The 85th Academy Awards

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.

The 84th Academy Awards

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.