This year’s post about the Oscars won’t be quite as long as last year’s, since I don’t feel the need to revisit the whole question of how we award prizes, the difference between novels and films, etc. But as an avid Academy Awards fan, and as someone who has seen 35 nominated films this year (21 feature-length nominees, including 13 of the 18 films that received multiple nominations, and 14 short films that were nominated in the documentary short, live action short, and animated short categories), I figured sharing a little of what I discovered along the way would be of interest to some of you.
The “big names”—this year’s likely award winners—are all good enough films. “The Artist” is a sweet confection: if you think you don’t like silent films, you need to try it. “Love, and a bit with a dog” has been a recipe for success in Hollywood for decades, and “The Artist” is no exception. It’s a slight film—in another year, it might not have even made the nominees—but in this year where most of the big names disappointed a bit, it’s a worthy candidate, and when it wins (as it almost certainly will: it’s won everything else this year) I’ll at least be glad a silent film captured that much attention.
Some of the other best picture nominees deserve your attention, if you never got there. Alexander Payne’s as bittersweet with his “The Descendants” as he has been in his previous films, and Clooney’s an actor at the top of his game right now: the film is very odd, and it takes a while to get into it, but I’m glad I saw it. As far as Terrence Malick goes, you either like him or are utterly confused by him (and therefore hate him): as someone who likes him, “The Tree of Life” was probably my favorite film this year. Slow and lyrical, divorced from traditional narratives in order to reach across geological epochs, I think Malick is getting at what it means to be human, and the war that goes on quietly inside of all of us. But you might be totally bored/alienated by the film, so I can’t issue a blanket recommendation. Several of the other films are worthwhile too, but none of them to a level where I really feel I ought to push them on you (“Hugo” is a curiosity I ended up enjoying but not fully understanding why; “Midnight in Paris” has a lousy first reel, but then becomes really delightful as long as you enjoy a lot of inside jokes about the 1920s, which I do).
What I would like to emphasize is that some generally overlooked films should be sought out by you: these are movies I would never have seen if not for Oscar. “A Separation“, a film out of Iran, is either my favorite or 2nd favorite film of the year. It begins very simply: a man and a woman are facing the camera, speaking to a judge we do not see. She would like to take her daughter away from Iran, and if her husband will not join them, she wants a divorce. He is willing to let her go, but will not be parted from the girl. You feel as though you are watching an actual marriage unraveling—it is hard to be aware that these are actors playing parts. That documentary feeling persists, as minor decisions become major ones. I went in expecting a family drama, but what I got was a lot more: ruminations on social norms and religious faith, a legal thriller, a murder mystery. The movie ends at the perfect point, leaving you caught on a razor’s edge. The moment it’s over, you’ll be ready to talk to anyone sitting near you about what just happened, and to tell each other what you think would have happened if the film lasted another 30 seconds. It’s powerful stuff, and it blows 99% of American film-making this year out of the water.
“A Better Life” is less powerful and less carefully constructed, but it hits closer to home, and it pivots around a wonderful performance by Demian Bechir. Its essential focus is to tell the story of a single father: he is an illegal immigrant. His son, who was born here, is a citizen. How the father tries to provide for his son, and how his son responds to the America he has been raised in, is pretty immersive. There is an immense dignity to Bechir’s character, and it carries you through every up and down of the movie. The film isn’t political in its narrative at all, but its implications of course have important political undertones. What, after all, would we say to this man and his son? What do we really know, most of us, about the lives lived by immigrants (documented or undocumented) in our cities and towns? Immigration is an issue I’ve paid attention to before, but this film really helped heighten my interest in it, without being at all “preachy” and without demanding any particular response from me. It’s definitely worth seeking out, if you can.
Lastly, if you’ve never tried watching any of the nominated short films before, like every year, I really strongly encourage you to have a look. If you didn’t catch a showing in your area, Shorts International makes the compilations available on iTunes for a very reasonable price. This year’s live action films include a brilliant little comedy about altar boys and liturgy called “Pentecost”—if you or someone you love is a Catholic, Orthodox, or Episcopalian, it’s almost a must-see. This Episcopalian laughed his head off for 10 minutes, anyway. “The Shore” was a great little “homecoming” film about an Irishman returning home after years in America, and how easily we misinterpret even our closest friends and family when we isolate ourselves from each other. “Tuba Atlantic” is bizarre—a film from Norway that is two parts Dr. Seuss, two parts Bergman, and two parts Stephen King. Black humor, horror, and whimsical fantasy combine in the story of an old man whose mania for killing sea gulls is only matched by his madcap dreams of being able to contact his long-lost brother one more time before he dies. It is the least sentimental “old man dying” film you may ever see—love it or hate it, you’ll have to admit it’s unforgettable!
And the animated short films are equally lovely: Pizar’s “La Luna” is very sturdy work from them (as usual), but pales in comparison to the luminous beauty (and hope) present throughout “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” [Edit: You can, as I have just discovered, actually watch this Oscar-winning short film for free on Youtube! Follow this link to see the whole thing (15 minutes long).] or the twisted (and occasionally disturbing) riffs on the simplicity of a chicken walking home along a New York City sidewalk in “Morning Stroll”. Even less successful entries, like “Wild Life”, have a weight and maturity to them that we don’t often see in animated film. The shorts aren’t exactly for kids (a couple would disturb small ones, and others will be hard for any but the most mature), but they really deserve your attention.
As with the Pulitzers, I’d never claim the Oscars are infallible or consistently right. But they do lead me to gems I’d otherwise miss, and for that I’m grateful. I hope you check out something suggested above, and that if you do, it reaches you as it reached me.