Oscarmetrics: The Case for Drive, Margaret and The Interrupters

And the winner is….Drive!

A couple of days ago I asked Oscarmetrics readers to tweet me the movies they wish were in the Best Picture discussion right now. I ruled out what I think is the current consensus top ten (The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse). Anything else was eligible. I got an earful: Impassioned and thoughtful (within a 140-character limit) arguments for 32 different movies. And, by a landslide, the one you’d like to nudge into the discussion is the one in which Ryan Gosling kicks ass and takes names while maintaining an expression of such frozen imperturbability that a climactic twist pivots on your inability to figure out whether he’s dead or just concentrating. In any event, as the song says, he’s a real hero and a real human being (give or take), so bravo!

Twitter is, of course, a self-selecting demographic that does not mirror Academy tastes, but what an interesting and vital Top Ten list you came up with: After Drive, it included (in descending order) Take Shelter, 50/50, Win Win, Margin Call, Beginners, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Interrupters, and Shame. To me, the most notable thing about this roster, aside from its quality, is that it doesn’t include a single studio release (by contrast, the consensus top ten includes six). Although a number of your nominees could figure in the acting or writing contests, it’s also a sobering reminder that as much as indies have muscled into the top categories in the last 20 years, they still start at something of a disadvantage with old-guard Oscar voters.

For many of you, the what-the-hell-is-that? title on the list will doubtless be The Interrupters, a brilliant, troubling documentary directed by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz about attempts to break the endless cycle of violence in one of Chicago’s most desolate neighborhoods. The Interrupters has the honor of being the only nonfiction film in your top ten, and the much more dubious distinction of being the only movie you named that has already been ruled out by the Academy. Every year, the documentary branch screens all potential contenders and selects a longlist of 15 films from which the five nominees are eventually chosen. This year, The Interrupters failed to reach that longlist.

In writing about the Oscars, it can be too easy to assume that every difference in taste — or failure of taste — is an outrage, a disgrace, a scandal! And that has, in fact, been the reaction to the film’s snubbing (a word I hate, but in this case I think it’s accurate because I believe the decision reflects actual ideological intent). Tempers have been all the more inflamed because it was another Steve James film, Hoop Dreams, that was also snubbed by the documentary branch 17 years ago in one of the lowest moments in its history.

I’ve held off talking about The Interrupters until now because I think its omission from the list is in fact an outrage, a disgrace, and a scandal, but for complicated reasons. Over the last two weeks, I caught up with as many of the longlisted documentaries as I could, and having seen most (but not all) of them, I can report that their quality ranges from okay to fantastic. It is certainly possible for the branch to put together a final list of 2011 nominees that is as strong as any in years. That will be especially true if it includes the shatteringly powerful and genuinely suspenseful Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the culmination of 17 years of effort by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to reverse a grave miscarriage of justice, and the superb Hell and Back Again, the story of an injured veteran of the war in Afghanistan filmed by the young photojournalist Danfung Dennis that belongs next to Restrepo on the very short list of essential nonfiction films about that war and its costs.

So the issue with the documentary branch isn’t “They leave out good movies and nominate crap.” If that were enough to justify the word “disgrace,” we’d be here all day. My problem with the documentarians who do the nominating is that systematically, year after year, they ignore an entire kind of movie that they seem to wish wouldn’t exist. There is, in the branch, a clear taste for cinematic orderliness, and this year’s longlist reflects, yet again, a predilection for narratives that focus on the story of one compelling individual. Those choices dominate the field this year, which, aside from the struggling, angry soldier at the center of Hell and Back Again, includes studies of a horse whisperer (Buck), the late choreographer Pina Bausch (Pina), Harry Belafonte (Sing Your Song), Jane Goodall (Jane’s Journey), fashion and society photographer Bill Cunningham (Bill Cunningham New York), an accused ecoterrorist (If A Tree Falls), a high school football coach (Undefeated), and a chimp (Project Nim).

The issue with these movies isn’t their quality, which varies but at best is remarkably high; it’s with the somewhat dogmatic insistence on one kind of story at the expense of others. When the voting documentarians do look approvingly outside this format, which is rare, their benediction tends to land on movies that employ the familiar structure of talking-head interviews alternating with strong archival footage, as is true this year of the early-days-of-AIDS documentary We Were Here, Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, and The Loving Story.

This is bad news for documentarians like James and Kotlowitz (author of the great 1991 story of kids living in poverty There Are No Children Here), because in The Interrupters, they’re not especially interested in narrativizing their survey of the landscape by picking one inspirational woman or story or struggle out of the chaos. Chaos is the subject of the film. For a year, they took their cameras into a world in which violence is a common language, and their aim is to give you a two-hour, 360-degree view of the economic, familial, educational, political, sociological, racial and interpersonal factors (some expressed explicitly, some yours to infer) that make the problem feel so unanswerable. The film is intelligently and powerfully structured and there are human stories — some just vignettes, others woven through the whole film — that are as moving as anything you’ll see this year. But Kotlowitz and James want to leave you shaken, not uplifted, and their film has some of the ramifying clout of The Wire: You watch not so much to find out what happens as to see if you can get your head around the whole ugly interconnected topography of the problem.

And the scandal, the outrage, the disgrace is that the documentary branch doesn’t get this, has never gotten it, didn’t get it when the rest of us did when we saw Hoop Dreams, and shows no signs of getting it in the future. It’s not just about The Interrupters — it’s about the whole chronically undervalued category of journalistic-documentary filmmaking that The Interrupters represents. So I’d argue for some kind of reform along the lines of what the Academy’s foreign-language film committee successfully instituted a couple of years ago — a taste check that would insure that certain types of movies aren’t penalized by the idiosyncratic taste deficit of a small group of voters.

After all, in the 17 years since Hoop Dreams, we have, as a moviegoing culture, become infinitely more literate and versed in docs than we were — so much so that the notion that their quality is a secret language that can only be understood by other documentary filmmakers is long outdated. It’s time for the Academy to let the sunshine in, maybe with a rotating committee of filmmakers from other disciplines who could lead the documentarians into a less airlocked conversation about all the different things that great nonfiction filmmaking can be.

Now, please excuse me while I beat an all-but-dead horse. This week I went back for a second look at Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret, which was shot almost seven years ago, finally opened (and quickly closed) this fall, and has lately become a sort of movie-blogosphere cause celebre over Fox Searchlight’s refusal to send out Oscar screeners. More than ever, I’m convinced that the decision means voters will be missing one of the year’s best-written and best-acted movies. I don’t want to oversell Margaret — its troubles have been well-documented, and some of them are right on screen. Lonergan’s difficulty in the editing room combined with his contractual obligation to complete a cut no longer than 150 minutes means that the movie’s last hour is, no question, more jagged, overstuffed and compromised than I imagine even he would like it to be. (An alternate Lonergan edit, done with the help of Martin Scorsese and the ace Thelma Schoonmaker, is currently sitting somewhere in legal limbo.)

But you’d be amazed, watching the movie, at how little the problems matter. The #TeamMargaret push isn’t some voguish “We saw this movie and you didn’t” Internet meme; it’s an attempt to get some justice for an unfairly shafted and largely terrific film. Moviegoers know that Lonergan wrote an exceptionally sensitive script for the 2000 Oscar nominee You Can Count on Me, but those outside of New York and Los Angeles may not be as aware that as a playwright, he possesses a near-faultless ear for intelligent, contentious dialogue and sharply observed characters. In Margaret, which is the story of a bright, nasty New York City high school student (blisteringly well-played by Anna Paquin) who is both precocious and immature, and (like most teens) alternately hyperobservant and oblivious, he shows characters crashing into one another in a dozen different ways, and dramatizes with great surehandedness the ways in which everybody in New York is both the star of his/her own show and an intruder on someone else’s drama. When Lonergan’s characters fight, it’s thrilling because they don’t just talk, they listen — he stages a mother-daughter showdown between Paquin and J. Smith Cameron (his wife) that’s one of the best pieces of dialogue writing you’ll hear this year. The rest of his cast — which includes Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, and a devastating Allison Janney — is up to every challenge he throws at them.

If I’m sounding vague, it’s because Margaret’s story — a girl’s heartfelt and misguided quest for vengeance, absolution, and self-knowledge — hinges on a shocking catastrophe early in the narrative that I’d rather not spoil. But please believe me when I reiterate (for the last time, I promise) that Fox Searchlight is making a mistake by squelching this movie, which merits serious consideration for its original screenplay (ultra-original, in fact), its ensemble cast, and the searing performance of Jeannie Berlin as a New York woman of a certain age and a certain very familiar level of impatience. Thirty-nine years ago, Berlin won a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance in The Heartbreak Kid. If Margaret were to get the chance with voters it deserves, she’d be back in contention this year, no question.

Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and is currently at work on his next book. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkHarrisNYC.


Previously: Oscarmetrics: Is Best Actress a Lesser Award?
Oscarmetrics: The Descendants, Dragon Tattoo, and the Art of Managing Expectations
Do George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt Need an Oscar?
Ratner’s Out. Now What?

Filed Under: Awards, Drive, Margaret, Movies, Oscarmetrics