What It Means to Be the Best

Although I was pleased to see The Hurt Locker win the Academy Award for Best Picture – it’s an exceedingly well-made film in terms of its writing, direction, cinematography, sound, acting, and editing – I find the notion of “Best” to be strikingly limiting.  Obviously, we know that many of the films that win the Best Picture award are anything but that (some obvious examples: The Greatest Show on Earth over High NoonHow Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane and The Maltese FalconRocky over Taxi Driver and Network?).  But perhaps most importantly, what is problematic in the very construction of the award is what it means to be “best.”

How are we defining this term?  This may account for some of the choices as to how academy members vote.  It’s not defined in terms of aesthetic achievement, political relevance, highly evolved sensibility, highly evolved sensitivity, or any other criteria.  It simply says “best.”  Maybe the voters just thought the movie made for a great show?  Certainly Rocky is a highly dramatic film and captures and riles the emotions.  I can see that, I can even imagine valuing that.  But I still have a hard time as evaluating that film as somehow “better” than Network or Taxi Driver.  I hated Titanic: I thought it was one of the dumbest dramatizations of class conflict that I’ve ever seen.  Ever.  But it was a hell of an entertainment.  That would be hard to deny.

I’m confident that many academy voters select what they see as the best entertainment.  At times, this may mean the best film in terms of aesthetic achievement but a lot of the times it doesn’t.  That’s not all bad, and we shouldn’t merely single out the Academy Awards for its sometime-poor judgment.  Other organizations and awards often go out to highly suspect films – I’m looking at you, Golden Globes! – and critics can be just as suspect in their choices.  (I’ve read more than once that the winners of critics’ awards are often compromise choices made by a group of critics with deep ideological and aesthetic investments in a particular film.  Because they cannot reach consensus they are forced to choose the least-objectionable film to the overall group.  That doesn’t much sound like “best” to me.)

An alternative notion as to what qualifies as best might be the film that is most influential.  This is obviously hard to identify for those voters who are considering very recent films, as there usually isn’t enough time to get the requisite feedback to determine the influence of a particular film.  Going back twenty years or so, one might note the power of Scorsese’s Goodfellas as a particularly influential film, but Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction would most likely qualify as the most influential film of the 1990s.  Just think about all of the copycat films following the release of that movie – we’re still seeing them to this day.  Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy may well end up being the most influential of the last decade – partly for aesthetic reasons, but also because his ability to create a franchise and to shoot all three films essentially using the same actors, sets, and crew.  The rise of the franchise in the last ten years – Harry Potter, Spiderman, Pirates of the Caribbean – is a dreadful development overall, it seems pretty clear to me.  While there are some successful films in these series, many of them make for a depressingly dreary viewing experience.  They are the embodiment of how Hollywood dumps its development money into making movies for the teenage boys of America – and of tapping into an international market that values known starts and narratives.  Consider the second films of Transformers and Scooby Doo as just two striking examples of sequels to a horrible but profitable film.  I always fear there could be more, and that this development money won’t go to some compelling, new story that will remain unmade.

We know that the most influential film of the year can often be a rather horrible film.  Crash won the Academy Award back in 2005, and since then I have noticed a large number of movies made with large ensembles and screenplays that seek to weave a web of differing individual narratives into a large sociological tapestry that tells us something purportedly deep or profound about our modern lives.  They don’t, and God knows Crash didn’t.  what was a horrible film was somehow read as an enlightening dramatization of race in America – it wasn’t – and the copycats have followed, each of them depressingly inept in its ability to effectively tell a story.  Didn’t these people ever see Nashville?

Mumblecore was a major underground movement of the 2000s – kind of like Hal Hartley movies in the early 1990s.  These movies certainly enjoyed critical acclaim and received a fair amount of publicity in the better newspapers and journals – think of the talk around and about Andrew Bujalski’s films Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation.  These aren’t terribly well known to the general public, but to critics and a certain hipster filmgoing public they are the embodiment of 2000s cinema.  Hannah Takes the Stairs, in which Bujalski acted, helped propel screenwriter and actress Greta Gerwig into prominence (She’s currently starring in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg).  But still, these films were not the most influential, at least not for most filmgoers.

What would I propose for how we should consider the “best” film of the year?  I understand why many people want to recognize films that are well-done: well-executed in their visuals, sound, and editing, and finely written, acted, and directed.  And that’s The Hurt Locker.  But I’d really like us to do a better job of identifying films that change the way we see.  Film, after all, is in a primary sense, a visual medium.  Few films actually help us see “better.”  But some do, and the very best actually help us see something we haven’t before, or – to put it in a different way – to actually change how, as well as what, we see.  This might suggest to many readers that I’m seeking to make a case for Avatar as the best film of last year, but actually I’m not.  It is a movie that will have a great deal of influence in terms of how films are shot and the evolution of 3D technology, and there are certain shots and moments that the film’s visuals are both subtle and breathtaking.  But it wasn’t a great movie, to be sure (the limitations of the acting and especially the writing hampered what it was able to dramatize).  And while it helped us see in something of a new way, I also feel that it didn’t do as much as I had hoped.  In a way, it didn’t feel as revolutionary as I expected it to.

Don’t get me wrong, Avatar a groundbreaking film in some ways and it does point us in some as-of-yet-unknown directions, but it’s no Where the Wild Things Are.  That’s right – that was the best film of 2009, and one of the best of the past decade.  Awards?  Not any that I can think of, but that’s of no concern.  What makes this film wonderful, powerful, and devastating is just how similar and dissimilar it is to other films.  As a narrative, it is both deeply familiar yet utterly odd; as a story it is funny yet terribly sad; in its tone it is both frightening and reassuring, dark yet ultimately optimistic.  The score is haunting and the visuals – while strikingly clean and devoid of any semblance of special effects – are otherworldly.  As with all of Spike Jonze’s films, he has taken us into a world that looks exactly like our world but which does not actually exist.

I am going to exert a lot of time or space extolling the film’s virtues.  A number of critics have already done so to great effect – I heartily recommend what A.O. Scott has written on it, for instance.  I just want to say this: Where the Wild Things Are places us in a world that doesn’t seem at all like ours, and yet is.  As such it is a brilliant counterpoint to his 1999 masterwork, Being John Malkovich, which envisioned a world that looked exactly like ours, but wasn’t.  I am not sure I’ve ever been so excited as I was that night I walked out the theater after seeing Malkovich.  It was as if I had been introduced to someone I had been waiting to meet for thirty years.  In the past ten years, I have rarely had that same feeling, but Where the Wild Things Are brought it back with a vengeance.  It’s that exciting, in my mind.  It treats the extraordinary as ordinary – not as in fantasy films like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia, where the fantastical is seemingly presented as normal but is spotlighted in order to broadcast the brilliant special effects that have enabled the director to show it on screen.  Joze does the opposite: he always seeks to hide the apparatus of the filmmaker and to let the story, the characters, and the action develop organically.  His films, his characters, his stories do not call attention to themselves.  They just are.  This is his great gift, is what makes him unlike virtually any other filmmaker, and is why he is so valuable.

But I believe that others have seen and will see what his films do and how they point to a different style of filmmaking.  And if so, we can look forward to some new avenues in cinema beyond and outside of 3D that can help us see our world, see film as a medium, and even see the act of seeing in ways we have not yet imagined..