And finally…The Independent Spirit Award Nominations


In one final bit of Oscar Season news, the 2011 Independent Spirit Award nominations were announced on Tuesday.  Because of the sheer number of nominees and awards, I’m just going to post the nominees and refrain from offering up any commentary beyond noting that 1) it’s nice to see Drive, Take Shelter, and 50/50 recognized and 2) that the Independent Spirit Award nominations have a pretty iffy record when it comes to predicting and/or influencing the actual Oscar nominations. 

Best Feature
50/50
Beginners
Drive
Take Shelter
The Artist
The Descendants

Best Director
Mike Mills, Beginners
Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Best First Feature
Another Earth
In The Family
Margin Call
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Natural Selection

Best Male Lead
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Ryan Gosling, Drive
Woody Harrelson, Rampart
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Best Female Lead
Lauren Ambrose, Think of Me
Rachel Harris, Natural Selection
Adepero Oduye, Pariah
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Best Supporting Male
Albert Brooks, Drive
John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
John C. Reilly, Cedar Rapids
Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris

Best Supporting Female
Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Anjelica Huston, 50/50
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Harmony Santana, Gun Hill Road
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

John Cassavetes Award for films made under $500,000
Bellflower
Circumstance
Hello Lonesome
Pariah
The Dynamiter

Best Documentary
An African Selection
Bill Cunningham New York
The Interrupters
The Redemption of General Butt Naked
We Were Here

Best Cinematography
Joel Hodge, Bellflower
Benjamin Kasulke, The Off Hours
Darius Khondji, Midnight in Paris
Guillaume Shiffman, The Artist
Jeffrey Waldron, The Dynamiter

Best First Screenplay
Mike Cahill & Brit Marling, Another Earth
J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
Patrick DeWitt, Terri
Phil Johnston, Cedar Rapids
Will Reiser, 50/50

Best Screenplay
Joseph Cedar, Footnote
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Tom McCarthy, Win Win
Mike Mills, Beginners
Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Best International Film
A Separation
Melancholia
Shame
The Kid With a Bike
Tyrannosaur

Piaget Producer’s Award
Chad Burris, Mosquita y Mari
Sophia Lin, Take Shelter
Josh Mond, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Someone to Watch Award
Simon Arthur, Silver Tongues
Mark Jackson, Without
Nicholas Ozeki, Mamitas

Truer Than Fiction Award
Heather Courtney, Where Soldiers Come From
Danfung Dennis, Hell and Back Again
Alma Ha’rel, Bombay Beach

Robert Altman Award for ensemble
Margin Call (Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci)

SemtexSkittle vs. Bethesda: Why I Won’t Buy Skyrim


Yes, Skyrim! Universally heralded as a triumph of gaming. It has received perfect scores at numerous well-regarded review sites and from important critics up and down the world of game reviews. Well, I have an opinion about Skyrim, too. Or, probably a shade more accurately, I have an opinion about Bethesda Softworks, because they’re not getting one penny from me for their new “triumph”, and they’re not going to receive much in the way of praise in this review. So, if you’re an irredeemable fan of the studio, the comments section is open for you to yell at me below. Just understand that you’re coming from a different place than I am. I automatically mistrust any title that Bethesda puts out (and yes, I will be explaining in detail in this article) and I’m predisposed to dislike their games. I do not view them as having a history of putting out excellent games. I can’t name an excellent game they’ve developed. I’m more than happy to discuss within that framework; just let my point of view be understood.

I don’t think Bethesda makes good video games, and I never have.

That statement, by itself, startles people.

That statement, by itself, causes people to leap to Bethesda’s defense. No, I’m told, read this review! It will explain why their latest game is worth buying right away. No, I’m told, Bethesda’s latest title is a great game, you just aren’t giving it a chance.

Maybe. Maybe all of that is true. But in my mind, I have a laundry list of completely legitimate complaints, and they arose from trying pretty hard to appreciate the content that Bethesda was providing. For those who are interested in an alternate take on Bethesda, the sandbox “WRPG”, and their various “triumphs” in gaming… there may be some content of interest for you here.

My personal experience with Bethesda starts with their 2002 release of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I had absolutely innumerable problems with this game, ranging from the skill-raising / leveling system through the lack of a useful map feature. But in my personal experience, Morrowind was stable, it looked pretty, and it had good intentions. This was a modern-era “WRPG” (which for some reason has become synonymous for some people with “sandbox”. Let’s clear this up now: Bethesda makes “sandbox” games, but this is not a universal feature of the Western-developed RPG). It used modern technology to render its tiny group of facial models, and it told a suitably generic RPG story that was delightfully fleshed out by books, notes, and conversations all around the in-game world.

Oblivion continued the grand tradition established in Morrowind. I refused to pay for this game based on my experience with Morrowind, but I was willing to try it out. I borrowed the title from a friend a couple of years after the game had been released. I was alarmed to discover that the game still had unresolved bugs. I encountered graphical glitches and issues (most of them relatively minor, albeit annoying. Because of how modern playtesting works, it’s highly improbable that any game will ever be totally free of texture and graphics glitches), but also weird problems with the AI of both enemies and NPCs. I also encountered problems with enemies that I couldn’t see or locate by any means keeping me ‘in combat’, unable to fast travel or otherwise use the game’s features. None of these problems were, strictly speaking, game breakers. But this was years after launch, and these bugs reared their ugly heads much more often than I’d expect to see even at launch for any professional studio title. Arguments about the size and complexity of Oblivion don’t fly – if you can’t create a game that I can trust be stable and fun at Oblivion’s size, then the game needs to be smaller. You are, as always, entirely free to disagree on this point, but for me it’s no contest. My problems with Oblivion also included the absurd leveling system – I can’t imagine how that system was ever thought to be a good idea – a weak, lazy storyline, unbelievably long loading times, and strictly by-the-numbers gameplay. In short, everything in the game took a back seat to the size of the world. I just can’t imagine how anyone wanted to explore such a huge world limited by such a mediocre game.

All of that having been said, I didn’t hate Oblivion the way I hated Morrowind. It wasn’t until I played Fallout 3 that my opinion of Bethesda was cemented. Fallout 3 was essentially just a re-skin of Oblivion; it was meshed with reasonable effectiveness with basic elements of a first person shooter, but on the whole, the game did not break new ground in terms of the game engine. Gone was Oblivion’s crazy level up system in favour of a traditional character improvement system that was essential to recapture the essence of Fallout. So far, so good. Once again, we’re treated to a huge world, and Fallout 3 was visually impressive right from the start. But I played Fallout 3 on its day of launch, and I spent as much time resetting my XBox 360 console and retreading ground I’d already covered after frustrating crash bugs as I did doing anything else. It features all of the same bugs I remembered from Oblivion – occasional graphics glitches, occasionally melded with something more sinister where the game’s collision would allow the player to become inescapably trapped. Bizarre AI problems that cropped up occasionally and mostly fall under the category of ‘vexing, but not game-breaking’. Oh, and the crashes. It’s not a good thing when I have to spend time thinking about saving, and worrying when I can’t save, not because of the game’s difficulty curve or the possibility of screwing things up with a bad decision in the story, but because of bugs. Bugs which I can’t really avoid, because having the game freeze when you bring up the game’s inventory screen is… well, the game can’t be played without that feature. Not for any length of time.

Does Bethesda try and patch these bugs? Eventually, yes. But other game studios don’t have to release constant patches to address serious bugs. Other studios don’t launch games that have this many bugs. End users are always going to find glitches that the developer misses; modern playtesting relies heavily on automation, and simply can’t match the penchant for creative mischief that characterizes the gaming community. But the problems with every single one of Bethesda’s releases goes far beyond occasional glitches. As a gamer, I usually don’t spend much time trying to break games, or trying to figure out what weird things I can do with the environment of a game like Fallout 3. The fact that, despite my style, I can’t stop running into bugs, speaks to a deeper issue. Bethesda deserves their reputation for releasing buggy games. And let’s not even get into Fallout: New Vegas, which Bethesda published – doing themselves no credit in the process.

So, enough is enough. New releases on the XBox 360 are going to cost about $60 U.S. And I’m not going to pay to support a product that always feels like it was pushed out the door without attention to quality control. And that’s why I won’t be paying one red cent for Skyrim. Frankly, I don’t care how good the game is. I’ve heard almost universally positive things (clouded by the fact that a friend of mine ran into a crash bug in his first hour playing the game), I’ve heard the new engine is wonderful, and that it improves dramatically on the gameplay of Oblivion, that the leveling system is fun and intuitive, and that the game is a visual masterpiece set in an amazingly huge 3-D game world. In fact, I’m almost certain that I would enjoy Skyrim. But enjoying Skyrim would be giving tacit approval to a studio who I have lost all respect for, and who I feel is unworthy of the support of the gaming community. I, personally, feel that Bethesda makes mediocre games which enjoy the benefit of an insane amount of positive press. I’ve always felt that way, as you can see from the brief history I outlined above. But it’s not inconceivable that Bethesda could make a great game. I just can’t vote for them with my dollars. Not anymore.

2011 Gotham Awards Recap


In my previous post, I announced the start of “Oscar season” by offering up a recap of the films and performers honored by the New York Film Critics Circle earlier today.  However, the Oscar season was actually kicked off on Monday night with the Gotham Awards.  Much like the Independent Spirit awards, the Gothams are meant to honor the best in the year’s independent films.  Below is a recap of which films were honored at this year’s ceremony.

Best Feature

Beginners(tie)
The Tree of Life(tie)

Best Ensemble Performance

Beginners

Best Breakthrough Actor/Actress

Felicity JonesLike Crazy

Best Breakthrough Director

Dee ReesPariah

Best Documentary

Better This World

Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You

Scenes of a Crime

The big news here has been that Beginners and Tree of Life tied for best picture.  (Actually, I’m not surprised as both films pretty much explored the same themes of memory, aging, and love.)  It’ll be interesting to see if either one of these films manage to maintain the momentum of their victory through the rest of the Oscar season. 

As for me, I have a new mission and that is to see Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.

The New York Film Critics Circle Names “The Artist” Best Picture of 2011


This is my favorite time of year.  It’s Oscar season, the time when films and actors manuever to win nominations and awards.  This is the time of year when anything seems possible, when you think that maybe Exit Through The Gift Shop will get a best picture nomination or perhaps Christopher Nolan will be nominated for best director for Inception.  In short, this is the month and a half before bitter disillusionment sets in.

During Oscar season, several mysterious groups hand out awards of their own.  These groups are made up of critics desperately trying to convince themselves that they matter and the awards that they hand out are often seen as an indicator of what will eventually end up getting nominated.  Last year, just about every single critical group named The Social Network as best picture and David Fincher as best director and we all remember how little that actually meant once it came time for the actual Academy Awards to be handed out. 

Earlier today, the New York Film Critics Circle helped to start things off by announcing their picks for the best of 2011.  Reportedly, they held off a day on selecting their picks so that they could attend a special screening of David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  And how did that work out?  Well, check out what won:

Best picture: “The Artist”

Best director: Michael Havanavicius, “The Artist”

Best actor: Brad Pitt (“Moneyball,” “Tree of Life”)

Best actress: Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”)

Best supporting actor: Albert Brooks (“Drive”)

Best supporting actress: Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and “Take Shelter”)

Best screenplay: Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, “Moneyball”

Best cinematography: Emmanuel Lebezki, “Tree of Life”

Best non-fiction film (documentary): “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Best foreign language film: “A Separation”

Best first feature: “Margin Call”

Just a few comments on these awards: I have yet to see The Artist but I’m really looking forward to it.  I have a feeling I’m either going to love it or else I’m going to hate it with a passion.  It just appears to be one of those films.  I also haven’t seen Margin Call because its subject matter — Wall Street — makes me go “Bleh!”  But I may have to see it now because it appears to be becoming a bit of an awards dark horse.

I have a feeling that Brad Pitt’s going to win an Oscar for his performance in Moneyball but I really didn’t think it was anything that special.  I thought Pitt was likable but not much else.  Some of that could have had a bit to do with the fact that I couldn’t really follow the film as I’m about as interested in baseball as I am in Wall Street.  Hopefully, I won’t have to sit through another Aaron Sorkin acceptance speech at next year’s Oscar ceremony.  Seriously, there’s only so much time I can spend listening to a pompous millionaire talking about how he thinks the world works.

I haven’t seen The Iron Lady yet but its going to be boring and people are going to feel obligated to pretend like they got something out of it.

Finally, yay to the NYFCC for awarding both Albert Brooks and Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Deams