Once again, another year has come around and I take a little time here on my otherwise very book-focused blog to talk about another art form I enjoy—the movies. My wife and I are bringing our “Oscar-obsession season” to a close tonight by catching Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master” at the Music Box, which will project it in the beautiful (and rare) 70mm version that PTA filmed it in. Looking back over a year where I was particularly successful in getting out to the nominated films—I’ve seen 27 feature-length nominated films this year, as well as all 15 nominated short films, a grand total of 42 movies that includes all 9 Best Picture nominees and a majority of the nominees from every category except Best Foreign Film (only 2 of 5)—I feel as I always do like noting a few titles that may have missed you in their trip through the theaters, and maybe saying a little about what I love about movies in general.
For the second straight year, the best film I’ve seen (and the best Oscar-nominated film I’ve seen) is not from the United States: last year it was the brilliant (and sometimes devastating) “A Separation” from Iran, and this year it is the equally brilliant (and even more devastating) “Amour“, a film shot in French with French actors, but directed by the acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke, and therefore Austria’s nominee this year for Best Foreign Film. “Amour” is one of those films that reminds me why my wife and I bother with our bizarre Academy Award fever: it’s a film that didn’t appeal to me when I read about it (“Really, a long, depressing film about elderly shut-ins? In French? Yeah, that’s how I want to spend my Friday night.”) and which I would never have gone to see if we didn’t need to “check off” the film as a nominee in multiple categories. What it actually is, is a really moving exploration of love at the end of life, centered around two incredibly brave and powerful performances by two actors who deserve awards for their work—Emmanuelle Riva is absolutely the best of the five Lead Actress nominees (no offense to the other four) and I hope she takes home the prize, and it’s one of the gravest errors in the nominations this year that Jean-Louis Trintignant is not even one of the five Lead Actor nominees. I’ve seen all five of those performances, and Trintignant would be my choice above all five of them (yes, that’s right, over Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, who was totally wonderful….that’s how incredible this film is). The film draws you in to their world totally—the cameras never leave the apartment and the hall outside it—and you almost immediately forget that this is fiction. You’re watching two people who love each other, and the strength it takes for one of them to slowly lose the other. My wife went back and saw the film a second time, and thought it only grew in power with the repeat viewing. “Amour” will almost certainly take home an Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year, and maybe a couple more—if it’s hanging around a theater anywhere near you, go see it.
There are a lot of justly praised films this year that I won’t belabor too much—”Lincoln” is a wonderful historical drama, and more three-dimensional than I think a lot of people give it credit for being; “Les Miserables” is not like seeing the stage show, but as its own work on film I found it powerfully successful; “Argo” is a well-constructed thriller by a director (Ben Affleck) who definitely gets better each time out—but there are a few little gems in the corners of the nominations that I’d call your attention to. “Anna Karenina” was much better than I’d anticipated—a really daring interpretation (via screenwriter Tom Stoppard) of the novel that places much of the action on a physical theatrical stage, and which for that reason invited me (I felt) to think about the larger symbolism the story plays with, the ways in which Moscow and St. Petersburg, for instance, are like stages on which people feel they must play certain roles. The acting was strong, including really lovely and underappreciated turns by Jude Law and Matthew Macfadyen, as well as a nice supporting performance by Alicia Vikander, who was also a lead in Denmark’s foreign film nominee, “A Royal Affair”, and who is definitely a talent to keep an eye on. “Moonrise Kingdom” didn’t get its due—Wes Anderson’s most successful film yet for me, and the first time (other than the animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, which I really liked) that I felt his artifice had really found the right setting and story to match it. The fact that it only garnered a single nomination for Best Original Screenplay is really a travesty. All of the feature documentaries I’ve seen have been worthwhile, though I think of the three I saw (all of them available on Netflix streaming, for you subscribers out there), “The Invisible War” was the best made film—”How to Survive a Plague” and “5 Broken Cameras” were important stories to tell, but I felt like in both cases the filmmakers stumbled a little in constructing the story, perhaps because in each case they had so much fascinating amateur footage to work from that they got a little lost in it. But it’s probably also worth remarking on the fact that “The Invisible War” isn’t good by accident—one of the co-directors is Kirby Dick, whose skill as a documentary film-maker is really evident in all his stuff. I should probably just make a note to myself to see any of his documentaries that come out in the future.
And as I do each year, I really want to emphasize the beautiful work done with short films. These are the categories that nobody at the average Oscar party has seen or knows how to pick, but I really think more folks should take the time to find them. In our modern age, we don’t even have to wish we lived in one of the cities where they can be seen theatrically (although many of us do, and I’ve been fortunate to live in two of them, Seattle and Chicago)—wherever you are, Shorts International makes it possible to view the short film nominees in any category for a reasonable fee on iTunes, and often cable on demand gives you the option of paying $5 to see it on your TV screen. You can go to Shorts TV’s website for the Oscar nominees here to find out more. And why bother doing this? Here are a few of my favorites from this year’s nominees: from the animated shorts, “Head Over Heels” tells the story of a married couple who share a house but not a law of gravity—up for him is down for her, and vice versa. How they learn to live with each other in a house that literally has two floors and no ceiling is charming and moving. All the animated shorts were good this year (and the likely winner, Disney’s “Paperman”, really was wonderful, and reminiscent of the beautiful animation work of the classic Disney era), but that’s the one I’ll remember longest. From the live-action shorts, I think the one I loved most was a magical realism piece called “Death of a Shadow”—in a vaguely steampunk universe, a soldier who died in World War I gets a second chance at life and love through the mechanism of a truly remarkable camera (and the powers of a strange and unearthly man)—although “Curfew”, a film set in New York City that gives us a man who is called literally in the middle of a suicide attempt to come babysit his precocious and quirky niece while his sister goes through a crisis, was both funny and tragic in a really appealing way. The best slate of short films this year, though, was definitely the documentaries: a close second for me was “Mondays at Racine”, which tells the stories of women who have two things in common—they are fighting breast cancer, and they come together at the Racine beauty salon where the co-owners offer free service to all cancer patients and cancer survivors on Mondays. It’s heart-breaking and it fills you with hope and it makes you laugh awkwardly—they found just the right people for the film, and they drew some real honesty out of them. But even better, I think, was a film called “Inocente”, named for its focal point, a homeless teenager who is both an undocumented immigrant and a talented artist. The way this short film weaves together her art (and what it means to her) and her family background—an abusive father, a strained relationship with her mother, etc.—was really skillfully done, and the photography is gorgeous. I really think taking the time to watch any of these films, though, is worth it—even the weakest entries in each category was a film I’d watch again.
Movies are, obviously, a really different experience from a book—intense and constrained by time, they can feel less deep to me than the best novels, but they also have the power to mesmerize me totally. I’m glad that, once a year for a couple of months, we take the time to really immerse ourselves in films: are they “the best” films of that year? I can’t know for certain. I don’t have any higher esteem for the Academy than I do for the Pulitzer Board…well, maybe a little higher esteem, since I have yet to see a Best Picture winner as bad as the worst Pulitzer winners I’ve read. Still, though, I don’t think that statuette is somehow magical. I just like being pushed to watch films I wouldn’t otherwise see, and to encounter stories that would otherwise pass me by. I hope that you got to see some of the films I mentioned, and that sometime soon you’ll take the opportunity to catch a couple more of them—this is a strong year for the Academy Awards, and it’s a good one to sample widely from.