One day, I’ll stop caring about the Academy Awards. I’ll still watch, just with the sort of detached amusement one feels when observing a baby building a block tower. [Editor’s note: Ben admits this comparison is unfair to the baby.] As it stands, however, I’m invested in the results, and that’s a problem.
I have a confession. After writing half a dozen film reviews, drafting three pro/con lists, and participating in a hybrid yoga-beat poetry meditative session, I still can’t decide on my favorite movie for 2012. So I’ve done what anyone would do: design an arbitrary scoring rubric to algorithmically determine the answer. Remember: this is all based on mathematics, so it’s more or less infallible.
Disjointed, uncomfortable, and at times deeply troubling, Zero Dark Thirty burns slowly at first, steadily cackling into a fierce cinematic experience. Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) seizes our attention up front—a CIA black site, a tense interrogation—before releasing her grip, just a bit, daring us to exhale. Bigelow’s style, at once playful and menacing, strikes a sharp contrast with the meandering Lincoln and airtight Argo. It’s riskier, scarier, more determined, and ultimately, more successful.
By the time the final season of Lost began, the show’s (remaining) faithful could be neatly placed into one of two camps. The first camp, drawn in by number sequences, polar bears, and bizarre scientific experiments, was determined to solve every one of the series’ puzzles. The second camp, having given up on the plot by season three, was instead fascinated with the characters, their backgrounds and their relationships (would Jack finally end up with Kate?).
In the end, the Lost writers chose to betray camp #1 and shower gifts on camp #2, a little like an irresponsible high school love triangle in which one party is left, crying and afraid, under his desk. [Editor’s note: Ben insists that any resemblance to his own high school career, real or imagined, is strictly coincidental.] Somewhat surprisingly, Lost’s gambit was a success. Camp #2 defended the show’s conclusion vigorously, while camp #1’s whiny rejoinders, enshrined in message boards across the web, only added to the series’ lore. The rest, as is so often said, is history.
Homeland (Season 2), Showtime’s hot new thriller, takes a similar risk, but one less responsibly calculated. Season 2 Spoilers Follow. After an impossibly tense, impeccably paced Season 1, Season 2 begins, instead, with craft and nuance. The first episode, aptly named “The Smile,” finds Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, sharp, crazy) living a content life with her family after brain surgery. Removed from spy cams and terrorist plots, Carrie seems genuinely happy for the first time since we’ve met her. Before long, however, the CIA does their best Smokey Bear impression, explaining that “Only She Can Prevent Terrorism!” (or at least that there is a vital contact in Lebanon that only she knows). She agrees to help begrudgingly, skeptical throughout her mission, until her face flashes a fleeting—though distinct—smile after a close escape in Beirut. It’s a testament to both Homeland’s writers and Danes that this moment carries so much satisfying significance.
Season 2 accelerates through episode 5, “Q & A,” as an accused Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis, intense) gropes for excuses among a barrage of CIA interrogators. Lewis, in what may be his best overall episode, displays anguish, guilt, remorse, and contempt, all finely tuned and precisely calibrated. For me, “Q & A” represents Homeland at its very best.
Unfortunately, the series fails to sustain its mid-season excellence, choosing the wrong points of focus in subsequent episodes. Like a terrorist emboldened by a few small successes, Homeland’s writers spend more and more time pushing the Brody-Carrie romance, each scene bolder (read: steamier) than the last. It’s an understandable mistake. Lewis and Danes have some of the best on-screen rapport in television today, but conversational chemistry doesn’t automatically lead to romantic chemistry. [Editor’s note: Again, Ben stresses that Homeland’s chemistry issues have zero parallel to his high school experience.] Danes has a CIA-sized database of convincing looks, including bewilderment, determination, and frustration, but her doe-eyed facade falls flat.
I regard Season 2’s last episode—“The Choice”—the same way I do The Revenge of the Sith. We have some undesirable elements (Jar Jar Binks, Carrie-Brody cabin sex), a plot that needs, somehow, to get from A to B (Anakin’s demise, Abu Nazir’s master plan), and a disillusioned-but-loyal fan base, trusting the creators to fix everything with time running out. Commendably, George Lucas traded awful, awful dialogue for more light saber fights. And Homeland? With 20 minutes to go, we get a knife-twist turn of events, breathing new, terror-filled air into the series. And then like a vacuum, the air gets sucked right back as Carrie and Brody ride i̶n̶t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶u̶n̶s̶e̶t̶ across international lines.
In a Grantland.com podcast, Homeland’s producer Alex Gansa acknowledges these criticisms, but stands by the show and his choices:
Really we were fulfilling the promise of the season, which I’ve been saying from the beginning was really the story of this doomed love affair between Carrie and Brody, and that’s what we were really positing in the finale.
We can draw two significant conclusions from Gansa:
1) He likes to use the word “really.”
2) He and his team believe “the promise of the season” is the love affair between Carrie and Brody
Like Lost’s writers, Gansa and co. chose character and love over mystery, but I’m not convinced they had the same neatly divided fan base. Lost took time to develop over a dozen characters, carefully winding their pasts in, around, and through the community dynamic on the island. By Season 6, half of their audience had bought in. Homeland’s second season coddles Brody-Carrie to the point that other, equally compelling relationships get short shrift (Saul-Carrie, Brody-Mike, Saul-Mira, Estes-Quinn, Carrie-Quinn etc.). Television audiences will commit quickly to fascinating premises (“A prisoner of war has turned”), but characters take longer. Were we ready to build an entire season on a fledgling, off-kilter relationship? Gansa’s quote continues:
Was a happy ending possible between these two characters? …I think the answer was clearly no.
For once, Mr. Gansa, we agree.
Every friend group, class, or office has that one brazenly honest individual. There’s a lot to like about this person. She’s the first to tell you you’re dating the wrong girl, the quickest to criticize your bad presentation, and the only one to respond stone-faced to your bad joke amidst fake, polite laughter. But her uncompromising pursuit of authenticity sometimes goes too far. She observes a child’s drawing, then points out its flaws. As a picture of a coworker’s newborn circulates the office, she loudly announces she doesn’t like babies. In the right doses, her honesty is something to celebrate, but too much at once can crush the soul of an otherwise cheery gathering.
Argo, the most entertaining film of 2012, displays Ben Affleck’s tight control (as director) and aloofness (as actor). In the end, he probably overdoes it just a bit on both counts. Among his directorial liberties: an over-dramatized final sequence, a shirtless hotel room shot, and a full, bushy beard Santa Claus himself couldn’t grow. Among his acting faux paus: refusing to cast Keanu Reeves, who does effortless detachment better than anyone in Hollywood. (Affleck is intriguingly detached throughout, but looks about ready to snap into his famous Boiler Room speech at all times. Somehow, his perfectly white teeth remained clenched.)
Fixing the Oscars
Every year, a handful of films jockey for pole-position in the Best Picture race. They employ a slew of Serious-with-a-capital-S actors, present overdone sets and gaudy, period-appropriate costumes, all timed to the flowing overtures of a John Williams score. Recent examples include The King’s Speech (won the race), Lincoln (might win), and Les Miserables (won’t win).
Lincoln: Slow, Steady, Staid
Like a centuries-old church hymn, Lincoln creaks along predictably, though beautifully. Daniel Day-Lewis leads a comically famous cast, including Tommy Lee Jones (solemn, determined), Sally Field (confident, conflicted), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (fussy, boyish). Gradually, the movie’s scenes settle into a comfortable pattern, like an old man sliding into a well-worn arm chair after a laborious journey to the mailbox. The formula: