shot tendentiously in a claustrophobic aspect ratio (as, remarkably, nearly all of Rohmer’s films are) with Almendros’s patient color gradients rather than Raoul Coutard’s flickering reverie palette.

This is not to say that copious allusions to Rohmer’s masters don’t clandestinely litter the tales; Hitchcock, whom Rohmer co-wrote a book about, receives several nods. Frédéric brusquely sprints down a narrow staircase to avoid disaster while we observe from above, our teeth chattering. And the final coast-set scene of My Night at Maud’s features a innocently devastating pan-reveal; after noticing the freshly sea-bathed Maud, the camera moves with Jean-Louis’s gaze to the incestuous fidgeting of his blond, Catholic wife, and for the last time begrudgingly observes the triumph of the earthy over the ethereal. But the engine that propels Rohmer’s films, if they can withstand such muscle-y metaphors, is not a reflexive adoration of their own art form, or a toothy zeal to shatter its grammatical canon and wave a brazen “everything is cinema” banner in its place (is this why so few directors have cited him as their central inspiration?). Rohmer, rather, seems drawn chiefly to modes of self-expression for their own sake, with film as the ultimate medium due to its fusion of the visual, the aural, and textual. To Rohmer the movies are, in other words, simply the most efficacious manner of exploring personal ideas—about philosophy, about history, about human interaction. And his thoughts are all the better for being seemingly rooted in the magisteria of flesh, tears, and talk rather than that of celluloid, splices, and boom mics.

David Thomson’s biographical entry on Rohmer processes this attribute by proclaiming him a “director from the 18th century”—a fair glossing, given the filmmaker’s self-professed admiration for Enlightenment-era thinkers, though it carries an imperious sting, as if Rohmer were an artist hopelessly out of time and touch whose stories would have been actualized no less vividly as novels. This reading also dismally overlooks Rohmer’s mastery of invisible craftsmanship, proof of which rests in his punctiliously deliberate choice of film stock and 1.37:1 framing, his nimbly medium-wide, axis-massaging angles, and his unhurried cutting pace. (As Susan Sontag observed, to confuse an unostentatious style for the lack of one is to fatuously render the already dubious term “style” useless.)

And rather than reeking of the past, Rohmer’s historical acumen transforms the sharp values and haunting inquiries of philosophers two centuries previous through subtly postmodern alchemy. He is an unsung 20th-century surrogate for Kant and Hume, perpetually speculating how their whims and axioms might be revived through quotidian reenactment. Even his putatively straight-forward period dramas bear subcutaneous marks of post-‘50s, death-of-the-author frenzy: The obstetric chamber anguish of The Marquise of O… and the cardboard cut-out solemnity of Perceval le Gallois, both from the late ‘70s, manage to squeeze large worlds onto tiny sets with plastic irony; the funky, questionable politics of 2002’s The Lady and the Duke are sketched with 2D digitalism; The Romance of Astreé and Céladon, from 2007, is a painterly, druid-bound compromise of a valediction.

Thomson’s mini-bio blunders further with its uninformed rejection of the entirety of Rohmer’s post-‘70s corpus, an editorial decision that likely says more about the incompleteness of the critic’s relationship with Rohmer than anything else. But the director’s partisans, myself among them, can’t help but scowl at the missed opportunity on these pages of Thomson’s usually stellar and meticulously researched dictionary. The smarting wit and striking milieus of Rohmer’s more accessible works (including the “Comedies and Proverbs”) have influenced brief pockets of international movie brilliance before; it’s hard to resist navigating Woody Allen’s thematically monotone career without him in mind, and both Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach have fully admitted to being under the spell of the director’s first two cycles. But since Rohmer’s passing, his films have ceased to become immediately impressive “news” in whatever modest sense they once were; aside from a diminutive band of bloggers willing to pirate the undistributed output of this 20th-century auteur, he has few champions. And regardless of my affection for the “Moral Tales,” claiming them the end-all, be-all of Rohmer’s career is unlikely to inspire a renaissance of interest.

Before pointing too punitive a finger at Thomson, however, who is America’s most laudably language-conscious film critic, I must hoist myself upon my own petard and assess Rohmer’s final cycle, the “Tales of the Four Seasons,” as a comparatively ineffectual quartet. Often concerning the leathery blossom of mature romanticism, their quietude and honeyed hues seem turgid beside the delicate heartbreak of Chloé in the Afternoon; Rohmer even widened his framing stance to 1.66:1 for the two least interesting entries. Only the hot-tipped, triangular sex of Summer’s Tale, with its numbers-as-euphony-minded main character, recalls Rohmer’s heyday, though the cautious conversations between widow-vineyard owner Magali (Béatrice Romand) and burbly confidant Isabelle (Marie Rivière, again in top form) in Autumn’s Tale beautifully mimic the smooth, twisty crawl of the former’s grapevines. Far more pleasurably representative of the filmmaker’s mentally peripatetic élan is the non-cyclical The Tree, the Mayor, and the Médiathèque from 1993, an extended Socratic dialogue on the tender aesthetics of Lomax-like environmentalism with a grinningly furry performance from Fabrice Luchini as the most crowd-pleasingly polemical of Jean-Louis’ descendents. But as so much of Rohmer’s trajectory seems designed to accompany and abet my own sexual-intellectual gestation with empathic tough-love, I have to speculate if I have yet to reach the age where I can meet the “Tales of the Four Seasons” more than simply halfway.

This hypothesis of casual ageism is more than a flippant, self-defensive inkling. As with Truffaut and especially Godard, Rohmer’s releases in the 1980s were among his tightest-constructed and most maturely articulated—and yet they have far fewer defenders than art-house warhorses like Vivre Sa Vie and Claire’s Knee. This is somewhat due to the same issues of accessibility and awareness that likely prompted Thomson’s dismissal of the post-“Moral Tales” works, yet I can’t help but blame these sins of the film buff populous on a widespread lack of receptiveness towards the mellowing, metabasis-prone eccentricities of middle age. First Name: Carmen and The Aviator’s Wife might very well be the apexes of their respective director’s cinematic ethos, but their incisiveness is purposefully dulled by slyly balanced, backwards-thrown glances that seem afraid of disintegrating their projects into saline pillars. The Brechtian cue-carding in Godard’s portrayal of the has-been malcontent filmmaker in First Name: Carmen is a smarmily showy example. For the ever-cagey Rohmer, however, the entirety of the “Comedies and Proverbs” cycle is a surreptitious commentary on, among other things, the cracked, inert machismo of the “Moral Tales,” and a twinkling promulgation of late-adulthood as the point at which the stodgily parallel lines of gender attitudes finally intersect.

It would be reductive to categorize the aphorism-toting “Comedies and Proverbs” as the yonic answer to the quivering, deflated phallus of the “Moral Tales” and nothing more. But where the sparring dialectic of Rohmer’s earlier films so often involved the needs of ascetic, wishy-washy ids and the dour reflections of overactive egos, the “Comedies and Proverbs” takes us out of the shrunken, pliant detritus of the male brain and into the foggy thick of fitful romantic ennui. Most of the protagonists are women, or reside in a universe governed by stark, vaginal caprice; in one sense, The Aviator’s Wife consists of a dopey nonentity of a postboy, François (Philippe Marlaud), being prodded through a playbook of manipulative sexual gestures. And yet from off this 24-hour assembly line of shrewd, wide-eyed coyness emerges Rohmer’s most astounding film, a scrapbook of sultry apartment blues and jovial lake greens set to a soundtrack of constantly engaging, constantly negating flirt-speak. As the sobering finale exfoliates the last of François’s foolhardy confidence with women, it’s as though Rohmer is slapping us, and himself, across the face for identifying with the oneiric brain crush of Jean-Louis.

Summer (or, among irascible polyglots, The Green Ray) is considered by many to be the cycle’s centerpiece, and it undulates with the most persuasive, albeit anomalous, charm. Marie Rivière, who also plays the most brutally instructive character in The Aviator’s Wife, concocts Delphine as an immaculately feminine mirror image of Jean-Louis’s narrative control. She’s a clinking-clanking, soliloquy-prone vegetarian who can’t own up to the frozen suspension her inwardly rigid, outwardly flighty credo facilitates; eventually, she must invent out of nothing an exit strategy from sensual boredom using the dying sun’s green ray as an objective correlative. But inhabiting the desultory grace of the female psyche came at a price for Rohmer; he allowed the staggering histrionics of Rivière more freedom than he’d offered any other actor (Trintignant described in an interview how he was forced to even recite mannered, nonsensical vowel sounds from the My Night at Maud’s script). As a result the film appears more a collaboration of dizzying fecundity than a proud, proper member of the Rohmer canon (Rivière is even given a writing credit), and is thus less useful to my admittedly hagiographic argument. Fascinatingly, one senses that the director felt similarly; his non-cyclical production from the following year, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, essentially explores identical themes of womanly kinship and suburban disappointment with more structured whimsy and less scenario-dominating actresses.

Within the remaining entries in the cycle, Rohmer often alights the top of his self-deprecating game with snarling aplomb; the ideals he’d converted female types into during the last two decades are resisted by their skin-and-bone vessels with puissance, and they eventually win the rhetorical skirmish. Even Pauline Kael noted how Almendros’s gradually roving camera couldn’t properly fetishize the snugly swimsuit-ensconced preteen rump of Pauline at the Beach’s title character. And when an older womanizer plants kisses on Pauline’s nymphet legs, she double-kicks his chest out of her comfort zone and, seemingly, into the honest if off-kilter chivalry of Claire’s Knee. Both this and the dissection of conjugal bliss as a predestined goal that develops, however incipiently, with the gonads in Le Beau Mariage applaud women who maximize the benefit of their otherness; in Rohmer’s world, both sexes are equally befuddled and frustrated, but adamantly clasp an awareness of their influence on that befuddlement within the opposite gender. There’s a thin razor hiding in Pauline’s smile. She knows, even as she becomes weepily embroiled in the politics of her aunt’s desperate divorcée decadence, that she will only have her automatic pick of suitors for so long; after that comes the smoldering, clawing decline and reckless sexual hegemony epitomized by the macguffin mystery in The Aviator’s Wife.

This buoyant, boy-crazy bitterness is what makes the sixth of the “Comedies and Proverbs,” Boyfriends and Girlfriends, such a balmy farewell to Rohmer’s most rewarding period. The Shakespearean lover-swapping and admire/admonish relationship between the blond, timid Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet) and the tan, scrappy chick-of-the-world Lea (Sophie Renoir) is ironically an emblem of the director’s staggering growth. Who else could fashion a film so slight and yet so necessary? It’s not surprising that Whit Stillman created a near-facsimile of the bumpily brainy dynamic between the two young ladies, and their clueless but worthy beaus, for his unfairly maligned masterpiece Last Days of Disco.

Boyfriends and Girlfriends is a portrait of twentysomething unkemptness, a paean to the clumsy transition from teenage overreaction to adult compromise filtered through the gracious attentiveness of a septuagenarian with unflappable memory. Even the interiors represent rebirth: Blanche’s pale tomb of an apartment vibrantly blossoms a guilty rouge after her seducing of Lea’s on-again, off-again boy toy. And in a smirking, highly didactic nod to the schism between the “Comedies and Proverbs” and Rohmer’s first cycle, one character bemoans his inferiority “not morally, but physically.” The “Comedies and Proverbs” affix the autumnal intellect of the “Moral Tales” to Elizabethan errors of corporeal l’amour, a juxtaposition that gives both attributes sinews of verisimilitude and gravity; if My Night at Maud’s is a lyrically fictionalized essay, both The Aviator’s Wife and Boyfriends and Girlfriends are formative experiences plucked from the fray of life and saturated with sense-providing, color-coordinated drama.

The ending sequence of Boyfriends and Girlfriends shows Rohmer at his most fraternity-affirming. Blanche and Lea half-apologize to one another for their dalliances, working each other up into a hissy confusion just short of explosion until realizing that they’ve unintentionally freed one another from past obligations and can happily entrap the men they truly, maturely desire rather than the ones they’ve pined for at a Chekovian distance. The content-for-ever-after closing is thus not without the suggestion of an incommunicative continuum; there will be further horn-locking, further self-doubt, further self-searching, but all with the acknowledgement that the germ of existence resides within this endlessly neurotic, neural grind. And this truism is all but evident in the process-driven art of a director like Rohmer, who in one sense explored but a handful of themes across nearly thirty feature-length films without flagging. There is no other filmmaker for whom movies are “essays” in the most French sense of the term—attempts at coherence that must be reiterated in variations if meaning is to be achieved. There is no other filmmaker who more successfully infused the loquaciously verbal with its unagitated visual counterpart. There is no other filmmaker whose work has so often metamorphosed my living room into a secular temple from which I emerge baptized in clarity, with dense, oily droplets of patterned angst-language and feminine beatification clinging to my brow.

Presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, “The Sign of Rohmer” (August 18 to September 3) is the most complete North American retrospective of Rohmer’s work in more than a decade, including all of his feature films and the U.S. premiere of his 1980 TV film Catherine de Heilbronn. For more information click here.

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Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More

The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.

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Angela Schanelec
Photo: Joaquim Gem

One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.

Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.

That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.

Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.

Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?

I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.

What’s so difficult about it?

Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.

Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?

It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.

In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.

This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.

To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?

To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.

I agree.

And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.

Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.

What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.

One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.

You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.

You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?

Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.

I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?

I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.

I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?

No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.

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Features

Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked

Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Photo: Neon

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.


Crash

92. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz

What Should Have Won: Munich


Cimarron

91. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Front Page


Out of Africa

90. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Color Purple


A Beautiful Mind

89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Gosford Park


Braveheart

88. Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick

What Should Have Won: Babe


The Broadway Melody

87. The Broadway Melody (1930)

Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona


Around the World in 80 Days

86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion


Shakespeare in Love

85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin

What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line


Gladiator

84. Gladiator (2000)

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have Won: Traffic


The Greatest Shot on Earth

83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man


American Beauty

82. American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Insider


Argo

81. Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley

What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Picture

How could the essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in our cultural moment?

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

We now have roughly a decade’s worth of data to postulate how ranked-choice ballots have altered the outcome of the top Oscar prize, and we’ve come to understand what the notion of a “most broadly liked” contender actually entails. And in the wake of wins for The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, The Shape of Water, and most especially Green Book last year, we’re left with the impression that the biggest change in what defines a best picture is no change whatsoever. In fact, what appears to have happened is that it’s acted as a bulwark, preserving the AMPAS’s “tradition of quality” in the top prize during a decade in which the concept of a run-the-table Oscar juggernaut has shifted from the postcard pictorials of Out of Africa to immersive epics like Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which won two to three times as many awards as the films they lost out to for the top prize.

We’re far from the only ones who’ve noticed that—Moonlight eternally excepted—the contours of best picture winners seem to be drifting in the opposite direction of where Academy representatives have indicated they want to go. Wesley Morris recently concluded that, despite his fondness, if not downright love, for the majority of this year’s top contenders, the slate still just doesn’t jibe with a purportedly forward-thinking, brand-spanking-new academy: “Couldn’t these nine movies just be evidence of taste? Good taste? They certainly could. They are. And yet … the assembly of these movies feels like a body’s allergic reaction to its own efforts at rehabilitation.” Melissa Villaseñor’s jovial refrain of “white male rage” two weeks ago knowingly reduced this awards cycle down to absurdly black-or-white terms, but if the YouTube comments on that SNL bit are any indication, raging white males aren’t in the mood to have a sense of humor about themselves, much less welcome serious introspection.

Neither is that demographic alone in its disgruntlement. What was yesteryear’s “brutally honest Oscar voter” has become today’s “blithely, incuriously sexist, racist, and xenophobic Oscar voter.” As the saying goes, this is what democracy looks like, and given sentiments like “I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films” and “they should have gotten an American actress to play Harriet,” it looks a lot like the second coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age gorgons of gossip, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

It might be a stretch but we can imagine that, to many voters, the presumptive frontrunner, Sam Mendes’s 1917, comes off a lot less like a first-person video game mission and a lot more representative of what it feels like to navigate our landmine-strewn cultural landscape as your average politically neoliberal, artistically reactionary academy member circa 2020. Especially one forced to make snap decisions in the midst of an accelerated Oscar calendar. And even if that is, rhetorically speaking, a bridge too far, there’s no denying the backdrop of representational fatigue and socio-political retreat liberal America is living through.

How could the stiff-lipped, single-minded, technically flawless, quietly heroic, and, most importantly, essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in this moment? It’s the same reason why we suspect, despite ranked-choice ballots pushing Bong Joon-ho’s insanely and broadly liked Parasite in major contention for the prize, it’s actually Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit we most strongly fear pulling off an upset. After all, how many Oscar voters are still more concerned about Nazis than they are global income inequality? Or, if you’d rather, how many of their homes look more like the Parks’ than like the Kims’?

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Jojo Rabbit

Might Win: Parasite

Should Win: The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, or Parasite

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
Photo: Warner Bros.

This week marks the release of the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey, which Slant’s Chris Basanti dinged for its “rote crimeland plot, over-eager and unsuccessful stabs at subversive humor, and failure to bring its ensemble together until far too late in the film.” Still, it effectively claps back at Suicide Squad at one point, and resists falling under the spell of the Joker. On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the eight titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp


Suicide Squad

8. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole


Justice League

7. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)

Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole


Aquaman

6. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)

“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown


Birds of Prey

5. Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)

The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Cathy Yan’s Birds of PreyAnd the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a traumatized but ultimately triumphant “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her scenery-chewing villain boyfriend to carve out a name and a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. Also in theory, surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for the launch of a great franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or gin up a halfway engaging caper for her to lead us through, what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for her. Chris Barsanti


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)

Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen


Wonder Woman

3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson


Shazam!

2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)

The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole


Man of Steel

1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Director

Given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs, we’re not holding our breath for an upset here.

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Sam Mendes
Photo: Universal Pictures

Last week, when Eric brought to my attention the New York Times article that exposed the myth of Hollywood being in the tank for movies about the industry, I used the piece as a jumping-off point for why Quentin Tarantino was vulnerable in the original screenplay category. At the time, I thought I was stepping on Eric’s toes by referencing his intel, believing him to be charged with giving our readers the lowdown in this category. Turns out he was tasked with whipping up our take on the film editing contest, meaning that I had stepped on my own toes. Which is to say, almost everything I already said about why QT was likely to come up short in original screenplay applies here, and then some.

Indeed, just as math tells us that the academy’s adulation for navel-gazing portraitures of Hollywood has been exaggerated by the media, it also tells us that this award is Sam Mendes’s to lose after the 1917 director won the DGA award, the most accurate of all Oscar precursors, having predicted the winner here 64 times in 71 years. A win for the pin-prick precision of Bong Joon-ho’s direction of Parasite would be a welcome jaw-dropper, as it would throw several stats out the window and, in turn, get us a little more excited about predicting the Oscars next year. But given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs—trust us, the math checks out—we’re not holding our breath.

Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917

Could Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.”

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

This past Monday, while the nation waited hour after embarrassing hour for the Iowa caucus results to start rolling in, Film Twitter puzzled over an AMPAS tweet that seemed to leak this year’s Oscar winners—before the voting window had even closed. It didn’t help matters that the slate of “predictions” tweeted by the academy seemed plausible enough to be real, right down to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite for best picture.

As it turned out, the academy’s problems weren’t so unlike the DNC app gumming up the works in, as the New York Post shadily dubbed it, “Duh Moines.” And sure enough, AMPAS fessed up to a quality-control gremlin (sorry, “issue”) that resulted in someone’s personal predictions going out on the main account. As Iowa’s snafu reaffirmed that Occam’s razor isn’t just something you need to keep out of Arthur Fleck’s hands, we’re 100% certain that the intern who posted that ballot on the academy’s account meant to post it on their personal one.

Speaking of Joker, if you would’ve asked us even just a few days ago whether we thought Ford v Ferrari was any more likely than Todd Phillips’s dank meme to take the Oscar in the category that has frequently been characterized as the strongest bellwether for a film’s overall best picture chances, we’d have probably collapsed in a fit of incontrollable giggles. And yet, with a BAFTA film editing win in Ford v Ferrari’s favor, we’re not the only ones wondering if the least-nominated best picture nominee actually has more in its tank than meets the eye.

The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic, however, is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.” being sung on Parasite’s behalf, and indeed, it was selected as the academy’s unofficial, accidental prediction in this category. As Ed noted yesterday, momentum is in its favor like no other film this year. Well, maybe one other, and it was mere providence that the one-shot gestalt kept Sam Mendes’s 1917 off the ballot here, or else one of the tougher calls of the night could’ve been that much tougher.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Parasite

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Features

Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked

As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode Ranked
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)



Bojack Horseman

77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2

First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.



Bojack Horseman

76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”

The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.



Bojack Horseman

75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2

A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.



Bojack Horseman

74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1

This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.



Bojack Horseman

73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4

It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.



Bojack Horseman

72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3

Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).



Bojack Horseman

71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6

If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

One of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

So much has happened across the home stretch of this perversely shortened awards season that it’s almost difficult to process it all. Believe it or not, at the start of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, just after the Golden Globes and a few days before the Producers Guild of America Awards announced its top prize, I was still confident in my belief that we were heading toward another picture/director split, with Jojo Rabbit taking the former and Quentin Tarantino the latter. But flash forward two weeks and we’re now looking at an Oscar ceremony that will be in lockstep with the final wave of guilds and awards groups, leaving frontrunners in various categories up to this point in the dust.

Case in point: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in original screenplay. Even after a recent New York Times article used old-fashioned math to expose the myth being propagated by awards pundits—even us!—that Hollywood is in love with seeing its image reflected back at itself, we figured that the film, even if it isn’t our stealth best picture frontrunner, and even if it isn’t Tarantino’s swan song, couldn’t lose here. After all, the category is practically synonymous with QT, who only needs one more win to tie Woody Allen for most Oscars here.

And then—tell us if you’ve heard this one before—Parasite happened. Here’s a category in which Oscar voters aren’t reluctant to award genre fare, or re-imaginations of that fare. That’s Tarantino’s stock in trade…as well as Bong Joon-hoo’s. Parasite’s screenplay, co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won, found favor with the WGA last weekend, and while we weren’t ready to call this race for the film at that time—Tarantino isn’t a WGA member, and as such can’t be nominated for the guild’s awards—we’re doing so in the wake of the South Korean satire winning the BAFTA against Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That victory proves, among other things, that one of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Should Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors.

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Jojo Rabbit

As soon as the Oscar nominations were announced and the headlines were dominated by the academy’s cold shoulder toward female directors, it sure felt like the balance of this race was tipped in Greta Gerwig’s favor. After all, Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors; they’re where filmmakers like Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Pedro Almodóvar, Jordan Peele, Spike Jonze, and, to date, Quentin Tarantino have won their only Oscars.

Gerwig’s status as the most conspicuous best director castaway in this category might not in itself have been enough to push her through, but virtually all the press on her exceptionally good Little Women has focused specifically on how successfully she remixed the novel vis-a-vis jaunting back and forth between different periods in the chronology. Her framing device allows the novel and its modern fans to have their cake and eat it too, to be told a story overly familiar to them in a way that makes the emotional arcs feel fresh and new, to be enraptured by the period details that have always fascinated them but then also come away from it feeling fully reconciled with Jo’s “marriage” to Professor Bhaer. Within the world of pop filmmaking, if that doesn’t constitute excellence in screenwriting adaption, what indeed does?

Alas, as was confirmed at this weekend’s BAFTA and WGA awards, the token gesture this year looks to be spent not on Gerwig, but the category’s other writer-director who missed out in the latter category. We’re no fans of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and we aren’t alone, as it boasts the lowest score of any best picture nominee this year on Metacritic. Still, we admit that it must touch a nerve somewhere in the average academy voter who not only finds the Holocaust so irresistible a subject that they’re willing to back a film that this year’s crop of “honest Oscar posters” memorably dubbed Lolocaust, but who also, while continuing to feel increasingly persecuted about the online catcalls over their questionable taste, would right about now love to drop kick Film Twitter out a window like Jojo does Waititi’s positively puckish Hitler.

Will Win: Jojo Rabbit

Could Win: Little Women

Should Win: Little Women

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Production Design

Oscar voters are suckers for scale, throwbacks, ostentation, and, above all, a sense of prestige.

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Oscar voters are suckers for scale, throwbacks, ostentation, and, above all, a sense of prestige. No film nominated in this category checks off all those boxes, but two come close: The Irishman and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. While the former never caught fire the way it needed to in order to vie for even the major prizes, the latter has been cruising toward more than just a win in this category from the second people laid eyes on it out of Cannes last year. Regardless of what you think of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it’s difficult to imagine the scope of Quentin Tarantino’s sense of regard for a bygone Hollywood being possible without Barbara Ling’s production design and Nancy Haigh’s set decoration.

Still, this one is going to be a squeaker. First, there’s the matter of 1917’s late-in-the-game surge and whether or not the film can run the table in the technical categories, even in this particular one where war films almost never prevail. And then there’s Parasite. Near the start of our rolling Oscar coverage, I mentioned how almost every day is bringing us some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is that film’s main setting. Now there’s a black-and-white version of the film making the rounds that will certainly allow people to think anew on the dimensions of the film’s thematic and aesthetic surfaces. Because winning in most of Oscar’s tech categories isn’t about restraint, but “more is more,” Parasite’s concentrated sense of texture is more likely the spoiler to the vividly haunted past-ness that clings to every surface across Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s plethora of settings.

Will Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Could Win: Parasite

Should Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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