[In retrospect, going for a silly name was probably a mistake.]
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 Animated Feature: Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)
Probably at the outset it should be admitted that this category is just the Academy saying “Crud, Pixar is pretty awesome, isn’t it? Let’s give them an award every year!” (I jest, of course…they’ve only won 50% of these. Which is still an enormous amount.) Anyway, that said, yes, Pixar’s pretty awesome (at least sometimes). And fortunately the Academy is broad-minded enough to make sure that most years there are one or two interesting and non-mainstream choices; for every Kung Fu Panda 2 (and man, was that not worth it) there’s a The Illusionist or this movie, one of Hayao Miyazaki‘s less well-known recent films but still a great example of the master of modern animation at work. Judging from the American box office, I’m guessing a lot of you haven’t seen this one, or maybe any Miyazaki ever, which is both a shame (because his work is almost always amazing) and a wonderful thing (because you have a ton of great movies ahead of you). Miyazaki has been writing and directing animated features for my whole lifetime, which only amounts to a dozen films or so, but it’s a great catalog—his characters are dynamic and memorable, his visuals are stunningly beautiful and daring (especially for films aimed at children), and he’s unafraid of complicated and challenging messages. Personally, I see a lot of post-war Japan in his art—a definite skepticism of nationalism and military aggression, an acknowledgement of the horrors that superweapons wreak, a devotion to community and to humanity’s ability to rebuild from tragedy and devastation. Here, he adapts a modern Western fairy tale, a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, in which a young girl is cursed with premature old age; suddenly a withered crone, she takes to the road, befriends a collection of strange and magical creatures, and finds herself a housemaid to the dazzling, dangerous, and handsome young wizard named Howl. The story weaves together a personal journey towards confidence and assertiveness into a larger collective effort to break the chains of violence and fear that seem to have bound up most of the surrounding world. It’s not Miyazaki’s absolute best work, but that’s merely saying it’s one of the best ten animated films released in the last 15 years, and not one of the best two or three (as I think Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke have a fair claim to be). If you’ve never seen anything by him before, this is a fine place to start, and if you have but missed this one, go find a copy!
Best Live Action Short: Pentecost (2011)
Yes, the short films make it almost to the top of my list of most important categories…and I almost think I under-rate them. The short films may be my favorite part of the Oscars for three reasons: 1) it’s easy to see a whole category, so that in just 90-120 minutes I can be as fully informed a voter as any member of the Academy; 2) they’re adventurous and strange, since short films are blissfully free from any pressures to make money, so you see some incredible films that could never be made as features; and 3) they are always a surprise, since unlike the big nominated feature films I’ve never seen any trailers or advertisements, and often have nothing to go on but a title, so the best ones are a truly unexpected delight. The hit-or-miss factor is high, I’ll admit—every year there’s at least one short film that I don’t get at all, and some years are stronger than others. But I’ve never yet come away without a favorite. Pentecost is just one of half a dozen I wanted to choose, and I picked it because it’s the one that made me laugh loudest—it’s the simple story of an Irish boy who’s crazy about football (“soccer” for you Yanks), his conscription onto a team of altar boys for the biggest church service in the local parish’s recent memory, and the wonderful/terrible thing that happens when his imaginary world intrudes onto the reality of high Mass with the Archbishop. I’ll admit, half of my laughter comes from years of service as an acolyte, a lay reader, and a member of the altar guild—the scene where an adult (the warden, I think? or maybe the verger?) gives the altar boys a “pep talk” like it’s halftime in Hoosiers floors me every time—so who knows if it will work for you? But it’s short, and if you click on that link in the heading above, it’ll take you to the full short film on Youtube. Whether you like it or not, try to catch a short film screening—in big cities this week, you’ll probably have an arthouse theater showing all five nominees for one admission, and anyone with cable can likely get all five on demand for about $8 (which is what we’ll be doing). If you try it once, I’m certain you’ll get addicted like we have.
Best Documentary Short Subject: Mondays at Racine (2012)
Of the short categories, documentary is the hardest to track down—much rarer to find even arthouse theaters doing showings, and the cable on demand people for whatever reason never give me the option of paying $8 for them the way they do the live-action and animated categories. But since moving to Chicago, where the incomparable Music Box Theatre keeps documentary films a vital part of their annual catalog, Betsy and I have seen the documentaries twice and it’s been almost a life-changing experience—documentary shorts are passion projects by definition, stories film-makers were desperate to tell despite the fact that there would never be any money in them (not that documentary features rake in cash, but shorts are in an even worse state). And as a result they’re incredibly moving. Our two favorites were the two winners, but a solid second place finish last year was this beautiful short film, Mondays at Racine. It’s the story of two sisters who run a beauty salon on Long Island, and every third Monday of the month, they are open solely to women fighting cancer—everything they do that day is free as a loving service to the women who come to them. The documentary tells the story of these sisters and of a few of their regular clients—both long-time veteran cancer survivors and the very recently diagnosed. They do all they can to encourage and support each other, and to remind women going through chemo and radiation and all the other things that come with a cancer diagnosis that they are beautiful, they are accepted, and they are loved. It doesn’t pull its punches, and in fact there are some pretty frank moments about how hard some of this is and how human we remain, no matter how much it would help us all to become saints in times of distress. If you ever have the chance to see even one of the short documentaries, I think the worst ones are still interesting, and the best, like Mondays at Racine, will stay with you for years.
Best Animated Short: The Lady and the Reaper (2009)
Of all the shorts, the ones you’re probably most familiar with are animated short films—almost every Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse you’ve ever seen, for instance—and certainly it’s where we started our “short film obsession” that’s a significant element in our “Oscar obsession”. Despite how inventive the live action shorts are, and how moving the documentary shorts are, I had to list this after them—it’s always the short category we get most wound up about. In recent years there’s been a disturbing trend towards giving a nomination to Pixar (come on, Academy, they’re doing fine without handing them a second category too), but I have to admit, their short films are well made. Anyway, the best ones are always off-beat and from unexpected places—Head Over Heels in which a married couple live in the same house but with opposite gravitational fields; Logorama, a savage and profane assault on commercialism in which Ronald McDonald goes on a terrifying shooting spree through a stylized Los Angeles, at one point knocking out the Haribo gummy bear and taking Big Boy hostage at gunpoint (it is as astounding and laugh-out-loud crazy as it sounds); La Maison de Petits Cubes, a somber and beautiful reflection on loss in which a lonely old man has to keep adding levels to his house to keep above rising floodwaters, and then ultimately must dive down under the water, swimming through the old levels of his house and, by extension, his memories. All of those are wonderful (and two won Oscars)—my choice for the best non-winner is The Lady and the Reaper, one of the funniest films I’ve seen about death—an old woman is anxious to die and rejoin her beloved husband, and is thrilled when the Grim Reaper arrives. But a doctor, armed with modern medicine, rushes forward to defend her, and he and the Reaper fight in classic animated fashion (think Roadrunner v. Coyote or Bugs v. Elmer) with the old gal rooting the Reaper on the whole way. Strange, unexpected, and delightful. So is this whole category, so seek it out—just remember, if you’re bringing kids along (or if they’re around when you get it on demand for $8), now and then a short is “adult” (like Logorama) and you’ll be warned that it is.
Best Director: Michael Haneke for Amour (2012)
Last post, I talked about the foreign film that won our household’s vote for “best film of 2011”. Here in director, I get to recognize the foreign film that brought down the prize for 2012: Amour. It’s always hard to hand out the best director prize—in some ways a director seems so critical to a film’s success (there’s a reason I’ve learned to follow certain directors…and to avoid others even when their film sounds interesting), and in other ways it’s hard to pick out what a director does to make a film great (am I just appreciating the work of actors, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, and the editor when I really love a scene or a whole film? or is the director some kind of secret sauce that made all of that possible?). I think in the end, when I can see a film follows a really bold vision, I have to believe that’s the director at work, keeping everything on track, and man is that true here. Amour is an unflinching look at what it means to love someone you are losing—in this case, Georges and Anne are an elderly Parisian couple, and Anne has a stroke. She starts to fade and we know where this is going (in part because of something we see in the opening scene). And the film is simply interested in being with them—we never leave their Parisian apartment. Sometimes they have visitors, but never for long: this is the story of Georges and what it means for him to love Anne. It’s the story of how Anne loses herself even as she fights not to, and of how even at her weakest there is that fire inside her that has bound Georges to her his whole life. It is intensely, sometimes unbearably sad, and yet it is also intensely, sometimes unbearably joyous in its celebration of what it means to go up to the threshold of death together. The performances are incredible—Riva deserved her acting nomination (it’s almost impossible to believe she didn’t suffer a stroke in real life, given how fully committed she is to her performance) and Trintingant was robbed in being overlooked (he was the best actor I saw last year, and I saw Daniel Day-Lewis channeling the ghost of Abraham Lincoln last year. Trintignant was even better than THAT.). But the thing that makes the performances incredible is Michael Haneke and the shamelessness of his camera, his unwillingness to let us look away even when we are seeing something unfathomably intimate and private—and I’m not talking about sex, which Hollywood will give you nine times a weekend in living color, but about the pain that comes with this kind of lasting love, the depth of commitment a person has to have to a partner who is going into the darkness and losing even their sense of self. Hollywood is a little frightened of showing us something this real because they don’t figure we want to see it—and I’ll grant you this, I would not have thought I could take it or would want to, and it’s only Oscar nominations that brought me out to see it. And I cried and I loved it, and my wife went back a second time dragging friends because she couldn’t stand for people not to see this film, and I have to believe that, as the years pass, it will only ever mean more to me than it does now, not less. You are, I am almost certain, not enthusiastic about sitting down to watch a subtitled French film by an Austrian director in which you will watch one old woman die slowly while her helpless husband tries to simply be there to love her to the end. Please, please see it anyway. There are things about love we all should know, and I know some of them a little more now because I gave this film my time.
Almost done now: just one more post to go. In the meantime, if you missed any of the earlier posts, click on this link to see them all.