On March 26, 1990, I got to stay up late to watch the Oscars. This was a big deal for an 8-year-old, because then, like now, the Oscars were a lengthy affair. Forget the fact that I had seen none of that year’s Best Picture nominees (Driving Miss Daisy won over Born on the Fourth of July, Do the Right Thing and My Left Foot; heavy subject matter for an 8-year-old) or that I got basically none of Billy Crystal’s jokes. Forget that most football-playing Tennesseans don’t watch the Oscars. I was a budding movie buff and this was my first experience of what would quickly become an annual tradition. Every year until I left for college I watched the show with my mother, then with my deeply-annoyed college roommates; I watched it twice in Baghdad on combat deployments, once where I had to convince a skeptical machine gunner that yes, this was fun. But in all my years as a fan, I’ve never prepared for Oscar night quite like this.
Last year, my editor Gilbert Cruz took the Oscar Endurance Test: 10 films, 24 hours, one Times Square theater. This year, AMC decided to break up the Best Picture blitz into two half-marathons, the first of which commenced on Saturday with War Horse. It started at 11:00 in the morning and ended at 9:35 at night. Here are some of my thoughts, reactions and interactions with readers who followed along with me on Twitter.
10:35 am: I arrived at the theater dressed, on the counsel of Mr. Cruz, in my comfiest jeans and hoodie, prepared for an entire day of minimal movement. Last year, the Best Picture marathon took place at Times Square; this year, the event has been relegated to Kips Bay, an outpost on the east side of Manhattan, famous as the site of the amphibious landing when the British invaded New York in 1776. That fact has no bearing on any of our films, but as a history nerd, I found it interesting. If any of my fellow theatergoers knew this fact, they didn’t seem to care.
I picked the perfect seat (also chosen on the advice of Mr. Cruz), the aisle seat closest to the door, for ease of quick lobby and bathroom access. My neighbor had his arm in an elevated cast, the result of a recent surgery to repair wrist ligaments. “We bought the tickets a month ago,” he said, “and I wasn’t about to miss it for this.” Clearly he’s very dedicated to this movie marathon.
11:00 am: The lights went down and War Horse opened with some lovely shots of the southwest English countryside. The helicopter rental for these shots must have cost a fortune. But this is Spielberg, so I can’t imagine that mattered much. I was prepared to take issue with the battle scenes — I feared they would be so whitewashed as to resemble the World War I moments from Downton Abbey. I needn’t have feared. This isn’t the opening of Saving Private Ryan, but there is death and violence galore, which Spielberg cleverly shields from the audience with well-timed camera movements and prop placement. This gives the impression that the gore is there, but we don’t have to see all of it.
I was actually surprised at some of the subtle images. World War I saw the death of cavalry tactics and the birth of mechanized warfare. Spielberg gives us small glimpses of this, such as a truck rolling over a horse harness on a muddy road, without beating the audience over the head. Early in War Horse, the commander of a British cavalry unit discusses having studied great charges in history and mentions Pickett’s Charge. Because we love the characters in this film, particularly Joey, our horse, we want them to survive and wish the commander had studied the result of Pickett’s charge. This prompted a wonderful discussion with Lauren Jenkins, @laurenist, who knows a thing or two about military history history and asked if they needed more reconnaissance or more horses. My response: more study of the Civil War.
1:40 pm: War Horse has ended and it’s time for Moneyball, but first, I gave up my seat so a nice couple in their 60s could sit together. This is their sixth Oscar movie marathon. I am a rookie. I figured it’s only proper I take the bump. As my replacement seat is only one row in front of my old seat, I am gracious without having to work too hard at it. Life should be more like the Oscar marathon. In Moneyball, Brad Pitt, a very good looking man, plays Billy Beane, himself a very good looking man. The film is at its best early, when the Oakland A’s scouts, who seem to have been doing this since the invention of baseball, are trying to find a prospect to replace superstar Jason Giambi at first base and Johnny Damon as their outfielder/slugger. For decades, because all scouts had pretty much the same stats to work with, they grasped (often in vain) to try and find that X factor that was the difference between a solid prospect and an All-Star. They write off one player, for example, because he has an ugly girlfriend (“He must have a lack of confidence.”)
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Overall, Moneyball is a solid flick. Pitt is very good, but we could probably have used about half as many scenes of him driving around contemplating his predicaments. I know they drive a lot in California, but there has to be a better way to convey emotional turmoil than seeing someone drive around in frustration. Jonah Hill was funny, but he seemed to be basically playing Jonah Hill. My favorite moment was when Billy Beane and one of his coaches recruit catcher Scott Hatteburg, played by Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks and Recreation). When they tell Hatteburg they want him to move to first base, he gives the confused Andy look that makes the scene. Oh yeah, that’s the dude who later hits a walk off home run at a very important time. Because this is a baseball film, the best tweet came from Geoff Millener, @gmillener, like me, a Red Sox fan, who made a great point about the pitching in the story.
4:10 pm: Between each film so far there has been a 15-minute break. This continues unchanged, I’m convinced, in order to get Tree of Life rolling before anyone has the chance to wimp out. Word on the street is this film is long and complicated. Terrence Malick’s meditation on nature vs. grace starts with the formation of the universe (after a brief prologue) and takes place, primarily, in 1950s Texas. Malick is a brilliant visionary who erupted into cinema in the early 70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, then disappeared until close to the end of the 20th century. Having enjoyed most of his post-exile films, The Thin Red Line and The New World, I have an inkling of what I’m in for, but I worry that my neighbors might wonder why they’re staring at so many trees, plants, rivers and insects.
It’s worse than I thought. After setting up the central core of the plot (a son’s strained relationship with his father, exacerbated by the death of a brother), Malick pulls way back. There is a beautifully-shot, 20 minute sequence exploring the creation and evolution of the universe that needs to be studied in film school and completely kills the movie’s momentum. The narrative is so disjointed, so non-linear and the final sequence goes on so long that when the screen flashed “Written and Directed by Terrence Malick” there was a collected sigh of relief from 300 people. Our arts editor Jessica Winter put it best that there’s a lovely 45-minute film somewhere in there, and the Twitterverse responded well to my thoughts that watching Malick is a bit like reading Faulkner: it’s brilliant and you grow from it, but it’s going to make your head hurt sometimes.
7:30 pm: After a much-deserved hour off for dinner it was time to see part one through to the finish line — George Clooney in The Descendants. I’d heard mixed things about this one. Some people loved the authenticity of the story — the soundtrack features Hawaiian music, but there’s not a ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to be found — while others thought Clooney’s character was basically a rich guy enduring first world problems.
Both of these assessments are true, but Clooney’s not as good as his best reviews, nor as bad as the worst ones. I thought Shailene Woodley as the foul-mouthed daughter stole the show, along with the gorgeous Hawaiian scenery, an assessment echoed by filmmaker Sushma Joshi, @joshisushma, who pointed out that Clooney may have been a bit out of his element.
9:30 pm: The Descendants was a good choice to end the day, and already I’m excited about next week, when we’ll round out the final five films at the same outpost on Kips Bay. I hope you’ll follow along.
Did anyone else participate in their local Oscar marathon? Let us know how it went.