Monday, January 30, 2012

SAG Serves 'The Help' Three Awards

The acclaimed Southern drama The Help took top honors at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards Sunday evening. Along with its prize for Best Cast in a Motion Picture, The Help also garnered Best Actress honors for Viola Davis and the Best Supporting Actress award for Octavia Spencer. See the complete list of winners here.

Christopher Plummer won the Best Supporting Actor trophy for Beginners as expected, but Jean Dujardin's Best Actor win for The Artist came as the biggest surprise of the evening. Fellow nominee George Clooney had been favored to win for The Descendants. This marks the first SAG award ever given for a performance in a silent film, and comes as the most notable upset in the Best Actor category since the 10th Awards when Johnny Depp bested Sean Penn. (The actors were nominated for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Mystic River, respectively; Penn went on to win the Oscar for the latter.)

In the way of prognostication, the winners of this year's SAG Awards make the outcome of this year's Academy Awards all the more unpredictable. Though Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer appear to be rock-solid locks for the two supporting acting trophies, the other categories are tougher to call. Jean Dujardin could very well repeat his SAG award victory on the Oscar stage. Then again, Oscar voters could decide to give George Clooney his second statuette. (Both The Artist and The Descendants are nominated for Best Picture, making the race all the more competitive.) Viola Davis could cruise on the momentum of her Critics Choice and SAG award wins to claim the Best Actress Oscar. On the other hand, Michelle Williams could follow the three-times-a-charm rule for My Week with Marilyn after two previous Oscar nominations. Of course, Meryl Streep could collect her third Oscar for The Iron Lady.

In the way of Best Picture, The Help is currently riding high on SAG Award glory. The 84th Academy Awards are four weeks away, however, and plenty can happen between now and then. Hugo may lead the pack with eleven nominations, but The Artist has jewels from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Broadcast Film Critics Assocation, the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, and most recently, the Directors Guild in its crown. Even if the general consensus tilts toward the lauded silent film between now and February 26th, there is still the chance of a jaw-dropping shock at the opening of the Best Picture envelope not seen since the 78th Academy Awards.

What effect do you think this year's SAG Awards will have on the Oscars? Leave a comment and let me know where you stand.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Michel Hazanavicius Victors at 64th DGA Awards

Michel Hazanavicius won top honors for directing The Artist at the 64th Directors Guild of America Awards on Saturday night. This win places both Hazanavicius and The Artist in front runner position for the top two trophies at the 84th Academy Awards. View the full list of winners from the 64th DGA Awards here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sins of Omission, Pleasant Surprises, and Other Fun Facts

The announcement of each year's Oscar nominations brings both delight and disappointment. Being that over 400 eligible releases compete for recognition in two dozen categories with room for two to nine nominations apiece means that some competitors will inevitably be left in the cold. This year comes as no exception. Here is an incomplete list of titles, performers, and other artists ignored by the 84th Academy Awards ballot.


The Debt - John Madden's remake of the 2007 Israeli film counts as the best thriller since The Parallax View. Madden's direction is taut, confident, and a reminder of his versatility. Time and again while watching the film, I had to keep reminding myself that it was directed by the man responsible for Shakespeare in Love. Thomas Newman's score pours suspense onto every scene, and the wisely cast ensemble gives a gallery of strong performances. Sam Worthington brings a driven yet vulnerable intensity to his young Mossad operative on a Nazi fugitive's trail, Helen Mirren gives a courageous turn as a retired intelligence agent on a quest to redress a costly oversight, and Jessica Chastain is her equal as Mirren's younger counterpart. The fact that the film fell short of making the Best Picture roster is understandable, given the buzz surrounding The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants, and other films with December release dates, but the fact that The Debt was shut out of Oscar consideration altogether is baffling. Given a later release date and a stronger advertising campaign, the film could have found itself among the final nine, if not a possible tenth nominee for Best Picture.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - On the subject of remakes, David Fincher continues his critical hot streak with a stylish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel. Recollaborating with alumni from The Social Network, including an unrecognizable Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, Fincher's Tattoo holds its own as a thriller every bit as good as -- if not better than -- the 2009 original. Jeff Cronenweth's chilly cinematography brings a dark ambience to the wintry Swedish locale, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross paint a sullen soundscape with their driving industrial score, and a capable cast brings their characters to life with Swedish accents that range from decent to spot-on. How a film like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close gets nominated for Best Picture while a film like Tattoo gets passed over is beyond this blogger's comprehension.


David Fincher - The man who came within an arm's reach of taking home his first gold statuette last year should have received a nomination for directing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo this year. Just like he did with Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network, Fincher demonstrated a gift for bringing all elements of production into harmony with Tattoo. His recent snub notwithinstanding, Fincher appears to be in the midst of a creative surge. If he continues to grow as an artist, the highest of all film accolades will one day adorn his mantle.

Steven Spielberg - Perhaps the absence of the most successful director in history from this category should come as no surprise, especially since the man was summarily rejected by both the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Directors Guild of America for helming War Horse. The last time Steven Spielberg made two films in one year, he was nominated for one of them. (Lest you wonder, the year was 2005; the films in question are War of the Worlds and Munich, for which he was Oscar-nominated.) This time around, the Academy acknowledged his hard work by not only snubbing him from the Best Director roster, but omitting The Adventures of Tintin from the Best Animated Feature category. Though Horse features a few too many whopping coincidences to make the epic story hold water, one cannot doubt that the picture stands as a shining example of masterful filmmaking.

Tate Taylor - Let's play a little trivia game, shall we? What other film adaptation of a story set in the American South besides Driving Miss Daisy managed to garner three acting nominations and not one for its director? If you guessed a film based on a certain Kathryn Stockett novel, you win this round. Though The Help is, as Roger Ebert wisely noted, "a safe film about a volatile subject", Taylor captures a bygone American era with more resonance than The Tree of Life, whose foggy, meandering direction somehow managed to land Terrence Malick a nomination.


Sir Ben Kingsley - The gifted British Oscar-winner responsible for stunning performances in Gandhi, Bugsy, Sexy Beast, and House of Sand and Fog makes magic with his inspired portrayal of Georges Méliès in Hugo. The transitions he makes from shattered artist to reinvigorated creator reflect the fastidiousness of a classically trained actor. The fact that Kingsley had to portray a director before the scrutinizing eyes of Martin Scorsese makes the challenge all the more daunting, but the results are as effortless as the flap of a bird's wings.

Here is where I need to make a confession: I did not see J. Edgar or Shame. Nevertheless, I am tempted to include Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Fassbender on this list. Though DiCaprio received mixed reviews for his portrayal of the titual FBI director, Fassbender has garnered unanimous critical acclaim for his performance as a man who descends into a dark world of sex addiction. If you have seen either of these films, feel free to post a comment as to why either actor's absence from the Best Actor category is either undeserved or justified.


Helen Mirren - See my comments on The Debt above.


Albert Brooks - With wins from the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics under his belt, one would naturally expect the man primarily known for comic turns in Taxi Driver, Broadcast News, and Defending Your Life to be a shoo-in for Drive, especially since the role of mobster Bernie Rose saw him playing against type. The actor appears to be taking the snub in stride, however, as evidenced by his recent Twitter update.


Jessica Chastain - I know what you're thinking: "News flash, assclown. She WAS nominated." My response: "Yes, but for the wrong film." Though Chastain was charming as a housewife who befriends her maid in The Help, she was superb as a young Mossad agent who assists in the daring capture of a Nazi fugitive while juggling two romances. In the final analysis, Chastain's recognition in this category could be a momentum nomination for The Help, just as Geoffrey Rush's Best Supporting Actor nomination for Shakespeare in Love helped the film lead the 71st Annual pack with 13 nods, even though Rush gave a stronger performance in Elizabeth.

Though I could go on with snubs in other categories (e.g., Wally Pfister not receiving a Best Cinematography nomination for Moneyball), it's time to move on to the pleasant surprise portion of today's blog entry. Here is an incomplete list of actors whose inclusion in this year's Oscar race caught fans by surprise.


Demián Bichir - This MSN article that ran a few days before the nominations announcement advised viewers to look sharp for a few surprises. Lo and behold, number six on Steve Pond's list came to fruition. Prediction: Bichir's nomination for A Better Life will have the exact effect on his career that Javier Bardem's Best Actor nomination for Before Night Falls and Billy Bob Thornton's Best Actor nomination for Sling Blade had on theirs.

Gary Oldman - The man behind such gripping characterizations as self-destructive punk rocker Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, celebrated playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, and the brilliant but tormented composer Ludwig van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved finally received his virgin Oscar nod for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Though the chances of Oldman winning are slim, he no longer has to worry about joining the ranks of Edward G. Robinson, Dana Andrews, Tyrone Power, and other actors who went to the grave without a single nomination to their names.


Nick Nolte - Though his name was absent from the end-of-year awards lists voted on by the major critics organizations in New York, Los Angeles, and at the National Board of Review, Nolte's powerful performance in the acclaimed Warrior caught the Academy's attention. Playing an emotionally wounded father who trains his estranged son to fight in an MMA bout, Nolte hits nothing but honest notes every moment he appears on screen, especially in a scene that depicts a relapse in painfully depressing detail. One wonders if the actor drew upon his own struggles with alcoholism to portray the character so convincingly.

Max Von Sydow - Arguably the most surprising acting nomination on the ballot this year, screen veteran Max Von Sydow rounds out the Best Supporting Actor category with his performance in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In the role of a mysterious mute, Von Sydow earns his first nomination in 23 years; his second altogether. Von Sydow joins the likes of Alan Arkin in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, John Mills in Ryan's Daughter, and Holly Hunter in The Piano in receiving a nomination for a non-speaking role.

To wind up this post, I leave you with a list of fun facts about this year's Academy Award nominations. Enjoy.

- Nine of the twenty individuals in the acting categories (45% total) are first-time nominees. They are: Demián Bichir for A Better Life, Jean Dujardin for The Artist, Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jonah Hill for Moneyball, Bérénice Bejo for The Artist, Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids, and Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer for The Help.

- The nationality breakdown of the performers nominated this year is as follows: twelve are Americans, three are British, two are French (and one of them is Argentine-French), one is a Canadian, one is a Mexican, and one is a Swede.

- The average age of the male performers nominated this year is 55.1.

- The average age of the female performers nominated this year is 42.6.

- The average age of all performers nominated this year is 48.9.

- For the record, here are the ages of all performers nominated this year:

Demián Bichir is 48.
George Clooney is 50.
Jean Dujardin is 39.
Gary Oldman is 53.
Brad Pitt is 48.
Glenn Close is 64.
Viola Davis is 46.
Rooney Mara is 26.
Meryl Streep is 62.
Michelle Williams is 31.
Kenneth Branagh is 51.
Jonah Hill is 28.
Nick Nolte is 70.
Christopher Plummer is 82.
Max Von Sydow is 82.
Bérénice Bejo is 35.
Jessica Chastain is 30.
Melissa McCarthy is 41.
Janet McTeer is 50.
Octavia Spencer is 41.

- One posthumous nomination, Bridget O'Connor's Best Adapted Screenplay nod for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was given this year.

- Four performers are nominated for portraying real people. They are: Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, both in My Week with Marilyn.

- With her Best Actress nod for The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep stretches her record for the most recognized performer of all time to 17 nominations.

- John Williams' Best Original Score nods for The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse bring his career tally to 47 nominations, maintaining his record as the most nominated living person. Should he live to earn 13 more nominations, John Williams will break Walt Disney's record for the most Academy Award nominations ever received by a single person.

- Hugo is the first film since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King to receive eleven nominations without being nominated in any of the acting categories.

- The Artist is the first silent film nominated for Best Picture in 82 years. The last silent film to receive this honor was 1928's The Patriot. If The Artist wins Best Picture, it will become the second silent film after Wings -- Best Picture winner at the 1st Academy Awards -- to do so.

- Michel Hazanavicius is the only first-time nominee in the Best Director category.

- The film with the most nominations for acting, The Help at three, did not receive a nomination for Best Director.

What your thoughts on this year's Oscar nominations? Do you have an omissions list that differs from mine? Which artists or films do you think have no business being nominated this year? Let your voice be heard with a comment below.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

'Hugo' Leads Oscar Field with 11 Nominations

Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence joined AMPAS President Tom Sherak to announce the nominations for the 84th Academy Awards this morning. Hugo, Martin Scorsese's endearing valentine to the birth of cinema, received the most nominations of any film with eleven. The complete list of nominees is as follows:

Best Picture
The Artist - Thomas Langmann, Producer
The Descendants - Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Scott Rudin, Producer
The Help - Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers
Hugo - Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers
Midnight in Paris - Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers
Moneyball - Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers
The Tree of Life - Nominees to be determined
War Horse - Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers

The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius
The Descendants - Alexander Payne
Hugo - Martin Scorsese
Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen
The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick

Actor in a Leading Role
Demián Bichir - A Better Life
George Clooney - The Descendants
Jean Dujardin - The Artist
Gary Oldman - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt - Moneyball

Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill - Moneyball
Nick Nolte - Warrior
Christopher Plummer - Beginners
Max von Sydow - Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Actress in a Leading Role
Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis - The Help
Rooney Mara - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn

Actress in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo - The Artist
Jessica Chastain - The Help
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer - The Help

Animated Feature Film
A Cat in Paris - Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli
Chico & Rita - Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal
Kung Fu Panda 2 - Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Puss in Boots - Chris Miller
Rango - Gore Verbinski

Art Direction
The Artist - Production Design: Laurence Bennett; Set Decoration: Robert Gould
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan
Hugo - Production Design: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
Midnight in Paris - Production Design: Anne Seibel; Set Decoration: Hélène Dubreuil
War Horse - Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

The Artist - Guillaume Schiffman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Jeff Cronenweth
Hugo - Robert Richardson
The Tree of Life - Emmanuel Lubezki
War Horse - Janusz Kaminski

Costume Design
Anonymous - Lisy Christl
The Artist - Mark Bridges
Hugo - Sandy Powell
Jane Eyre - Michael O'Connor
W.E. - Arianne Phillips

Documentary (Feature)
Hell and Back Again - Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front - Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
Pina - Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel
Undefeated - TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas

Documentary (Short Subject)
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement - Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin
God Is the Bigger Elvis - Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson
Incident in New Baghdad - James Spione
Saving Face - Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom - Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen

Film Editing
The Artist - Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius
The Descendants - Kevin Tent
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
Hugo - Thelma Schoonmaker
Moneyball - Christopher Tellefsen

Foreign Language Film
Bullhead - (Belgium)
Footnote - (Israel)
In Darkness - (Poland)
Monsieur Lazhar - (Canada)
A Separation - (Iran)

Albert Nobbs - Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnston and Matthew W. Mungle
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
The Iron Lady - Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland

Music (Original Score)
The Adventures of Tintin - John Williams
The Artist - Ludovic Bource
Hugo - Howard Shore
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Alberto Iglesias
War Horse - John Williams

Music (Original Song)
"Man or Muppet" from The Muppets - Music and Lyric by Bret McKenzie
"Real in Rio" from Rio - Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown Lyric by Siedah Garrett

Short Film (Animated)
Dimanche/Sunday - Patrick Doyon
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore - William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg
La Luna - Enrico Casarosa
A Morning Stroll - Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe
Wild Life - Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby

Short Film (Live Action)
Pentecost - Peter McDonald and Eimear O'Kane
Raju - Max Zähle and Stefan Gieren
The Shore - Terry George and Oorlagh George
Time Freak - Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey
Tuba Atlantic - Hallvar Witzø

Sound Editing
Drive - Lon Bender and Victor Ray Ennis
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Ren Klyce
Hugo - Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty
Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
War Horse - Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom

Sound Mixing
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Bo Persson
Hugo - Tom Fleischman and John Midgley
Moneyball - Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, Dave Giammarco and Ed Novick
Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Peter J. Devlin
War Horse - Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson

Visual Effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler and John Richardson
Hugo - Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and Alex Henning
Real Steel - Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor and Swen Gillberg
Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White and Daniel Barrett
Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler and John Frazier

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
The Descendants - Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Hugo - Screenplay by John Logan
The Ides of March - Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
Moneyball - Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Story by Stan Chervin
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan

Writing (Original Screenplay)
The Artist - Written by Michel Hazanavicius
Bridesmaids - Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
Margin Call - Written by J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris - Written by Woody Allen
A Separation - Written by Asghar Farhadi

Tune in to see the winners live Sunday, February 26th on ABC.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Grand Delusion

The arrival of a new year often signals an interest in pursuing goals. While sights like busy fitness centers, crowded health food stores, and people working overtime illustrate the power of determination, the psychological effect of said endeavors has a harmful side. The nexus of this effect is a destructive part of our culture, and it shames me to say that I once bought into it.

By now, you may be saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, isn't this a movie blog? What's with the social commentary?" Fair questions. To answer the first, yes, this is primarily a blog about movies. This brings me to the second question. As Phillip Lopate wrote in his splended introduction to the indispensible 2007 volume "Ameican Movie Critics", an interest in non-cinematic subjects expands intellectual exposure and, in turn, makes a better critic. Besides, this is my blog, and I'll cover any topic I damn well please. That being said, onward.

The crusade I'm referring to is the self-improvement movement. Specifically, I take aim at "The Secret", I take aim at Tony Robbins, and I especially take aim at all of the worthless merchandise in the way of books, audio CDs, DVDs, and toll-free coaching programs that promise health, wealth, success, and happiness beyond your wildest dreams. This is the kind of chicanery that turns people into check-mailing slaves and gives our society a bad name.

Since the economy took an unforgiving nosedive in September of 2008, the snake oil salesmen among us have caught on to the fact that people are desperate to make ends meet. Speaking to people from various backgrounds, these charismatic entrepreneurs tour the country giving magic answer lectures to anyone dumb enough to listen: "Laid off? Buy my book! Newly divorced? Download my action plan! Want to get rich in 90 days? Here's how to order!" Just about everywhere one looks and listens, one sees and hears these messages. There's no escaping them.

Here's my problem with the self-improvement movement: it makes exaggerated claims and places all of the fault on you when life doesn't go your way. Granted, there are books and courses filled with beneficial information on finance, nutrition, social skills, and other important subjects that have played instrumental roles in people turning their lives around. These are clearly exceptions to the rule and do not belong in my crosshairs.

As I stated earlier, I bought into this fraud years ago when I sold real estate full time. For more than a year, I was involved with a "telecoaching" program offered by a company that shall remain nameless. What attracted me to this "proven sales system" was its guarantee of increased production, a goal that every salesman wants to achieve. When I first signed up, I was told by a company employee that, if I followed the system to a tee, I would sell at least fifty houses by the end of the year. Excited beyond comprehension, I threw myself at the program with everything I had.

The coaching series consisted of weekly group phone calls on which a frighteningly enthusiastic team leader would give us high-pressure selling scripts to use in the field. When those of us enrolled in the program returned a week later to report that we didn't make any sales because the client listed their house with another agent, because the client decided to renew the lease on their apartment instead of buy a house, or because the client saw through our phony gimmicks like cellophane, the coaches would blame us for our failures. They'd scold us with comments like: "A good agent would've made that sale...but you didn't do that, did you?" Or: "I spent an hour going over this material with you last week and you're sitting there acting like it's rocket science. Seriously, what part of this do you not get?" Or: "The reason you didn't make that sale is because is because you have an attitude problem." Or, my favorite: "The reason you didn't make that sale is because you didn't think big enough."

And there's the common thread that ties this trash together: thinking big. Whether you're dealing with a real estate hustler, a personal finance hustler, a personal health hustler, or especially a religious leader, they'll tell you that any problem life throws your way can be quickly and permanently solved by convincing yourself that you're better than you really are. If you're poor, for example, your coach will urge you to think of yourself as a millionaire in the making. Color me pessimistic, but a grown adult can spend all day fantasizing about living in a Tudor mansion on Lakeshore Drive, but when said person returns to reality and looks at their ATM receipt, they'll see the same triple-digit balance that's been giving them heartburt for years. Once, I heard some self-proclaimed "expert" advising people to write their most challenging problem on a slip of paper, read it once aloud, and set fire to it. The expert said, "Watch: it's gone! Hey, Nixon did it to the Watergate tapes. Why can't you do it to your problems?"

For my money, this kind of thinking has never been better mocked than by Al Franken's classic "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which he portrayed the effeminate self-help guru Stuart Smalley. Remember when that goofy-looking gap would sit in front of a mirror and say, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me"? The United States is full of grown men and women who take that parody seriously! If you don't believe me, simply step inside a salesperson's office and look at the wall above their desk.

One could argue that thinking big is the key to the depression epidemic. It starts when people set unreasonably high expectations for themselves. After expending a painful amount of physical effort, emotional energy, and money into their goals and failing to achieve them in a short amount of time, they beat themselves up and fall into a funk. When said folks call their life coach to tell them that they're going to set a smaller goal the next time around or that they have to quit the program because they ran out of money, the coach berates the individual for thinking too small. The next thing the poor fool knows, he's aiming high and crashing hard again. That's how these crooks manipulate people into vicious circles.

What's really sad is when you meet someone who's so far gone with their chosen rip-off that they don't even realize they're being scammed. If you sit one of these folks down and try to talk to them rationally about what's going on in their life, within seconds they resort to bumper sticker bullet points that some babbling cult leader shoved down their throat. They make statements like, "Well, I just gotta fake it 'til I make it, you know? I just have to stamp out that stinkin' thinkin' and get busy! What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve, right? Like it or not, we become what we think about and we create our own obstacles." Sure. Tell that to a six-year-old with leukemia. Like compulsive gamblers, these people are convinced that they're just one spin away from hitting the big time, even though they're neck-deep in debt. The longer you watch them unravel, the more you ask yourself, "How many times is this idiot going to fall on his face before he realizes that his habits aren't working?" Recently, I had lunch with a dear friend who hit the nail on the head when this subject came up in conversation. He said, "The more I research that whole Napoleon Hill/'Think and Grow Rich' culture, the more I'm convinced that it's a lie. The only ones who profit from it are the publishers who sell the books."

Would you like to know the secret to my success, dear reader? It comes from following three simple steps: I think small, I act small, and I earn small. That's it. I don't trick myself into a god complex by chanting affirmations, I don't pay some charlatan a thousand dollars a month to belittle me over the phone, I don't bite off more than I can chew, and I'm certainly not burning myself out. I think small, I act, and I earn small -- and I repeat the cycle often enough to earn a decent living. And would you like to know something else? I have less stress and more satisfaction in my life now than I ever did when I deluded myself. Granted, I'm not a millionaire, I don't drive a luxury car, I don't own a yacht, and I don't have any venture capital to spare, but I'll tell you what I do have: stability. And at this point in my life, that means more to me than gracing the cover of Money magazine.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind spotting a series on thinking small the next time I visit Barnes & Noble or tune in to late-night TV, but that will never see the light of day in this country. The reason for this is simple. People do not want to hear the truth. They want to deceived. They don't want to be reminded of how poor, boring, fat, bald, stupid, ugly, weak, or annoying they are, so they cling to their self-help CDs and motivational mobile apps like security blankets in order to escape from reality. Years ago, I read a quote from David Mamet that goes "people like to be fooled", and I thought he was out of his mind. Now, I know exactly what he was talking about.

The ugly, brutal, non-negotiable truth is that most attempts end in failure, and more dreams break than come true. It's a rough, dirty world in which we live, and there's plenty more that's beyond your control than there is that's within it. The minute you believe that there's nothing beyond your control is the moment you delude yourself. So, the next time I encounter someone who asks what being an American has taught me, I'll say, "Two lessons. One: the biggest and the meanest get to make all the rules; and two: with enough time and effort, people can fool themselves into believing anything." With that, I wish you a productive and rewarding 2012, free of the deception that contributes, as Arthur C. Clarke once noted, to the rotting of the human mind.

An Unpredictable Rhythm

This time of year is always exciting for movie fans. The buildup to the Super Bowl of awards ceremonies is marked by the traditional blizzard of announcements by various voting bodies, with strong contenders emerging along the way. This year, the rhythm of awards season is paving the way for an Oscar night on which anything can happen.

The New York Film Critics Circle cast the first major awards vote of the season in late November when they named The Artist Best Picture of 2011. Later that week, the National Board of Review gave their top honor to Hugo. The critics in Los Angeles followed with The Descendants emerging as their year-end favorite, and just yesterday, the National Society of Film Critics picked Melancholia as the best film of the year.

Anyone who follows movies closely knows that this particular cycle is anything but predictable. In a cut-and-dried year, a critical darling emerges early and rides the tide of critical momentum all the way to the stage of the Kodak Theater. No Country for Old Men followed that pattern four years ago, as did Slumdog Millionaire the following year. At the 82nd Awards a year later, the alimony showdown that pitted James Cameron's Avatar against Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker made for a suspenseful matchup that shattered the gender barrier in the directing category and awarded the gripping Iraq War drama with six statuettes including Best Picture. The race was also notable in that it saw ten contenders in the Best Picture field for the first time in nearly seven decades.

Last year's awards season could very well be likened to a splitter pitch in baseball. The Social Network burst onto the scene when the National Board of Review named David Fincher's Facebook drama Best Picture of 2010, but the Producers Guild killed the film's momentum late in the game by giving their top honor to The King's Speech, a decision soon echoed by the Academy. In retrospect, the 83rd Academy Awards could be described as 1976 revisited, with a critically praised, courageous drama about living people -- All the President's Men/The Social Network -- losing to an inspirational tale that moved audiences everywhere -- Rocky/The King's Speech.

This brings us to the present day. As it stands, the critical establishment appears to be divided between The Artist and The Descendants in their Best Picture predictions. Steve Pond at makes this astute observation about the role that The Weinstein Company is playing in this year's Oscar race. This Thursday's 17th Critics' Choice Awards will help bring the field into focus, as will next Sunday's 69th Golden Globe Awards. With the announcement of the nominations for the 84th Academy Awards a full two weeks away, this blogger is not quite ready to make any predictions. Not unlike this year's presidential election, the 2011-2012 movie awards season has thus far shown us that expected front runners can drop like flies and all but forgotten underdogs can jump to the front of the pack.

Which films will you be rooting for this year? Would you like to make any early prognostications about those coveted golden statuettes? Fill me in with your comments below.

Monday, December 5, 2011

NBR Names 'Hugo' Best Film of 2011

Martin Scorsese's Hugo, the acclaimed 3D adaptation of Brian Selznick's novel, was voted Best Film of 2011 by the National Board of Review last Thursday. The New York City voting group also named Scorsese as Best Director of the Year for his achievement. Oscar winners George Clooney and Tilda Swinton took home lead acting honors for The Descendants and We Need to Talk About Kevin, respectively. Supporting role wins went to Christopher Plummer for Beginners and Shailene Woodley for The Descendants.

Here is a complete list of NBR Award winners for 2011:

Best Film: Hugo
Best Director: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants
Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Best Original Screenplay: Will Reiser, 50/50
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Descendants
Best Animated Feature: Rango
Breakthrough Performance: Felicity Jones, Like Crazy
Breakthrough Performance: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Debut Director: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
Best Ensemble: The Help
Spotlight Award: Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, X-Men: First Class)
NBR Freedom of Expression: Crime After Crime
NBR Freedom of Expression: Pariah
Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation - (Iran)
Best Documentary: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Special Achievement in Filmmaking: The Harry Potter Franchise - A Distinguished Translation from Book
to Film

Top Films
(in alphabetical order)

The Artist
The Descendants
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The Ides of March
J. Edgar
Tree of Life
War Horse

Top 5 Foreign Language Films
(In Alphabetical Order)

13 Assassins
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
Le Havre
Point Blank

Top 5 Documentaries
(In Alphabetical Order)

Born to be Wild
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Project Nim

Top 10 Independent Films
(In Alphabetical Order)

Another Earth
A Better Life
Cedar Rapids
Margin Call
Take Shelter
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Win Win

It is too soon to predict Hugo's chances at the Best Picture Oscar. In the 80 years that the NBR has chosen their annual best film, the Academy has subsequently agreed with their choice a mere twenty times. The next major awards season announcement is scheduled for Sunday, December 11th, when the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle names its year-end picks.