In two days' time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be, for the eighty-third time, giving out small, bald golden men to the filmmakers and performers responsible for what they feel are the year's signal achievements in the art of moviemaking. Most critics have already weighed in for the year with their predictions for the Academy's choices, and I felt like it was finally time for the Zombie to be heard as well. But what I'm doing here today is not a list of predictions (you know, Colin Firth yadda yadda, Aaron Sorkin yadda), but rather a compilation of what this year's nominees and winners list would have looked like if only one rotten-skinned but sharp-minded cinephile was casting a ballot. These are my personal picks for the outstanding cinematic achievements of 2010, and if I had been choosing the nominees, this is the list that would have gone out to the Academy voters this month. Here now, for your enjoyment, is the list of nominees and winners for the First Annual ZOMBOSCARS.
First, a few ground rules:
* You will notice here several nominations for The Secret In Their Eyes, which you may recall as 2009's Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. This film did not play in American theaters until 2010, and was thus eligible for inclusion for this year's Zomboscar nominations, a statute that will stand going forward with this award.
* Toy Story 3 is a Best Picture nominee, but is not included on my list of the year's best animated features. I have decided that for the Zomboscars, since documentaries, foreign films and animated features each have their own category, they will be considered ineligible for those categories should I choose to nominate them for the Best Picture prize. And I think the Oscars should do this too.
* You will notice some of the Oscar categories (such as Best Documentary Short Subject) are not included on the Zomboscars nominees list, and that some categories, such as Best Original Song, may not have the same number of nominees as found on the Oscars. Simply put, if a category is not here, that means I did not see any films of that type in the last year, and if there's a smaller-than-usual number of nominees, this means I only saw a limited number of potential candidates for that prize.
* Jean-Francois Richet's Mesrine saga was a two-part film that made my top-ten list for 2010. Therefore, you can expect to see it as a nominee. However, several actors and production personnel were only involved in the first of these two films, Mesrine: Killer Instinct. If Killer Instinct is listed as the nominated film, the nominee was only involved with that part of the saga. If the title of the second film, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, is listed, consider this a nomination for both films (unless otherwise specified).
* Winners in each category are indicated in boldface. And you don't have to wait till the end of the night for the big one here...
The King's Speech
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
Neil Young Trunk Show
The Secret In Their Eyes
Toy Story 3
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Vincent Cassel, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, Howl
Mark Wahlberg, The Other Guys
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Lesley Manville, Another Year
Rachel McAdams, Morning Glory
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Harrison Ford, Morning Glory
Guillermo Francella, The Secret In Their Eyes
Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Chavia Boudraa, Outside the Law
Cecile de France, Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Minnie Driver, Barney's Version
Amanda Peet, Please Give
Soledad Villamil, The Secret In Their Eyes
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Rachid Bouchareb, Outside the Law
Juan Jose Campanella, The Secret In Their Eyes
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
Jean-Francois Richet, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right
Mike Leigh, Another Year
Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, The Other Guys
Aline Brosh McKenna, Morning Glory
David Seidler, The King's Speech
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3
Juan Jose Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret In Their Eyes
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
Jean-Francois Richet and Abdel Raouf Dafri, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
Nicholas Stoller, Get Him To the Greek
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Atticus Ross, The Book of Eli
Aaron Zigman, The Company Men
Marco Beltrami and Mastodon, Jonah Hex
Randy Newman, Toy Story 3
Danny Elfman, The Wolfman
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"African Child" from Get Him to the Greek
"Chanson L'Illusioniste" from The Illusionist
"Comin' Up" from Get Him to the Greek
Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Don Burgess, The Book of Eli
Christophe Beaucarne, Outside the Law
Roger Deakins, True Grit
Shelly Johnson, The Wolfman
BEST FILM EDITING
Jon Harris, 127 Hours
Andrew Weisblum, Black Swan
Ken Blackwell and Paul Harb, The Expendables
Herve Schneid, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
Glenn Allen, Neil Young Trunk Show
BEST ART DIRECTION
The Book of Eli
The King's Speech
Outside the Law
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Get Him To The Greek
The King's Speech
Outside the Law
BEST SOUND EDITING
BEST SOUND MIXING
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
Neil Young Trunk Show
Outside the Law
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Iron Man 2
The Red Baron
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
A Town Called Panic
BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
Day & Night
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
The Art of the Steal
Best Worst Movie
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Outside the Law
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... (1989)
Why It's Here
When Harry Met Sally... is the best Woody Allen movie Woody Allen never made. Though the cinematic poet laureate of neurotic twentieth-century New York was not involved in any aspect of its production, it would be hard to deny that Harry might not exist, or at the very least would look and feel drastically different than it does, without the template provided by Allen's chronicles of witty, sophisticated upper-class New Yorkers plagued by the age-old conundrums of love, romance and marriage. The rich, autumnal Manhattan settings and the score of classic old popular standards are trademark Allen touches, as are the plain white titles on stark black background that opens the film. Even the brief, unrelated-to-the-story segments of elderly couples, seated on a drawing-room sofa as they relate to the camera their stories of how they met and fell in love, are a classically Allenesque cinematic device. However, for all its similarities to Allen's work, When Harry Met Sally... is notable for being demonstrably more audience-friendly than the average Allen film. Allen makes his pictures with complete autonomy, entirely outside of the studio system, a fact made manifest by the films' sometimes almost brutally esoteric cultural references and frequently ambiguous or flat-out unhappy endings. It's not uncommon for an Allen protagonist to wind up his or her romantic misadventure alone, bereft, and just as confused about the state of their heart as they were when the film began. When Harry Met Sally..., conversely, was a major studio production, and as such it presents an almost domesticated take on Woody Allen, the auteur's style brightened up for mainstream audience appeal. Allen's characters attend grand opera and read Proust and Dostoevsky; the protagonists of Harry... read Stephen King novels and watch Casablanca on TV. And though their trek through the murky waters of modern romance is just as treacherous as that of any Allen hero or heroine, it comes as no surprise to us when Harry and Sally realize, in the final reel, that they were meant for each other after all. (And if any of you contacts me to complain that I spoiled the film's ending, I congratulate you on somehow having gotten this far in your life without ever having seen a mainstream American romantic comedy.) But all of this apples-and-oranges comparison, however, is deeply unfair to the film we're here to discuss today, for if all When Harry Met Sally... accomplished was a comprehensive ripping-off of another filmmaker's style, it would not be on this list. But Harry finds itself here thanks to a screenplay, by the celebrated novelist and filmmaker Nora Ephron (with strong inspiration from the actual romantic lives of the film's director, Rob Reiner, producer Andrew Scheinman, and leading man Billy Crystal), that is laugh-out-loud funny, warm without excessive sentimentality, and quite perceptive about the ways men and women think about and discuss love and romance.
The film's first act chronicles the initial encounters of our romantic couple, Harry Burns (Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), who first meet in 1977 while sharing a ride from Chicago to New York for college. They're hooked up on this trip by Sally's friend, who's dating Harry, and instantly it's like oil and water. Sally is a persnickety fussbudget who has already calculated their individual drive-time into hourly and mileage-based calculations, and who orders a meal in a restaurant like she's planning a major military campaign (Harry later tells her that "I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich"). Harry, meanwhile, seems content to just munch away on his grapes in the passenger seat and sloppily spew seeds out the window (never mind, of course, that the window's not actually rolled down). Eventually, though, they get to some real conversation, and they quickly discern certain essential philosophical differences. Sally identifies herself as basically a happy person, while Harry is one of those self-styled "dark" characters who always reads the last page of any new book first, so he will know how it ends in case he dies before he finishes reading. Soon, and as it is with college kids perhaps almost inevitably, the subject moves on to sex. When Sally overreacts to Harry's innocent "empirical" observation that she is "a very attractive person", Harry advances his pet theory about how men and women can never be friends, claiming that it is impossible for men to maintain platonic relations with any women he finds attractive, because he will always be thinking of sex with her. And it does no good to only be friends with unattractive women, because, Harry asserts, "you pretty much want to nail them, too." Not surprisingly, this sits poorly with the uptight Sally, and they part ways in New York, presumably never to set eyes on one another again. In this opening sequence, Ephron has clearly positioned her two principal characters as seemingly intractable opposites, an essential prerequisite of virtually all successful romantic comedies, as well as posed the central question that will inform the remainder of her narrative: can men and women really be "just friends", or will love and sex always gum up the works? Despite all the heavy expositional and thematic work this opening sequence performs, it never feels as if it's simply shoveling essential plot and character details at us. As is the case with much of the film's best dialogue, we simply seem to be eavesdropping on two people having a casual, though unusually clever and funny, conversation, the kind of chat we could imagine engaging in with our own friends and loved ones.
Sally and Harry unexpectedly come together again five years later, when they find themselves sharing a flight. Interestingly, although Sally remembers her miserable experience with Harry on first sight of him, she can barely recall the name of her "best" friend whom he was dating in '77, a subtle truism about how it's sometimes the people who impact our lives most negatively who make the strongest impression. (In Sally's defense, when pressed about her later, Harry can barely remember the girlfriend's name, either; for the record, it's Amanda, and she's played by Michelle Nicastro). Harry and Sally end up sharing a seating arrangement and discuss their current places in life. Harry's working in political consulting, while Sally...well, I find that no matter how hard I think about it, I can't remember what Sally does for a living, because, in another stylistic element borrowed from Woody Allen, we never really see our principal characters here at work, knowing only that they have prestigious enough jobs to provide them with gorgeous apartments and ample opportunities for picturesque leisure activities. Sally is involved with Joe (Steven Ford), an old college chum of Harry's who told Sally he loved her for the first time just before putting her on the plane, while Harry is engaged to "Helen Hilson, she's a lawyer, she's keeping her name." And while this engagement seems to have brought out a new optimism in Harry, he opines that he's glad to be getting hitched partly because he's tired of "the whole life-of-a-single-guy thing", and he again spins horrific theories about male and female interaction and how simple friendship is an impossibility when even the hint of sexual interest might taint the air. (In what is, for my money, the funniest line in the film, Sally responds to Harry's pronouncements with, "You know, Harry, it's amazing. You look like a normal person, and actually you're the angel of death.") As Harry and Sally again part ways, with Harry's warped perceptions of relationships again shooting the possibility of their being friends in the foot, we may begin to wonder if the entire film is going to be a series of these chance encounters, and whether or not Ephron is building to something substantial here, any kind of a real story.
We then jump forward another five years, and Ephron's script at last settles into the meat of its narrative. Sally is now prospering in New York, but all is not perfect in her precise little world. She and Joe have just called it quits, though she swears to her best friend, window designer and perennial "other woman" Marie (Carrie Fisher), that she's absolutely fine with being single again. On the other side of town, Harry's not doing so well, as he relates to his buddy, magazine writer Jess (Bruno Kirby), the horrible story of how he found out his wife was leaving him when the movers showed up at their apartment to get her stuff. (In a funny bit of business, this scene takes place at a New York Giants game, with Harry and Jess doing the wave in the midst of their miserable conversation; on the DVD commentary, Reiner claims this gag was taken from an actual wave-inflected conversation in his own past.) Harry and Sally again meet by chance, this time at a bookstore, but something's different. They're both wounded now, vulnerable, and finally a little uncertain as to whether or not they really have all the answers about life and love. They have lunch together, and they decide to embark on a grand experiment: they're going to be friends.
Aside from the chance meetings of the main characters, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Ephron's screenplay in relation to other contemporary romantic comedies is the lack of contrivance keeping the principal couple apart. Many of the romcoms that followed in Harry's wake, unable or unwilling to do the heavy character spadework Ephron's script traffics in, are forced to invent ever-more-ridiculous narrative devices to keep the films' otherwise perfectly matched couples apart (the nadir of this contrivance is perhaps found in 2006's Failure to Launch, in which professional floozy Sarah Jessica Parker falls for layabout Matthew McConaughey after being hired by his desperate parents to seduce him into moving out of their house). Ephron's screenplay is smart and mature enough to realize that oftentimes it's not anything situational that keeps potential lovers apart, but merely seemingly incompatible aspects of their own personalities. Thus it is with Harry and Sally, as they embark on a delicate but authentic platonic friendship. Sally at first abstains from the dating scene, all the while insisting she's just fine, while Harry embarks on a series of irritating dates that customarily culminate in enthusiastic but emotionally unsatisfying sex (he claims at one point to have made a woman meow in bed...but only tells this story as an example of how he can tell Sally anything and she's not put out by it). Meanwhile, hints are everywhere that these two are meant for each other, if only they could get over their own hang-ups and neuroses. Harry reacts with uncharacteristic surprise when he finds out that Sally is going out on an actual date, and when they attempt a mutual fix-up, Harry with Marie and Sally with Jess, the only sparks that fly are instead between Marie and Jess, who practically knock their supposed dates to the ground as they race to share a cab at the end of the night. The two end up moving in together and marrying, and hosting game nights where Sally snarks about the youth of Harry's date while Harry goofs on the seemingly perfectly normal fellow Sally's brought along. In classic romantic comedy fashion, Harry and Sally are denying the obvious, to each other if not to themselves. After all, it's hard to explain away the smitten look on Harry's face when he dances with Sally at a New Year's celebration near the midpoint of the film. Hell, I've felt some of those kinds of sparks dancing with platonic female friends myself.
The second act climaxes, quite literally, with a climax, as Harry and Sally finally wind up in bed together. Harry, himself tense and irritable ever since running into his ex-wife with the man she left him for (to add insult to injury, she comes across Harry while he and Sally are singing "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" with a karaoke machine at Sharper Image), gets a distraught late-night call from Sally, who's sobbing hysterically after having found out that Joe is marrying a paralegal in his office. Though Sally never wavered from her initial stance that she was fine with the breakup, Ephron clearly illustrates otherwise during Harry and Sally's initial friendship lunch, in which Sally enumerates her desire for adventure, excitement and spontaneity, followed by domesticity and familial bliss, both promises that Joe was unwilling to make. Now, she confronts the hard truth: "He always said he didn't want to be married," she wails. "Turns out he just didn't want to be married to me." She blames herself for the breakup, which is a typical gambit of most dumped people, and when Harry assures her that she's the bee's knees, his warm friendly kiss eventually deepens into a night of consummated passion. Then, much to Sally's disgust, the Harry of old re-emerges as he bolts from her apartment as soon as he can develop a reasonable excuse to go.
But is the old Harry really back? It certainly doesn't seem like it at Jess and Marie's wedding, when all Harry wants to do is talk about what happened between the two of them. Ephron perfectly nails the awkwardness of this kind of conversation, as Harry is reduced to comparing their situation to a tangled metaphorical scenario in which a dog stands in for Sally, before finally suggesting that he slept with her out of pity, which earns him a hearty "fuck you" and a slap in the face. He may be out of Sally's sight, but he's nevertheless not out of her mind, and the situation eventually culminates in another New Year's Eve celebration, with Harry wandering the lonely New York streets while Sally suffers through a miserable date at a party with Marie and Jess. Then, it hits Harry as if like a bolt from the blue, and unable to get a cab, he runs across town (more shades of Allen and his race through New York at the climax of Manhattan) to the hotel hosting the party and finally says it: "I've been doing a lot of thinking, and the thing is, I love you." After having not seen him for weeks, Sally's response is reasonable: "How do your respect me to respond to this?" And under the circumstances, and given all that's preceded it, so is Harry's: "How about you love me too?" They share their first kiss as real lovers, and they wonder about the meaning of "Auld Lang Syne", which Sally, eyes full of blissful tears, finally determines is simply about "old friends". It's not easy to pull off an ending like this, which could just as easily have played for schmaltz, in a way that seems both not overly sentimental and honestly earned, but Ephron's script pulls it off, and the final scene, with Harry and Sally sitting on that drawing-room sofa talking about their wedding, and the lovely cake with chocolate sauce "on the side", reminds us that two seemingly incompatible people don't always have to give up who they are to find true happiness together.
So what exactly is it about When Harry Met Sally... that has allowed it to endure as a modern-day romantic comedy classic when so many films with perhaps more interesting plots are not nearly as fondly remembered? Of course, star chemistry doesn't hurt the film one bit (Crystal and Ryan are a genuinely engaging pair of would-be lovers), but the lion's share of the credit has to go to Ephron's dialogue, which is sharp, on point, and full of pithy observations. It's smart about both the overarching themes of life and love (Sally confronts Harry about his romantic dalliances by claiming that he's sleeping with these women "like you're out for revenge or something") and about the little peculiarities that makes people people (like Harry miming "the white man's overbite" when he talks about taking women out dancing). It's unflinching in its depiction of the delusions people will allow themselves when they're hopelessly in love, as when Marie constantly seems shocked that her married lover is seemingly never going to leave his wife, a reality that everyone else in Marie's life resigned themselves to ages ago. Ephron spices the film with hilarious little anecdotes that seem so crazy that you can only imagine they must have come from someone's real life; my favorite is Sally's college-age breakup with a boy who got incurably jealous about her "days-of-the-week underpants" when they couldn't find the "Sunday" pair (the boyfriend didn't believe Sally's explanation that "they don't make Sunday...because of God"). Harry is allowed a few stand-out jokes that seem almost like they could have come from Crystal's own stand-up act, as when he talks about the convenience of taking a woman to an Ethiopian restaurant: "I didn't even know they had food in Ethiopia. This'll be easy. I'll order two plates of nothing and we can leave." Ephron is intelligent enough to make the film consistently funny without ever pushing the jokes and humorous scenarios into the realm of sitcom absurdity; even a brief interlude in which Sally, now bereft of Harry's companionship, struggles to get a Christmas tree home by herself plays like a commentary on Sally's loneliness rather than a bravura slapstick set piece. Indeed, the film is so rooted in the bedrock realism of the characters' interactions that even its most famous set piece, Sally's faked orgasm at Katz's Deli, plays less like a show-off scene for Meg Ryan and more like Sally putting the arrogant, sexually over-confident Harry in his place. (For an example of how to do a scene like this badly, look at the ghastly "I Say a Little Prayer" scene in My Best Friend's Wedding...then watch the wonderful "All I Want" dinner scene in this year's Best Picture-nominated The Kids Are All Right so you can feel clean again.) What makes When Harry Met Sally... a successful romantic comedy is what most of today's romcoms have forgotten about. In a great romantic comedy, it's the romance, and therefore the characters, that should be the attraction. You can put as many contrived roadblocks, meddling best friends, and chaotic final-reel chases to the altar in these films as you like, but if the core couple can't relate to one another in an affecting and believable way, we are going to feel nothing when they finally share that big kiss in the last shot. Ephron understood this fact intimately, and in When Harry Met Sally..., she crafted a romcom that is all about the interaction, and is all the funnier and more affecting for it.
When Harry Met Sally... was an enormous hit upon its initial release, and it has remained a benchmark for the romantic comedy genre. Its most famous line, "I'll have what she's having" (spoken in response to Sally's deli orgasm by none other than the director's mother, Estelle Reiner), was voted no. 33 on the American Film Institute's list of the all-time greatest movie lines, and it also served as the title for Daniel Kimmel's 2008 book on the making of the all-time classic romantic comedies. The film also turned Meg Ryan into America's early-90s sweetheart, the queen of the romantic comedy genre (though oddly enough, since this film, she and Billy Crystal have not worked together again). But the film's enormous success has also been referenced by critics when discussing the subsequent romantic-comedy boom and its increasing reliance on ridiculously contrived narrative devices and stock pop soundtracks in place of honest character interaction. A.O. Scott, on an early-2010 edition of At the Movies, named When Harry Met Sally... as his pick for most overrated film of the 1980s, precisely because of its negative influence on the currently floundering romantic comedy genre. This accusation seems to me a trifle unfair. After all, like with the spate of horrible space operas that followed in the wake of Star Wars's blockbuster box office, the success of When Harry Met Sally... can only really be held responsible for the large number of romantic comedies that followed it. Their torturously contrived screenplays and lack of emotional affect cannot be blamed on Nora Ephron's work. After all, if the glut of '90s romantic comedies had followed her lead, they might have ended up, like her, with a script that is still in print in book form today, a script that is basically a master class on contemporary romantic comedy screenwriting. We shouldn't blame the master for the sins of the students.
And, for that matter, we shouldn't blame Woody Allen, either.
AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN): Academy Award, Best Original Screenplay; BAFTA Award, Best Original Screenplay; Golden Globe, Best Screenplay; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Original Screenplay
Monday, February 7, 2011
The life of a zombie is an often hectic and unpredictable one, but it fortunately does not prevent me from taking an hour out of my undead existence to liven up a friend's podcast. To tide you over until my next review (coming soon, I promise!), here's my appearance on my good friend Brandon Easton's podcast, "Writing for Rookies", recorded earlier today. Thanks to Brandon for having me as a guest, and my apologies to this year's Oscar-nominated screenwriters for more or less cursing at you.