Again, what I’m doing, and the rules for doing it, are in Part One—in a nutshell, this is me handing out awards to nominated films that didn’t win the Oscar in question, trying to spotlight great films from a decade of my wife’s and my collective Oscar obsession, in the hopes that I’m recommending something you haven’t seen (and maybe hadn’t even heard about). I’m continuing up in the order of “how important the award is to me”, on my way to Best Picture.
Best Lead Actor: George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009)
Seeing great acting performances is, truthfully, probably the best part of the Oscar obsession—even when the film itself isn’t on a topic that ordinarily would have gotten me out, seeing beautifully realized portrayals of human beings is always something worth my time. And for these acting awards, I’m simultaneously recognizing particularly great performances but also great actors who’ve reliably won me over. George Clooney is a really amazing example of the sort of flashy leading man who decided a long time ago not to just coast on good looks and a smile that makes the straight ladies melt (I hear). He’s consistent in finding a way to make his characters accessible—despite the fact that they look like Hollywood royalty (since George does), they feel more and more like everymen. Up in the Air is just the best example of his many recent nominated performances, as Ryan Bingham is an example of all sorts of things about modernity—the way humans are treated as disposable by corporate culture, the way we can feel rootless and detached from our communities (which Bingham takes to extremes: when he at one point responds to the question “where are you from?” with “I’m from here” while sitting 35,000 feet up in a jumbo jet, we believe him), how hard it is to make meaningful relationships without making ourselves vulnerable. In some ways, on the page, Bingham’s a bit too obvious a metaphor—a lot of stuff about “baggage” both real and imaginary, a lot of attempts to analogize his work and his lifestyle to his inner emotional life—but as realized by Clooney, he’s just perfect, a man charismatic enough to invest us in him but flawed enough that we are anxious to see him grow. The movie’s other performers and performances are all almost as good: whether you approach it as a funny drama or a serious comedy, as a sweeping indictment of pre-recession America or a focused defense of “no man is an island”, the film is definitely worth your time.
Best Lead Actress: Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Anne Hathaway….the oft-maligned Anne Hathaway. I just don’t get the hatred, frankly—the Internet has been weirdly harsh to Anne (especially in the months leading up to her Oscar win last year), and darned if I can figure out why. Sure, she’s attractive and a little self-important and heck, maybe she has some annoying personality tics (though I think if you know her well enough to feel that way, but don’t know her in real life, maybe back off the TMZ and Us Weekly a little bit), but aren’t most stars like that? Anyway, she wins me over consistently as an actress who really commits to whatever she’s been asked to do, and who’s not afraid to make herself a little ridiculous or over the top if that’s what the role calls for. Maybe the best example of this, and one of the most sparkling gems we found due to our Oscar obsession (a film we NEVER would otherwise have seen, but really fell for), is Anne’s role as Kym, the struggling, haunted drug addict who attends her sister’s wedding in Rachel Getting Married. Two things make this movie incredible, and the first is definitely Anne’s performance—Kym is charming, blunt, self-deprecating, tough, selfish, angry, this range of emotions and sides that fully challenges any actor to inhabit her, but Anne pulls it off with incredible success, making all of the elements in Kym come across as natural and fully integrated into this complicated young woman who is simultaneously desperate to find a place inside a “happy family” at a classically “happy family” event and desperate to tear down the curtains and let some light in on what this family is and why she became who she is. And all of this takes place inside the second incredible thing, which is that the director, Jonathan Demme, somehow makes this feel totally real, so that it honestly becomes a documentary like experience, with the camera maneuvering through a wholly believable and often appealing wedding weekend a big New England home where the daughter will get married in the backyard and the father’s musician friends are there to jam and play dance music, and every scene feels like just a corner of a much larger party that the camera will swing around to discover at any moment. Because of the natural performance from Anne and this natural setting, everything feels heightened—the intense awkward feelings when someone begins to embarrass themselves, the highs of happiness when a genuinely joyous moment hits, the gut-wrenching agony when someone says words they could never take back in a lifetime of apologies. Kym’s secrets come to light, as do the family’s, but not in the way a movie would normally develop—we simultaneously see “the movie” storyline but are aware of how calm and even normal, in many ways, the wedding would feel to most of the guests. Even if you don’t like Anne Hathaway (maybe especially if you do), this is a film worth watching—gripping, honest, sometimes tough to take, and unafraid of giving real answers rather than happy endings.
Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master (2012)
I’ve left the supporting roles for last because truthfully, I usually find myself more invested in them than the leads—I discover more unexpected films, and richer characterizations, in these supporting categories, I find. And it’s no surprise that my two favorite actors of the last decade are here. It’s just tragic to have to talk about this one right now, of course, and I don’t feel I really know how to. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the finest talents of his generation, and maybe the finest—mesmerizing without being showy, almost invisible inside his roles and yet the guy you know you’ll be talking about after the lights come up, a man who consistently made decent films good and good films great. His voice was always so tightly controlled, with none of the flash and range of more excitable actors like Pacino or Penn, and yet inside that narrow band he evoked intense emotion. He was unafraid to be pathetic, slimy, even repellent, and then turn around in his next film to be the everyman, the sly rebel, the star of the party. It’s hard to think of a more tragic loss of talent. And in The Master, we are fortunate that he left behind maybe his greatest single performance (opposite, it has to be said, an astonishingly good performance by Joaquin Phoenix)—Lancaster Dodd, the audacious, passionate, furious con man who falls in love (not romantically, but no less intensely for all that) with a drifter who fascinates him on every level. You don’t want to root for Dodd and yet PSH makes sure we can’t take our eyes off of him, and on some level we buy into what he’s selling even as we know it’s smoke and mirrors. The word association scene he plays with Phoenix’s character (Freddy Quell) is so powerful and unrelenting, I held my breath both times I saw this in the theaters (and yeah, this is one of the rare Oscar nominees I insisted on seeing twice on the big screen). I can’t say I fully understand The Master‘s plot (it’s Paul Thomas Anderson‘s version of a Terrence Malick movie), nor can I imagine being friends with either Quell or Dodd, but I can’t think of another recent movie that is as successful at getting inside my head and haunting me. That was PSH’s talent, and now all we can do is fire up old films of his and dream of what could have been.
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams in Doubt (2008)
It’s funny, but I nearly inverted these two awards—that is, I nearly gave the nod to Amy Adams for her work in The Master and to PSH for his work in Doubt. My two favorite performers of the last decade are never better than when they’re working off each other, I think. Amy was easy to overlook at the start of her career: her roles as ditzy cheerleaders (Drop Dead Gorgeous…yeah, if you haven’t re-watched in a while, that’s Amy Adams) and sleazy teen tramps (Cruel Intentions 2….ugh) didn’t exactly brim with promise. But then she started to find roles that gave her more to do and suddenly there was a lot of depth there: depth that’s naturally present in a filmy like Doubt, based on a pretty deep script by John Patrick Shanley, but also in films where it could easily have been absent (she’s way better than her material in Julie & Julia, and I know this sounds ridiculous but she brings a lot more to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby than that script demanded). Her range goes from innocent ingenue to toughened realist to slinky sexpot, and she’s fortunate not to have been typecast by a Hollywood that does that to actresses far more readily than it should. Doubt shows off a nice subsection of this range in a subtle role that was easy to overlook—with PSH and Meryl Streep in the lead roles, and a powerful brief performance by Viola Davis as the mother of a boy who may or may not have been molested, Amy’s Sister James, a nun who suspects the abuse but cannot prove it, is the glue that holds these performances together. Her suspicions are what inflame Streep’s Sister Aloysius to more or less open war on Father Flynn (PSH’s role); her commitment to faith in humanity leads her to empathize with Father Flynn and trust him at a critical moment. By the end of the film, she finds herself effectively hearing her superior’s confession, and what Amy does with body language and a small selection of line reads to draw out and make believable that last scene is more or less the extent to which the movie works (I thought it did). There are criticisms to be voiced of Doubt—it’s heavy-handed at times, and certainly the material simultaneously asks a lot of us and withholds some of what we probably need to invest as fully as we want to. But not of Amy Adams in the role, who takes the fourth or fifth most memorable part in the piece and makes it the fulcrum on which the movie can pivot. She has this effect in a lot of other roles too—if you haven’t seen her supporting turns in The Fighter or The Master (to name two other Oscar nominated roles), those are absolutely worth your time also. It’s terrible that the Oscars have never yet found time to hand her the award—all I can hope for is a long career ahead of her, with plenty more opportunities to take away some overdue hardware.
Best Picture: True Grit (2010)
Picking a best picture from the many great films that haven’t won it was incredibly difficult, but in the end, this was a film I wanted to honor in almost all the categories on the way up, which ultimately convinced me this was the right place to put it. Where to begin? Maybe where the film itself begins—the movie’s astonishing cinematography by the best guy in the business, the criminally overlooked Roger Deakins (ELEVEN nominations—count ‘em!—and NO statues yet), which starts us out with that shot of the dead man in the snow that might have been painted in oils by an Old Master and be hanging in the Met. In the backgroun, Carter Burwell builds this powerful, moving, period score around the central melody in the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. And then we meet Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld in a debut role that suggests a lifetime of talent ahead), and between Hailee’s masterful portrayal of a twelve year old who seems to have been born 37 (and a no-nonsense spitfire 37 year old, at that) and the delightfully lyrical words written for her in a script that is both classic Charles Portis (the author of the novel on which this is based) and classic Coen brothers (our screenwriter/directors), we fall in love with Mattie right away and are up for the adventure of tracking down her father’s killer. The movie strikes that balance of humor and grim reality that the Coen brothers manage at their best—a little more somber than O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a little less grim than Fargo—maybe most successfully in the two tough guys who end up at Mattie’s side. One of them the aging, degenerate, drunken tiger of a man, Rooster Cogburn, played with delirious self-indulgence by Jeff Bridges (but self-indulgent in the most watchable of ways), and the other an idealistic, proud, white-hot man of justice, the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, played with earnest grace by Matt Damon. The whole movie unfolds from the nearly incredible notion that these three people might be out on the trail of a hunted murderer together, the pre-teen girl trying to call the shots while the old rascal and the young lawman squabble, ultimately falling victim to their own tragic flaws as well as realizing the best of themselves in a moment of crisis. I am spell-bound throughout by the dialogue, the beauty of the shots that Deakins and the Coens collaborate in providing, the intensity with which the story pulls us along and the glee that comes from watching sterling performers (and this is an incredible cast top to bottom: there are no small actors, even in the small parts) sink their teeth into a really good script. It’s a heart-breaking film as well as a heart-warming one, with losses and victories scattered about equally as we go. I love every moment of it right up to the last shot of the one-armed figure treading away from us and the music swelling a little so that Iris DeMent (whose voice you either love or you hate, and I love it) can pull the score together with a couple of verses of that old hymn at the end. It’s the kind of film you could see once a year from the age of eleven to ninety-one, and find something in it for yourself every time. If you’ve never even seen it once, you really owe it to yourself to try it: it’s good in almost every one of the ways a movie can be.
And that’s it—I don’t know when I’ll be back to blog again (hopefully soon), but in the meantime I hope some of you enjoyed skimming through my movie suggestions, and maybe even reading the details of what I loved and why. If there’s anything you missed, remember you can see all the posts in this series (this one included) just by clicking on this link. Happy movie-going, happy at-home video watching, and maybe your favorites from 2013 have a good year hauling away awards from the Oscar ceremony on Sunday!