Boyhood v Birdman
February 22, 2015, 7:15 pm
Filed under: film

It’s interesting that for the first time in a long while there seems genuine doubt over which film will win best picture tonight. Guild voting says Birdman, Baftas say Boyhood — as did most everything else before the guilds voted. And there is room for reasonably people to have different opinion as to who will win best director and best actor, too.

My understanding of the Academy is far too meagre to allow me to think I can call any of these races. I have some preferences, though.

The Birdman Oscar I think I would most like to see (other than Lubezki’s, which I take to be a done deal) would be Keaton’s. I am old enough to like the idea of an oldest-ever best-actor Oscar, and it is a tremendous performance. Redmayne’s performance is terrific, too, and technically remarkable — but less moving and in the service of a far lesser film.

I’d be OK with Inarritu winning, too, though he wouldn’t be my first choice—as long as Birdman didn’t win best picture too. I think both Birdman and Boyhood are very fine films, but Boyhood is a singular achievement that deserves singular recognition. And beyond the remarkable way in which it was done — though no discussion can really avoid that — Boyhood seems to me to use the precision with which it sits in its setting to say something in a quasi universal way, whereas Birdman is less easily ported to other concerns. I would like to see it win and see Linklater win as director — but though Boyhood is clearly Linklater’s achievement, it seems to me an achievement that goes beyond what it is to direct something. So I’d be OK with Inarritu’s work as a director being recognised.

All that said, I rewatched Grand Budapest Hotel last night. If the way that the voting works sees it sneak up the middle in between the two B-beginning-bi-syllables and take the statue I think I might be quite happy. I think there’s a real chance of it being watched for longer and with more lasting pleasure than anything else on the list.

Update: Tom Shone, who is wiser, more tasteful and better informed than me, prefers Birdman (and indeed Redmayne). And the Predictinator says Guardians for VFX, which I would be fine with


20 films (and Interstellar)
January 5, 2015, 11:11 pm
Filed under: film

As ever, I am struck by how many new UK releases I wanted to see this year and which I believe were utterly fab I just didn’t get to (eg Leviathan, Winter Sleep, 20 feet from Stardom, Life Itself, The Overnighters, many more). But I saw 50 films in all, and I was rather pleased to find, looking at the list, that 20 of them had struck me as outstanding in one way or another. To wit:

12 Years a Slave — Tim’s Vermeer — Inside Llewyn Davis — Her — Nebraska — Grand Budapest Hotel — Under the Skin — Calvary — Locke — Edge of Tomorrow — Boyhood — Pride — Maps of the Stars — Ida — ‘71 — Citizen Four — The Babadook — Mr Turner — Nightcrawler — Birdman

You should probably assume that most of the UK releases you think were really good that aren’t on the list are things that I missed. The notable exception to that, I think, is Interstellar. I put this down largely to the fact that I saw it only once, on a really good Imax screen. I was blown away by some of it but also very aware of its story and structure weaknesses, and those, along with some other duff notes, stayed with me more than the being blown away did. People I respect have told me that seeing it again in 35mm lifts one’s appreciation, and I really meant to, but didn’t get round to it, and as a result when I saw it on the list I couldn’t really say it was a standout. I hope sometime soon to see it again and reach a measured conclusion that puts me closer in line with Tom Shone, though I would be surprised if I ended up liking it or admiring it as much as I did Inception.

I will however say something about the science. A huge amount has been written about the astrophysics, and the creation of new software to do relativistic ray tracing, and all that. I’m glad they made the effort even though aspects of the space travel stuff remain profoundly unconvincing. But the Earth-system science is atrocious to the point of demonstrating (and meriting) contempt. Some bollocks about a rust that breathes nitrogen? A notion that the Earth can run out of oxygen in just a few decades? It’s utterly ludicrous. If all photosynthesis stopped tomorrow the oxygen in the atmosphere would last for thousands of years.

This leads to three thoughts. One: a lot of people, both film makers and film discussers, think getting physics right, or at least seeming to or trying to, is in some way more important than getting the science of the earthsystem right. This shows, to my mind, strange priorities. The carbon cycle is a lot more easy to understand than general relativity and a lot more germane to terrestrial existence (yes, I know, GPS, OK). Why not take the small amount of trouble to get it right — or at least to fudge it with a modicum of respect?

Part of the answer is simply a sort of intellectual snobism: physics is proper hard science like what Einstein did, and Earth-system science is not. But another part (which is my second thought on the subject) is that people don’t take the trouble to get it right because they don’t feel they have to. The audience has no need to be told a convincing story about mechanisms because it has no trouble buying “the Earth is fucked” as an idea. Frederic Jameson has said that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (interesting background on how he came to have said it here) and part of what that says to me is not so much that imagining the end of capitalism is hard but that it has become amazingly easy to imagine the end of the world, thanks to the practice we have been offered by the past half century of apocalyptic fiction, not to mention the threat of nuclear annihilation. We have come to a point where people just accept the apocalypse as an initiating device with no need for any argument whatsoever (though some nice CGI helps).

The third thought is that the film doesn’t need to provide end-of-the-world science because to the extent that the audience cares at all they assume that it is *really* about climate change, but the sensitivities of American marketing and an aversion to being seen as “a climate film” lead the film makers not to say so. On this reading the insulting implausibility of the apocalypse-as-explained might almost be a wink — “look, we can’t say ‘climate change’ but we’ll underline that we’re not saying anything else by making what we do say utter crap”. I don’t actually believe it is such a wink, but who knows. This, though, leads us back to thought two, by lazily conflating climate change — a huge geopolitical and humanitarian issue — with “the end of the world”,  a step that leads to talk of  climate action as “saving the planet”. And I really don’t like such talk. As I have said elsewhere:

The most important thing about environmental change is that it hurts people; the basis of our response should be human solidarity.

The planet will take care of itself.

(Gosh: for once a post about film ends up linking into the larger themes of this sorely neglected blog. What a pleasant surprise!)

Oscars 2013
March 2, 2014, 9:46 pm
Filed under: film

What I think will win and should win — and a few random comments. It was, as has been widely noted, a very good year. I remember in 2005 being pretty nonplussed, after the awards, by Million Dolllar Baby, thinking that it was pretty good, but that Hollywood should be able to produce  ten or so films that good in a year, and a few a good bit better. Last year was the sort of thing I had in mind

Best original screenplay: Will win – American Hustle, because people like the film a lot, and the screenplay, while baggy, is part of the reason. Should win — Her, because it is  remarkable and fresh.

Best adapted screenplay: 12 Years a Slave should and will win. Its use of voice and idiolect is remarkable.

Best cinematography: Gravity should and will win. I’m really interested by the debate about whether CGI is changing what best cinematography can or should mean,  whether the category should be split and so on. This will, after all, be the fifth year in a row the award has gone to something very heavy on the CGI (previously: Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi: short titles seem to rule) and that’s not the only way of achieving true excellence in cinematography. But this is such a starting achievement, by a cinematographer that everyone already knows is terrific, that for this evening let’s put all that aside.

Best editing: Genuinely hard. The experts at In Contention seem pretty sure that it will be Captain Phillips, and it did win at the ACE awards. To my ignorant outsider eyes  that seems a bit of a stretch for a film people did not like enough to get Paul Greengrass or Tom Hanks (who was amazing) nominated. So I’m going to say Gravity both should and will win. But I’m probably wrong on the second.

Best score and best song: Steven Price Should and will win for Gravity, a terrific piece of work.  I continue to think that it is truly weird that Hans Zimmer didn’t get nominated for 12 Years, but there we go. Let it Go will win and should win best song (maybe if I’d seen Happy in context I’d feel different – but hey, it’s a belting well-built show tune with a good message and fractals too)

Continue reading

Against American Hustle, in favour of Tim’s Vermeer
January 22, 2014, 11:29 pm
Filed under: Artworks, film

A couple of film posts from me over at The Economist’s blogs.

One was on the Oscar nominations, to go with a very nice graphic by my colleagues Guy and Lloyd. While it is kinder than people close to me have been about American Hustle (or “that piece of shit”, as it is known in Orpington), it concludes that:

“Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” are both, in their ways, landmarks of film. “Gravity” is a tour de force that uses a well-executed B-movie peril-in-space plot to provide a transcendent visual and aural evocation of the vast, the empty and the intimate. “12 Years”, which if it wins Best Picture will be the first film by a black director to do so, navigates the landscapes of slavery with a poise that does nothing to diminish the horror of its story, or the audience’s empathy – indeed its consummate artistry magnifies them. For both of those films to lose to yet another likeable, comfortable story about the American government running con games in the 1970s — also the subject matter of last year’s winner, “Argo” — would be a travesty.

Whole thing here

Second was on Tim’s Vermeer, a really wonderful film by Teller. For me, the key sentence in the piece is  “‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is a film that those who see it will think about a lot over the years”. Which is to say that I’m not sure I have quite got the levels of revelations within revelations and reflections on reflections quite right in this first take. Ask me again in a few years time.

It begins:

“SUNDAY in the Park with George”, by Stephen Sondheim, is a work of art about a work of art which takes place, in part, within a work of art. The life, or at least a life, of the painter Georges Seurat is imagined running through, around and past his magnificent “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. The musical is said to have a particular importance to Teller, an American stage magician. Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat”—in which a paean to the sublime rewards of creation triumphs, just, over an accounting of its costs—can reportedly move him to tears.

So it is hardly remarkable that Teller’s first film as a director is also about a work of art and its creation, seen from the inside. But that is one of the few things about “Tim’s Vermeer”, which opened in Britain this week, that is not remarkable. Simultaneously charming and challenging, it asks its viewers at the same time to celebrate art—in fact, on that front it does not merely ask, it demands—and to question it. [read the whole thing]

And whether I quite got it right or not, Teller liked the piece, which makes me happy.

Oscars 2014: Metaprediction
August 23, 2013, 12:49 pm
Filed under: film, Media

I notice that the Oscar prediction season has started. I can understand why this is of no interest to many sane people, but I quite enjoy it. And I may enjoy it even more this year (though that will depend to a certain extent on the movies…) This is because last year, as I blogged, the excellent Kris Tapley told his podcast sparring-partner Anne Thompson that “There’s no way to Nate Silver this kind of thing” — and this year Nate Silver plans to Nate Silver not just this kind of thing, but the thing itself.

His track record is held by some to suggest that he won’t do very well. But it seems to me that the way to measure his predictions is not against the outcome per se, but against other people making predictions, such as those pooled together at the Gurus o’ Gold site. Last year the statistical model put together by Ben Zauzmer did better than half the gurus and not as well as the other half, though this was because he felt there was insufficient data to call some of the races: on the races he called, Ben did as well as one of the better gurus. I suspect that, with more experience, more resources and quite a strong incentive to shine Nate Silver may do better than Ben.

So my metaprediction is that, if Silver chooses to predict all of the races, or a large majority of them, he will beat most of the gurus, but not all of them; the best of the gurus will do better. My further prediction is that if he keeps it up over five years, no single human predictor will beat him continuously.

And while I am at it, I predict that the predictinator will predict that Gravity will win the special effects oscar — and that it will be right.


Nate Silver-ing your Oscar predictions
February 28, 2013, 10:17 am
Filed under: film

This should be read in the context of an earlier post over at The Economist’s Prospero blog, a venue which very occasionally stoops to being an outlet for my filmic thought. 

I’d like to preface this by saying that I am a big fan of Anne Thompson and Kris Tapley’s Oscar-race podcast. It has just the sort of insider-knowledge-pitched-slightly-over-my-head vibe that I like in conversational podcasting. The general respect and affection in their relationship is given spice by just the right amount of occasional needle and crossness. I like Anne hitting the table (at least I assume that’s what she’s doing). And most of the time it seems to me to have just the right balance on the question of whether taking the Oscars seriously is silly or not.

But I have to take exception to what they say on statistical approaches to predicting Oscar outcomes about seven minutes in to their post-Oscar post mortem. Noting but dismissing the predictions at Fivethirtyeight.com, we have the following exchange:

Anne: He got a lot of his predictions wrong because it was a very crude system he was using

Kris: There’s no way to Nate Silver this kind of thing

Anne: Exactly– you have to have a little bit of knowledge, experience, intuition — [to] see the movies, talk to people, you know — what we do for a living is required.

The evidence this year, though, suggests that there are ways to Nate Silver this kind of thing — that is, to come up with a good prediction based simply on the data available and statistical models based on past races.  Let’s compare the results from the “Gurus o’ Gold“, a college of 14 Oscar predictors to which Anne and Kris belong, with the results from a statistical model put together by Ben Zauzmer, a student at Harvard.

Ben used his statistics to predict the results of 21 of the 24 races. He got 4 wrong. If you look at the aggregate results for the gurus in the same 4 races, they got 5 wrong. Looking at the gurus individually, I count 4 who did better than Ben on this subset (including Anne), and 8 who did worse (including Kris).

If you want to make Zauzmer’s stats look worse, then look at the whole field of 24 awards. Ben didn’t make predictions in the categories of documentary short, live action short and animated short categories because he doesn’t think the data are strong enough. If you count this failure to engage as getting the results wrong Ben gets seven mistakes out of 24. The gurus have five out of 24. But look at the gurus individually and six did better than Ben (including Anne and Kris), six did worse. So even on the less charitable interpretation of what he achieved, he’s right in the middle of  the pack.

If by “Nate Silver-ing” you mean calling every race accurately then no, you can’t Nate Silver the Oscars, or at least no one has managed it yet. But the idea that you need to have a lot of insight or insider knowledge to do as well as the people who are best at it doesn’t seem to wash. An outsider with data and stats can, it seems, do as good a job as reporters doing it for a living.

By pointing this out, though, I do not for a moment mean to suggest that Anne and Kris should pack up shop. The results of a race matter, for sure — but so does, like, the race. Things being overtaken, leads stretching out, resources being squandered or carefully husbanded — that’s what’s fun to watch. And in this case, for me, there’s a bonus in the insights into what matters to film people and what is seen, and not seen, as working. Not to mention gossip. The stats don’t give narrative or context or tangential insights, and that’s what interests me, much more than the final results. I will be listening to Anne and Kris again next year. But that doesn’t mean that, on the home straight, stats aren’t as good as most gurus and better than quite a few — and the gurus might get better if they acknowledged that.

Not exactly my films of the year
January 3, 2012, 10:55 pm
Filed under: film

I’ve seen, and listened to via podcast a number of films-of-the-year lists, enjoyed them, agreed with them in parts, don’t see much reason to add another to them. But it was quite a filmish year for me, with my first visit to Sundance and over 50 cinema trips (dismal by professional standards, I know, or even real cinephile standards, but more than I think I’ve managed any other year), and a recap seems in order. So here are two lists, first of the ten films I most regret missing this year, then of moments in film that mattered to me.

What I missed that I regret most (in quasi chronological order)

  1. Benda Balili
  2. Submarine
  3. Meek’s Cutoff
  4. A Separation
  5. Tree of Life
  6. Project Nim
  7. Skin I live in
  8. Kill List
  9. Take Shelter
  10. Deep Blue Sea

Looks like my missed list would be a pretty good best of list in other parts. (I should say I have mostly only myself to blame — I think the excellent Greenwich Picturehouse showed all but two of those)

A similarly quasi-chronological list of moments that moved, mattered and stunned

  1. The girl in the car close to the end of Life in a Day, who hasn’t done anything special but wants to be in on what’s happening.
  2. The distraught shepherd phoning home from the high pasture near the end of Sweetgrass
  3. The doping/seduction/murder in Animal Kingdom. (Also the remarkable painterly scenes of the boy alone in the house at night; also the cut to the gallery scene; also…In dramatic terms, this was pretty much my film of the year)
  4. The bullet-time-ish moment where he finally gets it right in Source Code (quite ambivalent about the double coda after this, though I appreciate some of why it was needed). It’s like Ecclestone’s “Just this one time, everybody gets to live” moment in The Doctor Dances, one of the Moff’s great moments
  5. The God’s presence at Monaco sequence in Senna
  6. The bit where Elle Fanning acts at the boys in Super 8
  7. The amends made in the barber’s shop in The Interrupters
  8. The lift scene in Drive
  9. The automaton starts to draw in Hugo (actually, pretty much all of Hugo…)
  10. The Burj Khalifa exterior sequence in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
When I did the missed list it came out at ten with no forcing. The moments list was a bit longer and so I trimmed: here are the cuttings
  • The Siberian shore lingered on, repeatedly, through rippled panes of glass in How I Ended This Summer
  • “Allow it” in Attack the Block; way to define a hero..
  • The death/goat on the table in Il Quattro Volte
  • The final stairway sequence of Russian Ark (yes, I know — but it was new *to me* this year…)
  • Rhinoceros“: Midnight in Paris (more generally, Corey Stoll; but for a moment, Brody…)
  • “Loser loser loser” at the end of Moneyball

Update: too self congratulatory on getting ten first time when counting missed films. Melancholia, We need to talk about Kevin and Tyrannosaur should probably have been on it too, edging out Meek’s Cutoff and Submarine