The Movie Club
Dear Dana and all,
Well of course you're correct Tilda Swinton gave the best performance by an actress in 2009. I was halfway into writing my next blog entry when your kickoff post arrived. My blog's headline will be "Tilda Swinton: Can we give the poor girl a break?" Her work in Julia is pure power channeled into a raging drunk who by and large behaves as such a person plausibly might. (How often can you say that about a drunk in a thriller?)
Swinton has been great, great, and great again in movie after movie, as the gender-shifting Orlando in Orlando; as Muriel Belcher, the queen of London's most infamous drinking club in Love Is the Devil; as the agonizing mother in The War Zone; as the demanding movie producer in Adaptation; as the implacable mother in The Deep End; as one of the hero's old loves in Broken Flowers; as the company lawyer in Michael Clayton, and on and on and on.
She's taken difficult or impossible roles. She's worked with free spirits like Sally Potter, Jim Jarmusch, Derek Jarman, Tim Roth, and Spike Jonze. She personally helped haul a "cinema wagon" across Scotland by rope to bring good movies to the outlands, and when she finally makes a flat-out terrific thriller, what happens? It grosses $64,000 in U.S. theatrical release. How is that possible?
Magnolia gave it a shabby release. No promotion. I saw it on a screener before it opened at Facets Cinematheque here in Chicago. Dana, you thought Tilda was the year's best actress. I thought she was the year's best actress. The voters in IndieWIRE's annual poll thought she was the year's best actress. She won the Evening Standard best actress award. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote, "Ms. Swinton demands to be seen even when her character is on a self-annihilating bender so real that you can almost smell the stink rising off her. So I sat in my seat, cursed the screen and was grateful to watch an actress at the height of her expressive power claw toward greatness." When Manohla gets like that I almost want to move over a seat.
But—who in America saw the film? Most critics didn't. Certainly not enough to win her any big-city critics' awards. Is there an Oscar campaign? Don't make me laugh. What do we do, pals? Roll over and accept it?
I put Julia on my best of 2009 list and was startled by the unanimous agreement among the readers posting on my blog. Where and how had they seen it? Now we're getting to the intriguing part. Turns out it's an Instant Streamer on Netflix, included at no extra charge as part of every one of its 14 million subscriptions. What Magnolia did right was allowing this to happen. Just this year, streaming on Netflix has finally penetrated the moviegoing population. If you have good net service, they deliver an HD- or Blu-ray-quality picture—no glitches—and you can stream as many movies as you can see. So all of these people in Arkansas, Alaska, Vermont, and East Jesus have seen Julia, and they love it. Word of mouth.
Remember back in the 1970s? (No, come to think of it, you don't.) Annie Hall became the lowest-grossing movie in history to win the Oscar for best picture; four Oscars in all. Trade experts called it "the first Oscar cable campaign." Cable TV was in its infancy, but most of the Academy visitors in Los Angeles subscribed to a plucky start-up called the Z Channel, which screened the hell out of it.
Flash-forward. Netflix has greater penetration than Z Channel * ever did. All voters have to do is click on the remote. They don't have to go out to a screening. They don't even have to sort through their Oscar screeners and put one in the DVD. If they watch Julia, they will see the year's best actress, and they may vote for her.
Here's my crazy notion. With so many popular and critical voices behind it, maybe the Academy will arise from its slumber and vote outside the box for change. These could be the first Netflix Oscars.
I'll circle back later to Precious and other questions. But this is what your kickoff post inspired. Over to you guys.
Correction, Jan. 5, 2009: The article originally and incorrectly identified the Z Channel as the X Channel. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Roger Ebert is the Chicago Sun-Times' film critic.