Best Body of Work: Roger Deakins, cinematographer
The spookily prolific cinematographer Roger Deakins had a career defining year in 2007, with No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and In the Valley of Elah. Last year wasn't as strong – few can be - but Deakins' four efforts: Doubt, Revolutionary Road, The Reader (co-credited with Chris Menges) and a role as "visual consultant" in WALL-E, all benefited from what may become his specialty: an equal feeling for the epic and intimate. All of these pictures afford a D.P. considerable opportunity to show his stuff: large vistas, period recreations, etc, but none of them shortchange their considerable casts' faces, we're allowed the inner and outer stories – the moments normally left in the wrinkles of the actors' skin.
WALL-E was the best picture last year to feature Deakins' name. I don't pretend to know the extent of his role as visual consultant, but the PIXAR film, their best, had the sort of mastery of crystal clarity that we've come to expect from Deakins. Every money shot, a desolate wasteland, a city of fatties, has a tactility, an urgency of perfection, that still manages to avoid upstaging the robot characters, it actually further humanizes them – lending their confusion and loneliness an ironically beautiful counterpoint. Doubt was also a success: John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play came as close to bringing the theatre to the multiplex as a film has in years. Shanley and Deakins alternate crisp, beautiful medium shots – of streets, trees, the church – with close shots closer than any vantage point you could find in the theater, and many of those close shots are askew – twisting out of the characters' desperation and claustrophobia. I generally find the gonzo angle device as hoary as the next, but everything is of a piece in Doubt – the picture is a laser beam of anger and panic. In the cramped, inescapable angles, the actors still shoot for the moon as they would on the stage, while still seeming, at the same time, to be shrinking away from the camera. The effect is overpowering and shockingly intimate.
I didn't like Revolutionary Road, but the picture's ghostly beauty is possibly worth seeing it once for (along with the lead performances). Deakins imbues the typical symbols of conformity - identically dressed men walking to work in unison, chain smoking and drinking, the hats, the houses – with that same, eerie, unforgettable perfection that can be found in No Country, Jesse James and WALL-E, again without overshadowing the raw, rattled work of the actors, most importantly Winslet and DiCaprio. Deakins, as much as any other current cinematographer, understands the relationships between people and their environments, and his work is rich with implications, some fulfilled by the director, some not. But you should always see his movies - Deakins is as close as we've got to a sure thing, he makes messes beautiful without shortchanging the mess. ~ Chuck Bowen
Best Breakthroughs: Charlie Kaufman (director/screenwriter, Synecdoche, New York) and Lloyd Kaufman (director/screenwriter, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead)
Many would argue that the time for a Breakthrough award for Charlie Kaufman would have been back in 1999, when he burst onto the scene with his screenplay for Being John Malkovich. They’d be right. The film, directed with aplomb by Spike Jonze, was funny, somber, disturbing, daring, haunting, and almost completely original, instantly announcing Kaufman as a force to be reckoned with. He followed that up with two imperfect but interesting screenplays (Human Nature and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind) and two more brilliant ones comparable to …Malkovich (Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind).
In 2008, though, he crossed a bridge as yet uncrossed by directing his own screenplay with Synecdoche, New York. Stepping forward like this and not entrusting his work to be interpreted by visually inclined artists like Jonze and Michel Gondry took some nerve, especially since this particular film is such a bleak and lacerating self-dissection, and that’s why I nominate him for Breakthrough recognition.
Many were turned off by what they perceived as a pretentious and self-obsessed work, but I think that it was quite brave to use his unique, imaginative-egghead writing style for a painfully honest, warts-and-all examination of his own mind. And for it to simultaneously feel like such a universally true study of mankind’s struggle with self-expression and mortality (as well as just as visually impressive as Gondry’s and Jonze’s films based on his screenplays) is pure gravy.
Meanwhile, another native New Yorker named Kaufman produced a highly personal kind of masterpiece in 2008. Only this one was called Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead and included geysers of blood, gay chicken sandwiches, chicken-fucking rednecks, projectile vomiting, explosive diarrhea, Native American-possessed chicken/human zombie hybrids, more bad puns than an America’s Funniest Home Videos marathon, and…yes, incisive social commentary. (Catchy songs, too!)
Lloyd Kaufman has run the gloriously tacky Troma Entertainment for over 30 years now, directing many of their now-signature films (like Tromeo & Juliet, Terror Firmer, and the one that made them famous and gave them their mascot, The Toxic Avenger).
I am far from a Troma expert – I haven’t seen all of their films and certainly haven’t liked all the ones I have seen. But with Poultrygeist, Kaufman and Co. have made a breakthrough. They have made all the pieces come together. It is everything that a camp-tastic, blood-drenched, musical zombie extravaganza should be. It’s got great characters, inspired performances (including Kaufman himself), songs that are actually catchy and memorable, and it’s smart, utterly hilarious and even emotionally involving. Perhaps most importantly (for a film of this type), it doesn’t run out of steam half-way through, sustaining a high level of energy and laughs for nearly its entire 103 minute running time. And it’s one of the few Troma films to get to an honest-to-goodness theatrical run (during which it garnered mostly favorable reviews) instead of just going straight-to-video.
Though it’s evident just by watching the film that Kaufman poured every bit of himself into this film, it’s important to note that he is still the ever-charming, self-deprecating, likeable yukster he’s always been. In the funny DVD intro to the film, he only registers disappointment for a brief moment when he realizes that the theatre is empty on opening night because everyone’s seeing the new Indiana Jones movie instead. He simply shrugs and heads over himself to see Harrison Ford whip some alien butt.
Not to worry, Lloyd - people will be talking about your chicken zombies and gay talking sandwiches long after they’ve forgotten crystal skulls and CGI ants. ~ Jason Alley
Best Film-Related Web Site: Theo's Century of Movies
When I grow up I want to be Theo Panayides.
Never mind the fact that we both turned forty this year. Panayides, who more or less retired from movie reviewing in January after a twelve year run at Theo's Century of Movies, has always been a favorite of mine. I've long admired the way he turned a phrase and dug at the subtext of movies high- and low-brow. I came to his site, like many people, through Mike D'Angelo's The Man Who Viewed Too Much. It was 1998 and even at that early time, there was plenty for me to chew on. I spent hours scouring the site, reading every paragraph-long blurb. Ten-plus years later I was heartbroken to find that Theo's Century of Movies was, in his own words, "...essentially closed." The online cinephile world will surely miss his insight and wit nearly as much as I will, although I suppose there is always the chance of a return from retirement at some point in the future. ~ Scott W. Black