As a child, my obsession with movies culminated around the Academy Awards. This was the night that my mother allowed me to stay up late and together we watched all the stars arrive, the goofy opening monologue, the performances of best songs, the nail-biting moments when Jack Nicholson announced the Best Picture. Maybe some of it had to do with my own immaturity, but Oscar night always felt like magic. Then in 1996, The English Patient won Best Picture. I was a sophomore in college, caught up in a romantic relationship, yet the film failed to even register with me emotionally. I even re-watched it to see if I missed something the first time. It still left me cold. As the ’90s soldiered into the new millennium, even more unworthy films took home the prize. Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago? Strange things were afoot at the Circle K. When the Academy announced this year’s nominees, I just yawned. True, Milk and Slumdog Millionaire may be “risky” choices, but homophobia almost went out when Brokeback Mountain scored a nod (only to be beaten by the deplorable Crash). Frost/Nixon and The Reader are safe, serious films and The Curious Case of Benjamin Beauty is just the type of film that Oscar drools over, overlong tripe that sacrifices artifice for shallow images meant to confuse us for romantic truth. Yuck. We here at Spectrum Culture have decided not to sit by in mute frustration. Here are a group of films Oscar should have nominated for Best Film, with all film created equal and not partitioned into Foreign Language, Animation and Documentary. Film is film. Shame on you, Oscar.
– David Harris, Editor-in-Chief

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4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

While serving as a potent filmic indictment against Ceausescu’s dictatorial impact on Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days also proves a heart-stopping piece of cinematography to behold. Shot in the vérité style by director of photography Oleg Mutu, the narrative follows its reticent protagonist, Otilia (Anamaria Marmca), through a series of tasks she must exact in order to ensure her defenseless companion Gabita’s clandestine abortion. With Cristian Mungiu’s dauntless direction, Mutu draws us in with his shadowy portrait of the girls’ technical college, where studious young women moonlight as marketeers, their rooms stocked with contraband cosmetics and birth control pills. At every turn, Otilia must oil the gears of social intercourse with coveted packs of foreign cigarettes and obsequious gratitude. But that’s not the half of what she’ll compromise before we part ways with her.

We are lent Mutu’s eye to peer into a couple of cadaverously lit hotels and, upon negotiations surrounding Gabita’s fate, a dreary, snow-speckled common area outside of the menacing abortionist’s apartment complex. If you are still not rapt with the graininess of it all by the time you glimpse the hotel room where great and horrifying procedural liberties are taken, with its the industrial-grade paint hues and resolutely bleak detailing, it may simply not be your aesthetic cup of tea. But Mungiu and Mutu are wont to succeed in winning over your optical nerve and spleen, so prepare for more unforgiving tracking shots of valiant Otilia, as she disposes of the late-term fetus in near obscurity, dodging unsavory nocturnal wanderers and feral street dogs all the while.

Slush-slicked, desolate streets, flickering lights and the remorselessness of these bookish, soft-spoken women’s predicament are handled so competently that it’s easy to forget that it is all an ingenious choreography. Of particular noteworthiness is Mungiu’s assertion of class conscience at a birthday party held for Otilia’s boyfriend’s mother. This scene acts as bright punctuation in the midst of an otherwise subdued register; our heroine finds herself in attendance of a family to-do in hopes of placating her boyfriend and making good with his family. Throughout the guests’ biting discourse on social standing (themes of peasant ignominy run rampant throughout 4 Months), Otilia keeps mum as to her plight: her friend is back at the hotel, waiting for a very delicate and illegal procedure to conclude itself. Marmca does a breathtaking job in her performance of shouldering the freight of Otilia’s quandary.

Between a pan-generational breakdown in communications and the tragic gender norm which cannot help but to declare itself in such impracticable circumstances, 4 Months administers a hearty dose of anguish and sumptuously gritty vision. Rightfully decorated with a Palme d’Or at Cannes, we can thank Romania for last year’s anti-Juno. – Joan Wolkoff

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Let the Right One In

Technically, the Academy isn’t to blame for overlooking Let the Right One In for its Best Foreign Language Film category. No, the blame lies squarely on those damn Swedes, who apparently felt that a “vampire” movie wouldn’t be the best thing to represent them in the category.

But Let the Right One In is so much more than a vampire movie: it’s a film about the way children can be alienated by their peers to the point that they feel like they are monsters overlooked by society, it’s a film about the loneliness an environment can force on you the longer you’re exposed to it, and most importantly it’s a film about the way love possesses you and makes you more vulnerable than you already are.

Masterfully adapted by John Lindqvist from his own novel, the story is deceptively simple: boy meets girl vampire, boy falls in love despite her warnings, boy soon realizes he’s in over his head but goes for it anyway. What makes the movie such an achievement is that director Tomas Alfredson pieced the film together in such a way that you never once question the simple premise. Instead, you’re hypnotized by the beautifully barren and icy Swedish scenery as well as the equally frosty performance of Lina Leandersson, who stars as the 12 year old vampire Eli. Leandersson tackles her role with a grace that would be incredible even if age weren’t a factor; her subtle performance perfectly captures the unique hell her character must be trapped in, perpetually aging mentally but forever trapped in the body of a 12 year old, ground covered to much lesser effect by Kirsten Dunst in the unfortunately more successful Interview with the Vampire.

The intense loneliness projected by Eli quickly forces the audience to sympathize with her unfortunate condition, ultimately pushing the us towards the same hesitant voyeur role played with witless aplomb by Kare Hedebrant as Oskar. Before long, the viewer is rooting for the success of an inevitably doomed relationship between the 12-year-old-going-on-200 Eli and Oskar, the hopeless prepubescent runt. Their romance is all the more tragic if you’re inclined to believe the “father figure” Eli silently dispatches towards the beginning of the film was once in Oskar’s shoes.

Which is the all-too-subtle point the movie makes that can easily be lost if you let yourself get too entranced in the beautiful tragedy driving the film: Eli is and will always be a predator, adapting to her surroundings and doing whatever she has to to survive. And in the end, this is what makes the film so stirring and resonant no matter where it’s shown or to whom; the most deadly predators are the ones who trick you into loving them and then swiftly prey on that vulnerability when the mood is right. Now, if only those Swedes had let this predator loose on the Academy…
– Morgan Davis

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Man On Wire

When was the last time anybody thought wire walking was interesting? Man On Wire is all about the journey, not the destination. Frenchman Philippe Petit spends years investigating and rehearsing how he will enter the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, get on the roof of the South Tower, string the wire and walk back and forth between them. Self-taught, Petit conquers both the Notre Dame de Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge while continuing to plan for his WTC walk.

Director James Marsh balances a mix of footage from the planning stages of the act and reenactments throughout the film. During the walk itself, Marsh uses still photographs taken from the tower when Petit takes his first steps. Interviews with collaborators allow the true cost of the walk to be shown. Echoing the “heist movie” premise, some are given titles like, “The Australian,” and “The Inside Man.” Friendships were strained, and the love of his life Annie Allix realizes he no longer needs her. Even Jean-Louis Blondeau, the man on the North Tower who strung the cable across comes to tears while recalling his friend’s ease in the face of death.

Marsh wisely never alludes to the events or the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The buildings are their own characters in the film, from scale models to the towers themselves, they are the expression of Petit’s desire to do more and go higher.

On August 7, 1974, Petit grabbed the imagination of a city still skeptical about two grey towers jetting out of lower Manhattan and turned them into a work of art by stepping a quarter mile into the sky and dancing. You are left with the feeling that the towers were built for that sole purpose. – Nicholas Ryan

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Rachel Getting Married

What cruel fate that Oscar left poor Rachel standing alone at the altar. With one of the best films of the past decade, let alone the year, Jonathan Demme makes a strong comeback in this incisive look at a fractured family while staging a fucking fantastic wedding. This is not an “important” literary adaptation nor are there swelling musical cues that something big is about to happen. Rachel Getting Married is cinema verite, truth at 24 frames per second.

Kym (Anne Hathaway in a harrowing performance) is released from a rehab center to attend the wedding of her older sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). After a nine-month absence, it is obvious her return is a source of stress for the family. Kym does nothing to help matters, full aware of her status of black sheep; she re-opens old wounds with Rachel, bickers with the maid of honor and bangs the best man. All this happens before the rehearsal dinner even begins.

But Kym is not the focal point of this film; it’s the wedding. Focusing on great set pieces such as a rehearsal dinner at an Indian restaurant or the blowout event itself in the family’s backyard, we slowly begin to recognize ourselves and people we love in the characters that populate the screen. These intricacies, these tributes and preparations, and the eventual wedding itself, make the film special.

Unfortunately, the only fireworks here are familial in nature. There are no age-reversing miracle cases, game show winning untouchables, assassinations, ex-presidents or illiterate Nazis. There is only one thing on this screen. Truth. – David Harris

Standard Operating Procedure

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Documentaries that traffic in moral ambiguity and complexity indelibly alter our perception of the nonfiction film and are definitely more engaging, provocative and entertaining. Errol Morris’ films place the audience in some kind of bizarre reality which makes you question the very nature of reality and the universe in which we live. Even though Morris uses two familiar documentary techniques, direct-address interviews and re-enactments, the atmosphere and narrative structure are inventive and I walked out of Standard Operating Procedure feeling I had seen a narrative feature. As always, his techniques are stylish, his framing tight and his editing aggressive. The characters feel completely fictional, and yet, they are not. We’ve seen the photos, we know the events and we know the drama behind them.

In the Abu Ghraib photographs we’re looking at military and CIA policy, but Morris certainly wasn’t convinced that he had seen the whole picture and set out to uncover what had happened outside the frame. At a deeper level, SOP seeks to examine how the photographs served as both exposé and a cover-up and how seeing does and doesn’t become knowledge. The most fascinating aspect of the photographs is that many of those scenes were orchestrated for the camera. They were posed but that doesn’t make them less real. In fact, it makes them more horrific and more deeply disturbing. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib coped by trying to make sense of the disturbing images of their life and by ordering them in a congenial, acceptable, and even flattering way. But despite all of their efforts to control something, they discovered the world is much more powerful and deranged than us. SOP presents a modern form of Greek tragedy: a horrifying theater of staged bodies intertwined into a human pyramid that drained their remaining dignity. We can’t help but wonder how the prisoners coped with their deranged world.

The best movies, fiction or non fiction, have deeper universal meaning. SOP brings us face to face with an American disease: Collective Delusion Disorder. Whenever we come up against something that is really complex, there’s this very deep human need to find a simple explanation that can account for it. If it’s something that’s really bad and really wrong, we feel uneasy and want to figure out how to distance ourselves from it. We tell ourselves, “This doesn’t concern me. This isn’t about me. This is about somebody else.” SOP shows us that if you want to find evidence for anything, you can manufacture it, you can come to believe it, you can exclude the things you don’t want to see and make up the things you do want to see. An unfortunate reality of human behavior is that we can believe what we want, no matter what the evidence is to the contrary.

Put in simple terms, this is the story of scapegoats–the little guys who get blamed so the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Is it outdated, populist even, to believe that in America you don’t beat up on the little guys and then watch the big guys pin medals on each other? Is it American to stand by while the big guys pay themselves multi-million dollar bonuses while the little guy foots the bill? Now that I think about it, it’s not a Greek tragedy at all, it’s an American one. Yeah, screw you, Rummie, screw you, Wall Street and screw you, Oscar. -Teri Carson

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Synecdoche, NY

Synecdoche, NY is challenging in a way most films barely even reach for, courting ideas simultaneously existential and metafictional in Charlie Kaufman’s cripplingly neurotic, recursive style. As we watch Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s struggle with his life, his art, and his mortality, we are also watching Kaufman struggle with his own creation. Hopefully, we ourselves will struggle with Kaufman’s questions about creation. What happens when we create? What do we do when that creation — a story, a relationship, a child — doesn’t turn out the way we expected and takes on a life of its own? Does the creation end up controlling the creator? Is this how God feels? As our “hero” constructs more and more of his recursive megaplay staging his life and the lives of those around him, it becomes obvious: Synecdoche, NY is both metafilm and auto-critique, a film about an artist who makes a masturbatory work about himself to deal with his own existential crises until the film, like the play, decides to kill itself. Had Charlie Kaufman died with the film’s completion, it would have been a perfect masterpiece.
-Danny Djeljosevic

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WALL-E

Children’s movies are for children- that goes without saying. The characters are simple, the conflicts are easily resolvable and above all, they are entertaining and lightweight. We put aside such movies with time and concentrate on things of weight and greatness and deep import, like The Reader. And then a movie like WALL-E comes along and makes us all reconsider the concept of a “genre” film.

Pixar Studios have a nearly unbroken record of quality films, from their feature debut Toy Story to the tearful Finding Nemo, but their latest seems to trump them all. WALL-E is a children’s film and it is a science-fiction movie; it’s a romance and it’s an ecological warning; it’s a cartoon and it’s live-action. The greatest achievements in any field shed notions of labels, but few could have predicated such a giant leap forward for animation. The concept of the uncanny valley grows more and more distant when a bereaved CGI garbage robot can move audiences to tears.

Perhaps the strangest thing about WALL-E is the sense of familiarity that imbues the entire movie- from the abandoned Earth of the nearly silent opening (anyone who’s ever seen a garbage dump will know what I’m talking about) to the hover-traffic jams of corpulence aboard the Axiom spaceship, there’s a frightening relevance that seems even more chilling in the context of a children’s film. Even more miraculous, that such a potentially didactic story could also contain one of the most touching love stories of recent years is nearly beyond belief.

WALL-E is up for six Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature and Best Original Screenplay; that’s all well and good, but that it’s not even nominated for Best Picture is nothing short of a slap in the face to “genre” movies and a warning of a different kind. Don’t let the robots do a better job acting than the humans. – Nathan Kamal

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Waltz With Bashir

With no intent to diminish the value of Walt Disney, “best” pictures should at a minimum make you think. Although I could be missing other critical factors that should gauge the “best” in movie making, most important to me are that the story be compelling, the characters convincing, the music in tune with the mood, the dialogue believable and the photography transporting the viewer to the situation. With the advent of computer technology, we need to add graphics to the “best of” list. But most of all, the direction of all these ingredients should result in a masterpiece not a half-baked effort. It needs to stay with you. You need to want to see it again.

And so it is with Waltz With Bashir. Ignorant people and ignorant decisions generally lead to catastrophes and it was no different when the concatenation of the actions of the 1982 Lebanon War led to the massacre of around 3,000 civilians who were living in refugee camps by Christian Phalangists in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila. At the outset, this documentary presents us with a dilemma, a reason to join Director Ari Folman’s therapeutic journey into a past that his psyche successfully buried. Over a four-year period, Folman analyzed his dreams, tracked down fellow soldiers, and questioned history in order to come to grips with his own involvement in a life altering experience. An experience that is not unlike most wars where immature young men are thrown into disastrous situations that they do not fully comprehend, may not believe in, and in which they have little skill but heaps of self-preservation instincts.

Folman did everything right. His decision to use graphics gave us the ability to watch without wrenching (until the final scenes). The story is uncomfortably real; the dialogue came right out of the mouths of the protagonists; the music underscored the frivolity and terror; and this profound film will stay with us forever. A masterpiece. A “best” picture. – Jane Hruska

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Wendy and Lucy

Far more refreshing to see the first and perhaps only truly flawless film of 2008 is the fact that Wendy and Lucy may be one of the first pieces of American contemporary art to both attempt to and succeed at encapsulating the entire human experience, particularly during our current universal financial and cultural malaise.

I was particularly impressed to see a female writer/director–an American female, at that–who so deftly crafted a film with no rough edges, an efficient and earnest work that suffered none from any kind of artificial maudlin sentimentality.

From moment one, it is clear that Ms. Reichardt has paid well-deserved attention to the works of Gus Van Sant (and in fact she gives thanks to Van Sant’s genius cinematographer, Harris Savides, responsible for the ambrosial Death Trilogy). But too has this vibrant and adept filmmaker paid great notice to the neo-realists of yesteryear, particularly De Sica (the entire film can almost be seen as a contemporized Umberto D.).

It is thus both for the content and form alike that Wendy and Lucy is indeed an imperative film in today’s society, one that I hope will have a lasting shelf life and will allow Reichardt to continue doing what she clearly does best.

Bravo. -Mathew Klickstein

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