Archive for December, 2009

Why I Voted for Inglourious Basterds as Best Film of the Year

December 10, 2009

The Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), of which I have been a member the past three years, last week announced the winners of its 2009 year-end voting. Up in the Air took Best Film. It’s a good film, maybe better than I give it credit for, but it stirred not one ounce of passion within me as I watched it. It’s very well performed, often breezy in tone despite its sober subject matter (a corporate downsizer flies from city to city, laying off employees at firms that hire him to deliver the bad news to their employees), and doesn’t provide a pat happy ending. For that, I appreciate the film and don’t resent its victories in the Best Picture, Best Actor (for George Clooney) and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.

Still, I could’t help but feel a sense of deflation in seeing the film score its big wins. I saw two foreign-language films—Summer Hours and Lorna’s Silence—that top my personal Best of 2009 list, but never expected either of those films to receive enough votes during the nomination process in the Best Picture category to qualify as one of the five finalists. I also saw, shortly before the voting deadline and via screener DVD, Spike Lee’s wonderful Passing Strange, but in talking with fellow Washington Area Film Critics Association members, realized that not enough people had viewed the screener to garner the film any momentum going into the voting. I counted Passing Strange a regrettable lost cause when it came to our vote.

That was OK, because the best English-language film I saw in 2009, Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, had been championed by some of these same critics, and I was confident it would nab one of the five Best Picture slots.

It didn’t make the cut. WAFCA’s five Best Picture finalists were:

The Hurt Locker | Summit Entertainment
Inglourious Basterds | Weinstein Company
Precious | Lionsgate
Up | Walt Disney
Up in the Air | Paramount

There’s a problem with these choices. Each has its strengths, but, unlike A Serious Man, each has pronounced weaknesses. Did a ny of the five films deserve Best Picture? Even The Hurt Locker, much acclaimed upon its release, too often felt like a series of expertly staged set pieces—well choreographed action scenes, full of tension, but missing something at its emotional core. It’s a fine, even award-worthy film, very well directed, but in no way a lock for Best Picture of the year.

Similarly, Up is wonderful in stretches, but its conventional aspects—quirky animal character, interminable chase scenes—place it in the middle of the Pixar pack. Precious is an astonishing film in many ways, and amidst the controversy over whether or not it’s a story of value for the African-American community or for any other segment of the population, it hasn’t received enough credit for its striking visuals. The film’s critics, however, have pointed out that the story of dysfunction, incest and buried potential is in some ways too familiar—we’ve seen these themes played out too many times before to justify the grimmer aspects of Precious. I’m not entirely on board with that reasoning, but I take the point. I count myself a fan of the film, but no more than I’m a fan of WAFCA’s other Best Picture selections.

One Choice Left

I was left with one choice for Best Picture. Inglourious Basterds is flawed choice, a flawed film—A Serious Man bests it, as do several other films released this year. But those films weren’t nominated for Best Picture, and Inglourious Basterds was. I cast my vote for the film as Best Picture, and for Quentin Tarantino as Best Director.

 I never had any regrets about doing so, and in the days since casting the vote, have only hardened in my judgment that Inglourious Basterds deserved my vote. I wish it had won, and not just because it’s superior to the other four WAFCA Best Picture nominees.

 My rationale boils down a word mentioned in the lead of this piece: passion. I felt none for Up in the Air, or for The Hurt Locker. Precious and Up have their merits, too, but am I passionate about either one? No.

 You might be guessing that I’m about to announce my passion for Inglourious Basterds. The truth is, I greeted the film with decided ambivalence. Going into it, I expected to have a strong aversion to the film. The scars from having to endure last year’s Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas still haven’t healed, and I wasn’t keen to see another film that might use the Holocaust to make some supposedly vital point that comes across as misguided. In this case, the point would be revenge, and I’ve simply tired of revenge as a central element of any story. It not only bores me; it offends me.

So I was surprised to find my reactions as I watched Basterds running the gamut from delight (loved those first 20 minutes) to distaste at the violence (which wasn’t quite as hard to stomach as I’d imagined, the final scene excepted) and frustration about the film’s formal aspects. I thought the framing, in particular, was disappointingly cluttered in spots, particularly in the tavern sequence (which goes on far too long, in my estimation, although the film’s fans think it’s spot on). Tarantino had Robert Richardson, a master, behind the camera, and this is what he came up with?

As a fan of camera movement, I felt a thrill when Tarantino’s camera finally circled the two principal characters. It was electrifying! I waited for the rest of the film to deliver on the aesthetic promise of that moment, but it was not to be. I like static shots as much as the next cinephile when they’re well composed, but with Tarantino I expect more razzle-dazzle camera movement. The fact that he doesn’t go this route may be a sign of maturity on his part, but it thwarted my expectations, which were in part fueled by Tarantino himself during the opening segment.

Still Not Settled

I expect to be able to re-evaluate these concerns on subsequent viewing of Tarantino’s film. I fully expected to receive a screener DVD that I could watch again ahead of awards voting—if ever there was a film that demanded a second viewing, it’s this one—but the Weinstein Co. decided not to send screeners to WAFCA members. So my thoughts on this film are based on a single viewing several months ago. Future viewings will help me figure out what works in Basterds, what doesn’t, and why. I hope the film’s fans who read this will cut me some slack: I’m more with you than against you.

It’s important to stress that my reasons for voting for Inglourious Basterds weren’t entirely negative. I didn’t think it was simply the least flawed of WAFCA’s five Best Picture nominees. Indeed, the film has something going for it that none of the others, with the exception of Precious, can approach: It has sparked the most stimulating — the most passionate — film writing of the year. The pleasure of reading the back-and-forth over the film’s merits, or lack thereof, was a highlight of the past 12 months. It certainly influenced my selection.

Since the film’s release, provocative, informative posts on the film have been written by:

Jeffrey Wells

Glenn Kenny

Dennis Cozzalio and Bill Ryan

Chris Stangl  

David Bordwell

and Steven Boone 

I appreciate that the film has its critics (see Jordana Horn and Steve Santos), but the best films often are the ones that stir the loudest debates, and on that score, nothing this year tops Inglourious Basterds. I was more than satisfied to vote for it as the year’s best picture. Maybe, one day, after subsequent viewings, I’ll actually believe it was.