My Unapologetic Love of David Fincher’s ‘Alien3’

I’m a child of Ridley. Blade Runner and Alien are two of the top-three all-time greatest science fiction films ever made (second place going to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). James Cameron’s Aliens is not too far back, it’s one of the finest genre films in film history, and Ellen Ripley is the greatest female protagonist ever. EVER. You’ll get shit from me if you say otherwise.

So as you can tell, the Alien franchise holds particular reverence for me, and when I talk to equally fervent fans of the franchise, I hear a great amount of disdain for the later sequels of the quadrilogy, Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection and David Fincher’s Alien3, the latter which is universally panned as the worst of the bunch.

I saw Alien3 in 1992, in an empty theater during a hot summer in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Literally, I was the only person in the theater, as it was later in the film’s release and word had gotten out that it wasn’t that good.

But I fucking loved it. Maybe it was the first and only time in my life I had a theater all to myself (I went alone - yes I do that, still do it, and I’m totally okay with it), but I was completely mesmerized by the movie, as much as the original Alien, which I’ve never seen on the big screen. Fincher’s film was filled with gorgeously dirty widescreen compositions, and the prisoner colony theme was something that bizarrely echoed another favorite film of mine, Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Charles S. Dutton was a supreme badass on television (in the tremendously underrated show Roc) and he translated his brooding intensity to the screen, matching Sigourney Weaver beat for beat. The Alien itself was incredible, taking on a canine form and being able to run along the ceiling, which was shown with an ingenious, vertiginous steadicam trick. The set pieces were epic and mammoth, echoing the epic work of Dante Feretti mixed with a dash of Moebius.

I don’t understand the vitriol thrown at the picture. From a directing and professional standpoint, I can empathize with Fincher’s distancing himself from the film - which was his first feature - as the studio incompetence surrounding the picture has become the stuff of legend. The film was greenlit without a completed screenplay, and Fincher essentially had to retrofit a on-the-spot story into sets that had already been constructed at great expense. Incongruous studio notes cockblocked almost every major decision at every stage of production. Legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who had made magic on Blade Runner, had succumbed to a lifelong battle with Parkinsons Disease, and had to be replaced one quarter into photography. The film was the case of too many cooks in the kitchen, and I can imagine for a precise and obsessive director like David Fincher, the shoot would’ve been pure hell, and totally forgettable.

But it is a testament to Fincher’s skill that if this is his version of ‘patchwork,’ then he truly is one of cinema’s great filmmakers working today. And it was his first film. The film’s script, perhaps out of necessity, was stripped down to a long chase sequence, taking full advantage of Norman Reynolds’ labyrinthine studio set. The film feels primal and elemental, but yet carries the formal and rigid artistic composition that would later become the pillar of Fincher’s work. Like most first time feature directors, Fincher also quotes the techniques of masters he grew up on, including Ridley Scott, John Ford, Orson Welles, George Miller and Terry Gilliam. The camera is placed low on the floor, distorting the already-epic scale of the prison colony, and Fincher makes use of deep focus and multiple planes within the frame. The film pays great respect to the previous visions of Ridley Scott and James Cameron, and while it may appear to collapse under the greatness of its predecessors, I personally think it stands equal to them, but in a totally different way.

The design of the xenomorph is a thing of beauty, and even garnered the film an Academy Award nomination with its combination of puppetry, miniatures, and early adoption of CGI. I loved that it taking on the form of a canine reinforced the mythology of the creature, that it took on the physiology of its host. Also too was the maternal / hive roots of the character, portrayed brilliantly in the film’s most iconic scene, a tete-a-tete between Ripley and the Alien.

Because I had to.

Despite some rough edges around the CGI, the film is eminently rewatchable, and I begin to notice things that I hadn’t before. Despite the aesthetic power of the film, it is in actuality an ensemble performance piece, and its strength comes from the oddball gang of prisoners who battle issues of faith and brotherhood throughout. It is an emotional note that strikes far deeper than the bond between Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, who are simply battling for physical survival. The inmates in Alien3 behave as if they’ve come face to face with the Devil, and they engage in an agnostic battle to rid the world of Evil. It feels epic and much larger than it appears to be.

Is Alien3 perfect? Not by any means. It still pales in comparison to Ridley Scott’s original. It is a sequel that was forced into existence, and one that should have lived a different life under Australian director Vincent Ward’s original vision, which was to have Ripley moor upon a planet made entirely of wood inhabited by a tribe of Luddite monks. Early production design documents hint at the world Ward was envisioning, and had the studio honchos had the guts to stick with it, Alien 3 would have been something truly special.

But we have Fincher’s take, and it is one hell of a take. I think it’s pretty damn amazing. Hopefully time will be kinder to it than the film’s critics, who have called it “grim,” “nihilistic” and “conceptually disjointed.” Call me nuts but those are the exact reasons why I think it’s so great. There’s talk of a sixth Alien film (after the resoundingly dreadful Prometheus) and in a perfect world there wouldn’t even be a sixth film, but if there had to be one, I would hope someone would make Vincent Ward’s film as he intended it. The groundwork is all there, and if Fincher’s pastiche is any indication of what a fraction of that film could have been, then it is absolutely worth resuscitating.

shout out sunday, 7.8.12.

It’s been four straight days of 100 degree weather, so the theme of this week’s SOS is “heat.”

Remember, if you want a shout-out, let me know!

Movies: Body Heat, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, 1981, USA.

Body Heat was one of the first R-rated movies I saw, and it had a tremendous impact upon me. As kids we used to go to the video rental section of the supermarket (this was before Blockbuster - I’m aging myself here), and we’d always stray towards the cartoons and science fiction like Space Camp and E.T.. But one day we went to the store with one of my sister’s friends, who was 18, and she was cool and let us pick out R-rated films to see. We picked out two films: James Cameron’s Terminator and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat. Our lives were forever changed after that.

While at that time I was familiar with nudity (I lived in a Hindu household with statues of gods and goddesses that were topless, so breasts were never a foreign thing to me), I had never seen sex onscreen. Sure, there was the garden variety smooching on network television, but I’d never seen two people, y’know, go at it. I remember seeing Body Heat and having my jaw drop to the floor. One for Kathleen Turner’s insanely gorgeous everything and the other for the sheer raw power of the film, its actors, and its environment. I was too young to understand the dark nature of the crime noir genre, nor did I have the ability to process the film from a filmmaking standpoint, but what I always remembered was the film’s depiction of heat. Tanned bodies glistened with carnal sweat, everything in the world was perpetually saturated, and the temperature, both literally and metaphorically, was always at a boiling point. Watching Body Heat felt like standing in the middle of a hot and humid bayou with a scorchingly beautiful girl running her hand up your thigh.

When bodies melt into one.

I saw the film again almost fifteen years later, and while the intensity of heat remained the same as when I was a kid, I really began to appreciate the film’s cinematic beauty. It’s a wicked script, staying very true to the rules of noir, populated by nary a single trustworthy character. It’s a fantastic slice of American filmmaking at its best, from a time when major studios and actors were unafraid to go to some very dark and demented places, and when mainstream audiences rewarded these bold filmmakers with their patronage. A must see.

Music: Red Zone by DJ RASHAD.

Hot summer days in Chicago means a lot of things - days at the beach, music festivals, hot dogs and italian beef, and JUKING. While Chicago is often noted for its blues and jazz roots, often overlooked is its contribution to global dance culture. Chicago was the birthplace of house music - in 1984 Jesse Saunders signaled the death of disco with the release of his single “On and On” which featured a mesmerizing 4/4 beat and elements that sounded more like Kraftwerk than Donna Summer. House music exploded thereafter, providing the roots of American dance and pop music. With the rise of hip-hop and European techno, house music saw a precipitous declined, and the along with it went the electronic music scene of Chicago.

Until recently however when a group of young musicians in Chicago banded together and started creating music for new form of dance that was emerging on the South Side. This was a highly technical and complex form of hip-hop dancing called ‘footwork,’ and it needed music that was rickety and pounding, sounds that could at the time only be found in classic Detroit techno and European IDM. These elements were combined and Juke was born, and it’s the hottest thing going in the dance world. A weekend on the South Side is filled with arcane electronic sounds bumping from pop-up dance clubs where kids battle it out. It’s aggressive, chaotic and bassy as fuck. Chicago’s music has always been rooted in house music, but with talents like DJ Rashad blowing up globally, the city’s poised to reclaim its title as the electronic music capital of the world. And that’s not hyperbole or me trying to represent - you need to see it for yourself. Shit is hot.

Funding: Consideration, a feature by V Prasad.

Prasad is an old friend who’s one of the most insanely talented writers that I know. When he’s not writing brilliant produced scripts he’s teaching screenwriting in the film program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Consideration marks his maiden venture as a director, and it’s a poignant mix of the realities that many students face in their struggles to pay for college. It’s about a young woman who finds a website that links female students to “sugar daddys” who help pay for college. Now I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey but knowing Prasad this film won’t be anything like it, as he’s a very sensible and sensitive filmmaker. Please show him some support!

Contribute to the Consideration Kickstarter campaign HERE.

Trailers: Wu-Tang Vs. The Golden Phoenix, directed by RZA.

RZA’s got the incredible looking The Man With the Iron Fists coming out, but this is the movie I really want him to make. I’ll have to be happy with this trailer. Nah, fuck it. Bring on the Iron Fists!

Blogs / websites worth checking out (with Twitter links, if available):

What’s On Earth, a climate change blog by NASA..

All this heat combined with the freakishly mild winter further reinforces the fact that climate change and global warming is very real, and we’re to blame for it. This site by the good people at NASA - who are probably the foremost authorities on our atmosphere - have been running an amazing blog resource for all things climate change. As with most government websites its horribly under publicized, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. Required knowledge, and easy to digest.

The Daily Otter.

When I’ve had a rough day in scorching heat, nothing cools me down like seeing a sea otter play in the water. I’ve been making a daily stop on this blog for almost a year now, and it never lets me down.

Ice Cream Geek.

The perfect cure for blistering heat, this is a fantastic blog that serves as an easy-to-follow guide to make ice cream, gelato and sorbets at home. Some weird stuff too, like Guinness ice cream!

Remember, if you want to get a shout out, you gotta let me know!

Shout Out Sunday Archive:

June 24, 2012
June 10, 2012
June 3, 2012
May 20, 2012
May 6, 2012
April 29, 2012
April 22, 2012
April 15, 2012
April 8, 2012
April 1, 2012
March 25, 2012
March 18, 2012
March 11, 2012
March 4, 2012
February 26, 2012
February 19, 2012

theexitisontheleft ASKED:

I've not seen the film yet but Ridley Scott went on record at the premiere of Prometheus saying that it wasn't a prequel to Alien but then said in the same interview that if it was there would need to be three more films to bring it up to the period that Alien is set; what's your opinion on writers/directors going back and adding to a series after a period of time? Is it worth potentially diluting the series just to utilise the computer technology we have today?

That’s a tough one. In the case of the ‘Star Wars’ prequels it’s abhorrent, but I think that it was more an issue of execution (script, casting, the whole nine). I think it becomes okay if the script is universally excellent and respectful to the original material. And in terms of the effects, the main issue I see is if filmmakers wish to take advantage of the new technology that we have, then they must use that technology properly. It’s a particular failing of the CGI craft, which I was going to write about in a post, but since you’ve brought it up it’s likely the best time and place to address it.

The beauty of films like Ridley’s original ‘Alien’ in 1979 was the use of practical effects in front of the camera. The creature was done so incredibly well, and was lit accordingly. Same could be said of the aliens in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens.’ But with the advent of CGI, the use of puppets / costumes / miniatures has dwindled, and replaced with CGI.

I’ve no particular umbrage with CGI, but like any other tool, it has to be applied correctly. A lot of the CGI I see in films today lack - for lack of a better term - gravity. The characters move within their own physics and seem to have a different mass and sense of weight than the live action characters in the film. They are very clearly CGI, and we know it, and for me that renders the film as that much less effective in making me take the leap of faith it is requesting me to do.

I still put forth that the best CGI in any modern film is still the velociraptor sequence in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Even though the CGI is done on technology that is 22 years old, the film’s effects still hold up, in large part because the filmmakers gave the CGI dinos true mass - they move with the same logic and rules as the humans in the film - and we feel their weight. They are also lit in the same scheme of the cinematography, and there is no separation of CGI from the image. To their credit, it was also a mix of CGI and puppetry. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

If we compare this to George Lucas’ use of CGI, we can see the problem of doing prequels with new technology. First let’s look at Jabba the Hut in ‘Return of the Jedi’, done as a puppet with no CGI.

And here’s Jabba with CGI, versions 1997 and 2004:

Even in the ‘upgraded-upgrade’ version of 2004, the creature lacks veracity. No person or creature actually moves like that, and it feels flat and two dimensional, because it actually is.

It’s sad that with all of our technological advances that we haven’t pushed the use of miniatures and puppets even more. Servos and motors are so small, and everything can be controlled wirelessly. We should, I think, strive for that balance of CGI and practical, and I think we’ve swung way too far into CGI. I know with ‘Prometheus’ that Ridley Scott liked to keep as much to production design and practical effects as possible, and it’s a large reason why the film looks so incredible and convincing. But it still lacks the true depth and gravity of ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner.’

The old adage with CGI and visual effects is that the best ones are the one that aren’t seen, meaning that they are integrated so seamlessly into the film and our own perception of reality that we are no longer aware of it. I think of “The Dark Knight” where Christopher Nolan pits the Batman against the Joker and uses practical effects to give us impact - he upends a real semi truck - and we feel the weight of the situation, the characters, the film. The only CGI in the sequence was to get rid of the safety riggings. Nolan’s use of wires and rigged sets to make people float and fly in “Inception” is another brilliant use of practical effects over CGI. He created a revolving chamber and the effect is outstanding.

I know that the production team on “The Avengers” used a mix of puppets and CGI for the Hulk, and on a whole I think their efforts paid dividends. After all it was the same team at ILM that gave us the velociraptors from ‘Jurassic Park.’ But in the end I still knew I was watching CGI, and I don’t know if that is my problem or the filmmaker’s dilemma.

So long answer short, I think it’s okay for filmmakers to go back in time and expand the universes of their previous creations, but it must be absolutely in concert with the craft in which the originals were created. Upgrades in technology should never be the reason to make the attempt, that’s just putting the cart before the horse. Ultimately the script and the concept behind the script should be stronger than the available technology. I like that ‘Prometheus’ is exploring an entirely different aspect of the ‘Alien’ world. But it doesn’t feel like a prequel because, strangely enough, the image quality is so outstanding and crisp. It was wise then for Ridley to distance this film from the others, to make it its own animal. But had I been given a crack at this (which would never happen), I would have appropriated the similar cameras and film stocks used to make the 1979 original, and make a ‘dirty’ film. But I guess you can’t do that if you’re shooting 3D. That’s where business and art comes to a head, I guess.

Hot Topics: ‘The Social Network’ - Round Two, and the Bechdel Test.

So I saw The Social Network again, this time with the new found perspective gained from reader comments and emails from my first viewing of the film. I have to say that you guys are incredibly observant, and I stand corrected in my beliefs. I see Aaron Sorkin’s point as to being true to the moment, and showing the uglier side of men and women in that sphere, at that time. My objections to the portrayal of women in the film are changed, and I love the film all the more, but my viewpoint on the portrayal of women in film overall remains steadfast.

The screenplay I am writing now, plus the treatment of Paul Pope’s graphic novel and Lilith all are woman-centric stories and films, and I always make sure I am staying true to the medium by running my stories through the famous Bechdel Test. If you’re not familiar with the test, it was conceived by writer / cartoonist Alison Bechdel (who did the shatteringly brilliant book Fun Home) as a way to determine if a story / film was really being told in fairness to women. The four rules of the test are simple:

1) There must be at least two women in the story.

2) Those two women must have names.

3) The women must talk to each other.

4) The conversation must be about something other than a man.

Seems simple enough, but I was shocked to find out how many movies failed the test. And it’s not required that every movie pass the test (The Social Network fails it miserably, but as I now know, that’s the point of the movie) and if the movie doesn’t pass the test it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Not at all. (There Will Be Blood fails it completely, but if you substitute men for the role of women in the Bechdel Test, then There Will Be Blood is a full on bromance.)

Well done, Brother Plainview.

But I do think the Bechdel Test is a subtle step towards equality in media, and I do think filmmakers and writers should be mindful of it. Stories needn’t be altered to fit it, but if someone is consciously making a film with purportedly “strong, independent” women characters, then I think the Bechdel Test must be applied. Lilith, thankfully, passes the test, albeit just barely.

My wife jokes with me that I write films for women like a desperate nerd trying too hard to get laid (that’s why I love my wife so - her refreshingly crushing honesty), and I’m unapologetic in my passion for women and my desire to portray them on screen. I do admire women, but not blindly so, or for the sake of political correctness. I’m fascinated by women in the same way that James Cameron is, as he’s consistently focused his stories on the inherent power of women - socially, biologically, sexually and politically. Aliens passes the Bechdel Test, and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is a character that I love, a real flesh-and-blood woman on film. I admire Ripley as much as I detest a woman like Ann Coulter (hey - Alien 5: Ripley vs. Coulter - I’d buy that ticket), but as much as I hate Coulter, I’m fascinated by her and the likes of her (Sarah Palin, Nikki Haley, Michele Malkin, etc.). These women are using their femininity as a weapon, and while I detest everything they stand for, it makes for a fascinating study of identity, and the idea that these women understand full and well as to how their male counterparts and voters perceive them. I would do a Bob Roberts, Wag the Dog or a Bulworth with a Palin / Coulter-esque woman at the center of it in a heartbeat.

In fact I’ll jot that idea down right now.

New ‘Deadbeat’ post, “screenplay vs. novel”

Please check out my new DEADBEAT writing blog post, as I answer a reader’s question on how to decide between writing a screenplay versus writing a novel.

Again, if you like what you’re seeing in DEADBEAT, please reblog this, follow the blog, and spread the word.




Hot Topic: Judging the Audience.

It’s become an unfortunate commonplace amongst independent filmmakers to judge the American viewing audience as “stupid” or “brainless.” Armed with the box-office data of films like Wild Hogs and Grown Ups, and conversely the average performance of well-made indies such as Winter’s Bone, Restrepo and even The Hurt Locker , the conclusion amongst independent filmmakers is that the American viewing audience doesn’t want to see challenging, thought provoking cinema. They’d rather go to the theaters and shut their brains off, whereas audiences in Europe and Asia are more open to seeing challenging cinema.

These are generalizations, and there’s a lot more at play than we know, and a lot of it has to do with the finance of films, and the ability to recoup on a large investment.

According to the Motion Pictures Association of America, the cost of the average Hollywood film is a little above $60 million, and the average summer “tentpole” blockbuster is now averaging $197.1 million to produce. This does not include P&A costs of distribution, which is now equivalent to the budget of the film, if not more. So for a $200 million film to break even, it is generally assumed that it has to do about $600 million in the global boxoffice. That’s a lot of tickets to sell.

Now put yourself in the shoes of an executive or a producer. Faced with such a huge expense, what is the most surefire way to recoup? Find a property that has a built-in audience (Twilight, The Lord of the Rings or any of the comic book films) or bank on a star that has historically drawn large box office, and place him (rarely her, unless you’re Angelina Jolie) in a profitable genre such as action or an effects-driven film, or a slapstick family comedy.

Some might argue that those films are eye candy only, that there’s no substance to them and they only appeal to the lowest common denominator as a target audience. This is where we go wrong in our analysis of the audience. The audience is not the lowest common denominator, rather the content that the studios are providing them is. Why do studios do this?

Because, as aforementioned, there’s a lot of money that has to be recovered, and the only way to do that is to reach as many people as possible, across the globe, leaving no stone unturned. So how do you get a middle class man in Mississippi and a working woman in Beijing to watch the same film? You give them something they can both identify with. Slapstick comedy, explosions and Maxim Magazine brand sex doesn’t have a cultural filter, they are things that everyone can connect to, regardless of education, language, or cultural beliefs.

Conversely, if we make an independent film about the authentic struggle of Mississippi fish farmers, or the burgeoning heavy metal music scene in Mumbai, chances are that the working woman in Beijing probably won’t see either. Not because she is unintelligent, but rather there’s nothing there she can connect with. But Transformers? Or for that matter any Michael Bay film? Sure, it’s not art, but it’s entertaining, and she can understand it from beginning to end.

As a global export, it’s essentially this:

Versus this:

From a business standpoint, which would you export? Be honest, and know that it has nothing to do with race or culture. It’s about selling fantasy over reality.

The fact of the matter is that when we seek the widest audience possible, the content of the film has to drop to such basic generalizations and caricatures for the purpose of a global audience being able to connect to it. Independent filmmakers might call this “dumbing down” a film, but a film studio calls it making a universally applicable product. And the studios make a lot of money doing it, because that’s their job, which is to make money, because they are publicly traded companies whose shareholders demand value creation every financial quarter.

So it’s not the audience who is stupid, rather they’ve been fed such universally banal movies for the past twenty years and that’s what they’ve come to expect. The film industry created this monster, and they’ve extracted every possible dollar out of an audience that simply doesn’t know what else is out there. Cue 3D as the next universal sensory experience, and another huge payday for Hollywood. They’re not committing any crimes, nor are they taking advantage of the audience, seeing them as a mass global entity and not as cultural beings. They’re just putting a product out on the market that everyone in the world can get something out of, even if it’s fleeting. Sort of like an iPad.

But the bigger problem is the cost of films, and the expectations of the market for larger profits every quarter. Once upon a time in Hollywood, a major film used to cost about $9-12 million to make, and if that film made $20 million, it would be declared a major success. Lower-budget films like The Deer Hunter, Easy Rider or All the President’s Men were successful staples of the 70s, which by my personal observation, was the greatest era of American filmmaking.

That was before Jaws and Star Wars, films that showed Wall Street the awesome earning potential of creating mass entertainment. Films became geared towards bringing in bigger wider audiences with the lure of spectacle over content (which, in defense of Spielberg, his films always had a beating heart behind them, don’t know what happened to Lucas with the prequels, though). Michael Ovitz, founder of the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), started creating “package deals” built around a set of metrics that equated star power with box-office earnings. As a result, star salaries skyrocketed, and so did the overall cost of production.

It’s a simple ratio: the higher the cost of production, the more general a film has to become. We can return to a golden era of cinema if we conscientiously strive to bring down the cost of production, which will put less pressure on the producer because the recoup is far less. There’s no reason why, in this age of technology, why a good studio blockbuster film cannot be made for $20-25 million. The star system has proven to wane (Tom Cruise’s Knight and Day and Matt Damon’s The Green Zone have defied their salaries) and films that have been amazingly successful in the past five years have done so because of the craft of the writer and director (see the post on Pixar). Producers need to be tough in negotiating star salaries, otherwise risks have to be taken on newer acting talent that can deliver a powerful story. James Cameron knew this all along.

Lastly, the idea that European audiences are far smarter than American audiences, by virtue of the films that Europe creates, is a fallacy. Europe makes incredibly challenging and daring cinema because they have governments that regularly support and fund art. These are funds that are provided to modest budgeted projects without the expectation of a box office return, rather it is an investment into the preservation and development of culture.The fact that the United States is the world’s largest exporter of media, and yet we have not a single viable department of culture in our government is reprehensible. The National Endowment of the Arts is a whispering ghost of an institution, and Public Television essentially is the non-cable iteration of the BBC. If the United States had a lottery-funded film commission that empowered new voices, we’d make films as powerful and challenging as our European brethren. Until that lottery fund arrives, we’ll have to work with withering independent finance and Sundance, and we’ll have to consume the flavorless output of the major studios. It’s not by choice, rather it is necessity.

Overlooked Oscars.

As we enter the final week before the Oscars, I’d like to take some time out from the film to partake in the great American tradition of pontificating on the subject of “if I picked the Oscars…”

I have to admit that because of my business travel, I haven’t really had the opportunity to see that many films this year, and I find myself playing catch-up with DVDs. But I have seen some exceptional films this year, many of which have been completely overlooked by the Academy.

But let me first disclose that I am in the party of people who think that awards shows are exercises in vanity and marketing, and that they certainly exist to promote hard-to-sell films or DVD sales. It’s political and economical, yes, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t want to be invited to the Academy Awards or be appreciated by my colleagues. There are categories that have no connection to marketing, categories like live-action and animated shorts (of which a colleague of mine, Gregg Helvey, is nominated for his short film KAVI - go Gregg!) and technical awards which never receive any air-time but are essential to the growth and development of the industry. I understand why the Academy Awards exist, and I think they should continue to exist. The People’s Choice Awards, on the other hand…

But I digress. Let’s cut to the chase.

Let’s start with the locks. For Best Supporting Actor I think it’s universally accepted that Christoph Walz should and will win for his masterful turn as Col. Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. You won’t hear any argument from me. Also, Best Visual Effects is a shoo-in for Avatar. I would have said District 9 had far more compelling visual effects than Avatar because I felt the creatures in District 9 showed genuine, authentic emotion, but Avatar trumps it in that Cameron & Co. created an entire new 3D technology that, for better or worse, transformed our industry. And plus it’s James Cameron. I also think Mo’Nique has it wrapped up for Precious, although I feel Melanie Laurent deserved a nomination for her turn in Inglorious Basterds. She simply owned the screen whenever she was on. And hands down, the best animated film of the year was Up.

And now the debatable and overlooked:

Best Actor: all signs point to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, which I have not seen and by boxoffice accounts not many others have seen either. I’m sure he’s brilliant in it. But I have three more candidates whom I feel should have been nominated, and one of those who should have won. I would have nominated Sam Rockwell for his double performance in Moon, a highly nuanced and very difficult feat. Rockwell carried the entire film on his shoulders, and to pull off a science fiction film requires an actor who can sell the humanity and soul of the character to the audience so that they can buy into the audacity of the plot. Rockwell accomplished this big-time. I can also say the same of Tom Hardy’s performance in the criminally underseen film Bronson. Hardy is both terrifying and charismatic, a combination that is very difficult to pull off without veering into pantomime. His is a career-defining performance.

But I would give the Best Actor award to Michael Fassbender for his portrayal of Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. Fassbender’s performance has all the makings of legendary role - physical transformation and bodily disregard, passion, subtlety, truthfulness, and above everything else, honesty. Few actors can go the limits to what Fassbender accomplished, and he deserves far more recognition for his brave and fearless performance.

Best Actress: Many folks are saying this is Sandra Bullock’s year and as a person, I’d be happy for her to win. As an actress, I feel she turned in a one-note performance that lacked any kind of depth or complexity. The actress that did go there was Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold’s blistering Fish Tank. Like Bridges in Crazy Heart, this is a performance that few people have seen, but fans of acting and performance must seek out. Jarvis toes the line of self-destruction and hope so deftly, she allows the audience to go on her journey with her with compassion and exposing her naked, raw nerves. It’s one of those performances that comes along every five to ten years, and it is deserving of the highest praise and honors.

Best Cinematography: Two of the most overlooked efforts in cinematography were never even in the running at this year’s Oscars, but they are visual achievements that really do deserve higher praise. The first is Darius Khondji’s work in Stephen Frears’ Cheri, where Khondji draws upon the great works of French Impressionism to create a shimmering tableau of light and color. The film is an absolute visual feast, and the work of a great cinematographer working at the height of his creative powers. But this year’s highest praise should go towards Lance Acord for his work in Spike Jones’ Where the Wild Things Are. Unlike Avatar I felt Where the Wild Things Are was the true seamless amalgamation of digital and practical photography, and Acord infused a beautiful, organic warmth to the film. Where in Avatar I felt I was watching technical wizardry at work, in Where the Wild Things Are I never once thought about “how did they do that,” I was completely absorbed into the beautiful, stunning and sad landscape. The film and Acord’s deft wielding of light and camera is the most overlooked achievement of 2009.

Best Director: I want Kathryn Bigelow to win this, not because she is a woman who has for many years been been thrown under the bus with the assumption that her greatness as an action director is due to her association with james Cameron, but because she is one of the finest directors working today. But I put forth an unlikely contender, and that is Pete Docter for directing Up. Animation has never gotten its fair due as a director’s medium, but if James Cameron can get nominated for Avatar, which is essentially an animated film, then Docter deserves all praise for Up. I challenge anyone to put together a more affecting sequence than the first 20 minutes of Up, which shows an emotional complexity that confounds, stabs, caresses and ultimately lets go. It’s a masterful piece of work, rivaled only by the first 20 minutes of Inglorious Basterds, to which I owe much of its greatness to Christoph Walz. Docter managed every emotional beat and frame of Up with utmost sincerity and with the skill of a master craftsman, and he produced a work of art in the process.

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker rightfully deserves this title, but there was one film which was overlooked for this honor, and I can’t blame the Academy for its misstep, largely because the film hasn’t been seen by anyone except those on the festival circuit.

The film is Munyurangabo, directed by Lee Issac Chung. The film deals with the genocide in Rwanda through the perspective of two young, adolescent boys. The film builds its story in reverse order as we slowly begin to realize why these boys are making a cross-country trek. This is a revelatory story of many of the issues and mores of society today, told without the liberal white-guilt soapbox of Hollywood (and I say this as a bleeding-heart liberal myself), and told with unflinching honesty and objectiveness. Rare is the film that simply happens, a film that unfolds so naturally and effortlessly on screen. It is a real achievement, and worthy of the highest honor in the industry.

I know it’s presumptuous of me to award the best picture to a film that no one has seen. It’s not my being fancy-shmancy “oh look at this obscure little indie gem that I found,” rather it is simply the best film that I saw last year, and I saw it by chance, or else I would have never know it even existed. But it is on DVD and it is available for anyone to see, and I strongly urge anyone who loves or is involved in cinema to partake in what the film has to offer. It may also seem that in this post I’ve been bagging on Avatar and this is a half-truth; I am in awe of the film’s achievements from a tech standpoint, but I feel it fails in accomplishing the fundamental cornerstone of why movies are made, which is to tell a compelling story. Avatar is an experience, not a tale. Munyurangabo is, like Avatar, a peephole into a world unseen, an unfamiliar culture, a species at war, and above all, it has a beating heart.

You can find the film here: