Questioning Authority Goes to the Oscars

Questioning Authority recently caught up with Paul Staiti, Professor of Fine Arts on the Alumnae Foundation, to get his thoughts on this year’s Academy Awards, which air Sunday, February 24. Staiti teaches a seminar titled Hollywood Films, as well as a course titled Talking Pictures: An Introduction to Film. Here are his picks and pans.

QA: Do you see a theme of darkness in the movies nominated for best picture this year?

PS: They’re dark thematically and dark visually, too. Michael Clayton is almost a black-and-white film; the characters wear black suits and ties, walk through colorless landscapes and cityscapes, and inhabit an amoral zone in which integrity, like nature, has become drab. I think it’s interesting that two of the films, No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood, are adaptations from Cormac McCarthy’s and Upton Sinclair’s unremittingly dark novels. Historically, those are not the kinds of authors that Hollywood gravitates toward. However, the Academy has been moving in the dark direction recently. Last year the nominees included Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, and The Departed, which won. And the Best Foreign Language Film last year (for me, the best film of the last decade, in any language) was The Lives of Others.

QA: Are there any movies you would have liked to see nominated that weren't?

PS: I’m Not There. It’s wildly imaginative. Todd Haynes, the director, squeezes as much as he can out of the cinematic medium. Narrative ellipsis, anti-typecasting, shifting aesthetic styles, crazy but effective editing; he must admire Godard. Julie Delpy’s edgy, perfectly timed, and sharply written comedy Two Days in Paris would get my nomination, too. From what my friends tell me, some other nominees could be Julian Schanbel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, and David Fincher’s Zodiac.

QA: What was your favorite acting performance this year?

PS: Some were stunning, especially Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, Julie Christie in Away from Her, and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood. In her supporting role, Cate Blanchett was mesmerizing in I’m Not There. Most over-rated nominee: Ellen Page in Juno. Yes, she’s accomplished and cute, but in her slot I would have nominated Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding. I’m not especially a fan of her work, but I was astonished at how accurate and layered she was as the narcissistic Margot. Performance I wish I had seen: Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening.

QA: What do you think will win best picture?

PS: I’d venture to say There Will be Blood or No Country for Old Men.

QA: What do you think should win best picture?

PS: Either of those two. However, I’ll be visibly upset if the winner is Atonement (other films are more deserving) or Juno (enjoyed it a lot, but come on, Best Picture of 2007?). If I had my way, I’d de-nominate those two and replace them with the pictures I mentioned earlier

QA: What categories get overlooked?

PS: Easy, cinematography, and film editing. In addition to the obvious categories (film, actor, actress, and direction), these are these two aspects of filmmaking that make great cinema great.

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