Today is Academy Awards day, which is more important in my house than the Super Bowl. I fear that The Hurt Locker will win Best Picture and Best Director, but much like rooting for the Buffalo Bills true fans can take comfort in the annual disappointment that comes from having taste that is too refined for the unwashed masses to appreciate. I think a case can be made for Avatar to win Best Picture, along with a less compelling case for director James Cameron. Either would not be a disappointment. Still, the film I’d be voting for is this one.
Inglourious Basterds is the movie movie of the year, the year’s other swing for the fences that’s also a hail mary pass, a lob from mid-court, a hat trick and whatever other contrived metaphor you care to name. The wonderful thing about Basterds is that it knows it’s contrived, it knows its title is misspelled, and yet the whole thing not only hangs together, it’s a freakin’ cinematic tour de force.
This is certainly Quentin Tarantino’s most assured film, the one that finally lifts him above the class of hipster homage titillator. (He was actually there already in the second half of Grindhouse, but the movie was so much trashy fun that nobody took it seriously.) More than any other director, Tarantino has always made movies that are as much about movies as they are about their putative subjects. Basterds isn’t less of that, it’s much more. Who else would dare to rewrite the history of the 20th Century, literally incinerating it atop a pile of nitrate film stock? Oh, the metaphors; oh, the delirious possibilities.
Much like The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, this is the film where Tarantino finally turns his liabilities into assets, his quirks into flourishes. Sure, both films are morally questionable, but they’re much more fun to talk about than Schindler’s List. If the basis of conscience is discernment, then Basterds is arguably a better tool for the development of a moral viewpoint than something pat and didactic.
Special mention must be given to Christoph Waltz’s knockout performance as Nazi Col. Hans Landa. He is chilling, explosive, and blackly hilarious. His interpretation moves him to the head of Tarantino’s class of iconic characters, a list that includes John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier and Uma Thurman. His counterpart is Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine – a caricature of a John Wayne stock character that is nevertheless exquisitely balanced between macho gravity and lunacy. Both of these walk the same line between art and camp that Tarantino does, and the movie hinges on the balance between them. To the men’s North and South, two women are East and West, warmth and beauty: Diane Kruger is radiant as Bridget von Hammersmark and Mélanie Laurent provides the film’s soul as cinema owner and wounded survivor Shosanna Dreyfus.
It should really all be too much. There’s too much plot, too many characters, too many genres, too much dialog and way too much to look at. But if Avatar is the film of the year that brings us back to the sense of wonder at a darkened theater that we first felt as 10 year-olds, then Inglourious Basterds is the one that reminds us of why we keep going even now. It’s a film of films, a feast of ideas, a movie for adults and more than anything just a damn good time at the cinema.