Still more of the list of 24 great movies you may never have seen; or The Oops-cars, Part Three

[What do you mean, “the people in marketing say Oops-cars is a branding thing and we’re too committed to it”?  This is a one-person blog!  I can change the ridiculous alternative title for this series of posts anytime I like!  Put me on with your manager…]

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 Foreign Language Film: A Royal Affair (2012)

Foreign language films are hard for us because nominees so rarely screen anywhere we can see them, and for that reason until a few years ago, this category would have ranked much lower for us.  But then we hit an incredible hot streak—the last two years, both Betsy’s and my favorite film of the year each year was a foreign language nominee (and it wasn’t close, either year).  So I’d love to talk about them right now…except both films won this category, and my rules prevent me talking about them here, so I’ll be praising each one later in other categories they were nominated in.  It leaves me with a solid film, though—I don’t really wish it had won last year since it was clearly second best in the category, but I wish more people had seen it and want to give it my endorsement here.  A Royal Affair describes a strange and brief period in the history of Denmark—a foolish young king who decides to elevate a commoner (specifically, a country doctor) to the position of trusted adviser, ultimately investing a lot of the power of the state in him.  The commoner, Struensee, turns out to be a radical who wants to empower the people and upset the hierarchy—as a result, the nobility organize against him.  Struensee is, unfortunately, vulnerable to opposition, since he’s a more appealing fellow than the silly king, and the queen has certainly noticed (*ahem*).  Now, I’m susceptible to this story because it weirdly resonates with an ancestor of mine—my commoner Swedish ancestor, after getting a university education, was promoted to Prime Minister by an insane Swedish king, angered the Swedish nobility, and was beheaded for it (though not for sleeping with the queen)…I know, it sounds like some comedy bit I’m working up, but seriously, I’m descended from Jöran Persson, not that this will mean anything to non-Swedes—but I think it’s a fascinating story for anybody.  Certainly love triangles, a staple of rom-coms and angsty dramas, get more interesting to me when the triangle is simultaneously an alliance of three powerful young people who believe they can remake their country with Enlightenment philosophy.  The actors are great—the reliably mesmerizing Mads Mikkelsen, and Alicia Vikander who impressed us twice last year and is clearly a young star on the rise, are the most notable successes—and for a period piece, this one does a lot better than most confronting the realities of life in the pre-modern age for the haves and have-nots.

Best Cinematography: Children of Men (2006)

Cinematography is one of the things my Oscar obsession really put me in touch with–I’ve never seen so many films the way they were meant to be seen (i.e., on the big screen), and it’s made me so much more aware of how the language of film really is visual.  People sometimes acknowledge this casually, saying they have to see a big blockbuster like The Avengers on the big screen to really appreciate it (and they’re right, they do), but I’m finding that almost any well-made film, blockbuster or no, really needs to be seen in that medium in order to appreciate it.  Children of Men is a good example—a thriller, sure, but not the kind of film that most people would normally insist has to be seen in theaters.  But Lubezki’s work (he’s consistently great—no Roger Deakins, but consistently great…Deakins we’ll come back to, down the road) here, along with Cuarón’s daring direction, is incredible.  It’s most visible in the long unbroken take of the assault on the car, where you feel claustrophobically present in a moment that just keeps going and will not “break” with a cut or edit that lets you remember you’re not trapped in a violent situation personally.  But you can see it at every step of the way in this movie, which makes the grit and terror of a strangely plausible future present in almost every shot.  This is also just a great film.  The source material is a brilliant sci-fi novel by P. D. James, an acclaimed mystery novelist who wrote this one science fiction piece and never another: it is nothing like this movie, really, as it is quiet and psychological and a deep meditation on loss and faith (in some respects).  But that’s the magic of the director, Alfonso Cuarón, who has never made a bad film (and has made several great ones)—he knows not to be intimidated by source texts that are hard to film (as this novel definitely is) and instead finds the movie inside them.  Great acting from a couple of actors I always love and one I always hate but who wins me over in this one.  The premise—in the future, humanity has gone suddenly and totally sterile, so no children have been born in decades and the species is confronting its own death, when there is an unexpected and dangerous ray of hope—is so outlandish, but between the script and the performances and, maybe most critically, the look of the movie, it sells itself 100%.  One of the best films I’ve seen this decade.

Best Adapted Screenplay: In the Loop (2009)

Man, there are so many gems in the best screenplay awards, it kills me to hand out just one of these.  A pro tip for the less-experienced moviegoer—if you want to “discover” a great film that will impress your friends, look for screenplay nominees that didn’t get nominated for Best Picture (this works less well in the modern 6-10 BP nominee era, but it’s still good advice).  A film that’s well written enough to get the screenwriters’ attention is usually better than its reputation, and that’s certainly true for this little gem, a dark, hilarious, bitter, savage satire of modern politics and the war on terror.  Based on a British series I’ve never seen (but which, on the basis of this movie, I badly want to) called The Thick of It, In the Loop tells the story of a bumbling but ambitious member of the British Parliament whose attempts to make a name for himself accidentally involve him in an American push for war.  Both sides (the diplomats who want to avoid war and the generals who want to ram it past an unsuspecting public) start to play him and the rest of the British government, and the mania and the humor build as he takes a junket to D.C., and then ultimately a trip to the United Nations while powerful players inside Downing Street and the White House keep moving their pawns around in the game of whatever-thrones-can-be-analogized-to-nowadays.  The actors are fantastic, maybe most especially the late James Gandolfini as the one American general who seems like a human being, and Peter Capaldi (the Twelfth Doctor, for those who know what that means) whose Scottish political spin doctor is the most exuberantly and terrifyingly profane man you’ll meet outside a Scorsese film.  What this movie slyly has to say about international politics and the path to war (and how petty absolutely all of it can be) is such a rich and important message for us today…and so of course 95% of you have never even heard of this film, let alone seen it.  The good news for Netflix subscribers is this one is streaming right now, so I encourage you to give it a try.

Best Original Screenplay: A Separation (2011)

Okay, I give in: before I deal with the best film of 2011, I have to give an honorable mention to Another Year (2010)—I told you these non-BP nominated scripts win me over—a Mike Leigh film that is as gentle and perceptive as Leigh’s recent films have been, and as powerful.  Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play the most realistically happy married couple I’ve ever seen on a screen, never cloying but also never exasperating with those contrived conflicts so many scripts force on us.  The movie simply follows them through a year, and their relationships with friends and family whose lives are in some way less satisfying, even depressing.  They listen with patience, they react with warmth (and at times needed severity), and the divide that separates the content and the discontent speaks for itself.  All the film wants to show you is what happiness is through a lens that feels persistently realistic, and never undercut by cynicism.  If you’re used to traditional Hollywood scripts, you may fidget a little at first, but I’m pretty sure the Hepples will win you over.

On the other end of the happiness spectrum is A Separation, an Iranian film that was, hands-down, the best film of 2011 (I liked The Artist fine, but it can’t hold a candle to Asgar Farhadi‘s masterpiece).  I’ve written about it here before (in my review of 2011 films before that year’s Oscars), and I’ll borrow directly from my description of it last time around—the film 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.  We believe in the people we see; we cannot judge them too harshly because we see ourselves in them; we are forced to examine what it means to be good, to fulfill our obligations, to build a family.  And the last 30 seconds drive home exactly the point by not showing us the one thing we want to see: Farhadi doesn’t want to tell us anything as much as he wants us to tell our stories, to tell the story we think just happened.  I guarantee, after it ends, you’ll want to turn to the person next to you and talk about what you believe happened the moment after the camera faded to black.  If you don’t normally go in for foreign films, especially those with subtitles, please make an exception for this one—it will repay your patience.

Best Documentary Feature: The Invisible War (2012)

I’ve learned so much from the Academy’s nominated documentaries that it’s a little churlish to complain about the nomination process…but the nomination process for documentaries does suck pretty badly.  Every year there are powerful and important films overlooked, and less well-made films elevated as nominees.  Several times I’ve found myself saying “well, I’m glad this important issue was covered, but this isn’t great film-making—it’s like a rough draft that’s just a brain dump of ideas and evidence, but no real structure to the argument”.  Some, though, really kick you in the gut with both the message and the craft, and one film-maker who really shines in documentary features is Kirby Dick, the director/writer of The Invisible War.  At this point I’d watch just about anything he made out of respect for the care with which he chooses stories and the skill with which he tells them.  Here he tells a harrowing, vitally important, make-you-want-to-punch-the-walls story about how endemic sexual assault is in our nation’s military—how vulnerable young women and men are to abuse and violation, how the whole hierarchy is structured to make it almost impossible for them to get justice, how really on the contrary their rapists are often the officers in charge of deciding whether to pursue charges (how many criminals would we convict if each criminal was their own district attorney?).  He gives you just the right balance of personal anecdote and statistical evidence, and mixes together the horrible reality with a sense of what you can lobby for to fix the problem.  I think this is the only documentary I’ve ever seen where, within 15 minutes of the credits rolling, I was sitting down to write angry and passionate letters to my Congressman and Senators—and I stayed angry and passionate long enough to follow up with second letters.  I even talked by phone with someone in my representative’s office.  That’s not a testament to my civic engagement, since I haven’t gone as far with any other issue—it’s a testament to how deep this film will touch you, and how important it will be for you to stand up and defend the young women and men who have stood up to defend their country (and thereby put themselves inside one of the most dangerous sexual assault environments in the country—our nation’s armed forces…man, it still pisses me off).  Someday this will be worth seeing just for its skill in movie-making and as a reminder of that terrible time when rapists ran unchecked in our military—right now it’s even more important as a film that will spur you to action and make you well-informed so that your actions can be effective.

All right, more than half-way done!  Check back in soon for the last two parts in the series, and I hope if you’re reading these it’s spurred you to check Netflix or Hulu or whatever movie access points you have to try one or more of them out.  If you’ve missed any pieces of the series, click on this link to see all the Oops-cars posts.

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4 comments on “Still more of the list of 24 great movies you may never have seen; or The Oops-cars, Part Three

  1. Fariba says:

    I would like to recommend the 1998 Iranian film Children of Heaven. The movie was a runner up for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a beautiful movie about loyalty, sacrifice, and sibling love. It also gives one a glimpse into Iranian education and family life.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the comment, Fariba, and the suggestion! I’ve never seen Children of Heaven, but I’ll definitely add it to my list of “movies to track down and watch”. 🙂

  2. Sly Wit says:

    Big fan of Deakins, and his work really elevated Prisoners. I keep hoping one day he’ll get his due but I fear that Lubezki will win out this year.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      As I mentioned in another comment-reply to you, I wouldn’t be all that sad that Lubezki finally won—the list of gorgeous films he’s been nominated for but didn’t win (and sometimes, that he didn’t even get nominated for) is better than pretty much every cinematographer working right now not named Deakins, IMO. 🙂

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