Hey, Oscar: Inglourious Basterds Is More Movie Than Any Other Movie This Year
Everyone has the thing that made them first fall in love with Inglourious Basterds-- the milk, the giant pipe, the tilt pan underneath the floorboards-- but for me it all started with the fonts. The opening credits of Quentin Tarantino's gonzo epic boast no fewer than five fonts, from the hand-scrawled and misspelled titles to the Godfather-esque serif for the "guest stars." There no reason for all the changing fonts, no themes explored or artistic expression. It's just something Quentin Tarantino thought was cool.
But as it turns out, all that inconsistency and artistic flourish was a perfect introduction the jangly, spastic energy of Inglourious Basterds, a movie so excited about what it contains that it can't decide how it wants to present itself. Sometimes Samuel L. Jackson is narrating the backstory of a particularly violent character, and sometimes the camera lingers on Hans Landa's immobile face. Sometimes David Bowie's theme from Cat People is the perfect introduction to a movie night during World War II, and sometimes the specific details of where to climb mountains near Paris are enough to get a person killed. Sometimes you feel bad for the young Nazi who wants to get back home to see his son. Sometimes it's just really fun to see Hitler shot in the face.
In other words, Inglourious Basterds is all over the place, like a puppy running in circles because he can't decide whose face to lick first. But because Quentin Tarantino is a genius at sharing his enthusiasms with his audience, the movie's logical gaps and tonal shifts are what make it brilliant instead of infuriating. More than just keeping you guessing, Inglourious Basterds constantly demands that you re-ground yourself within its wild world, go back to rooting for the Nazi who just strangled the starlet, keep up with the complicated machinations of Operation Kino, figure out where Hans Landa was keeping that pipe anyway. Every detail provides a new opportunity to be mystified and amazed.
It's not like the movie just turned out that way, either. From the moment he divided the film into five chapters Tarantino knew he was making something sprawling and strange, and the very decision to include a caricature like Aldo Raine in the same story as Shosanna Dreyfuss marked a leap away from the traditional. Most movies that feel this crazy and loose get that way unintentionally-- a scene that felt right on the set is jarring in the edit, or one performance fits horribly when paired with another. But Tarantino crafted each of his characters and his scenes with exquisite detail, to the point that each of the chapters could be seen separately and stand on their own. The pub scene is nothing like the introduction of the Basterds is nothing like Shosanna and Frederick Zoller's tense lunch together; all three could come out of different films entirely. But when put together, they're magic.
From the cinematography to the performances to the strudel, Inglourious Basterds is completely stuffed with potential favorites. Sure Christoph Waltz is the actor getting the most attention-- and deservedly so-- but think back to the look on Daniel Bruhl's face when he forces Shosanna back into the projection room, or the way Michael Fassbender says "David O. Selznick," or even Brad Pitt's curled lip. Everyone, in every story, has their moments, from Monsieur LaPadite's shocked compliance with Landa's orders to Marcel's obedient flick of the match and "Oui, Shosanna." These moments reveal the order in the chaos; no movie as disorganized as Inglourious Basterds appears to be on the surface could treat its characters so well.
We give the Oscar for Best Picture for a different reason each year, from the cultural phenomena that simply demand recognition (Titanic, Slumdog Millionaire) to the difficult works of art that somehow struck a chord (No Country for Old Men, Schindler's List). But Inglourious Basterds is the Best Picture in the broadest sense, the movie that contains the most movie of any among the 10. For all its quirks and inconsistencies, it contains all the things movies do best, and specifically American movies. The war film, the revenge thriller, the wartime love story-- all have won Best Picture in the past. Now's the chance to reward a movie that's all of those things and more.
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