Well, there you have it. The nominations for the 85th Annual Academy Awards were announced yesterday, and I’m sure the cinephile in you you has spent the better part of the last 24 hours either singing the praises of the Academy for daring to heap so much love on underdogs like Amour and the stars of The Master, bemoaning the shunning of directors like Tom Hooper and Kathryn Bigelow, or seizing your opportunity to reaffirm – yet again – how little the Oscars actually matter. Chances are your reaction’s been a mixture of all three.
Personally, I was quite pleased with how the results turned out. Compared to last year’s nominations – when only one film on my personal top ten (Tree of Life) nabbed a best picture nod – I anticipate there will be considerably more overlap between myself and the Academy this year. Whether that speaks to a sharpness of the Academy’s tastes or a homogenization of my own I’m not sure, but it at least will make rooting for my favorite nominees a lot more meaningful.
But of course, there is plenty of room to quibble over the choices the Academy made this year, and many words have already been dedicated to hemming and hawing over which front-runners got snubbed. But the truth is, I don’t feel terribly sorry for the likes of Ann Dowd, John Hawkes, Ben Affleck and Dwight Henry – not because I didn’t think they deserved Oscar love (they mostly did), but because there are so many terrific achievements in filmmaking that had absolutely no chance of being recognized; really, it’s an honor just to be considered to be nominated.
Cue in my list of the Oscar Hopeless: films and people from the last year in film that the Academy likely never even considered in its process – perhaps they were somehow deemed ineligible, missed making a shortlist, suffered a bad release or simply did not have the kind of momentum and resources to run a viable campaign. While the Academy clearly did not care about these particular titles in these particular categories, I know I won’t soon forget their achievements:
The Oscar Hopeless:
Films that Deserved Oscar Love, But Never Stood a Chance
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
While I understand they are not commercially viable, and while I understand the impulse to continually distinguish them from “narrative” films, the fact that no documentary feature has ever been nominated for the Academy’s top prize is, in a word, bullshit (Michael Moore arguably came close with 2004’s Farenheit 9/11, but even his Weinstein-backed campaigning proved fruitless). How nice would it have been to see this Oscar season – one already draped in unpredictability – become the one that systemically affirmed nonfiction filmmaking as a legitimate craft by handing out a nomination? Had that indeed been the case for this year, then surely my fingers would have beencrossed for my favorite doc of 2012, David Gelb’s sweet-natured and deceptively simple story about an aging chef known as the finest sushi maker in Tokyo.
While it may strike some as too slight – it may not quite crack my own top ten – Jiro is as propelled by a dynamic and enigmatic subject as Lincoln, as compelling a meditation on family life as Silver Linings Playbook or Beasts of the Southern Wild, and almost as deft in its allegory about one’s search for existential meaning as Life of Pi or The Master. Jiro is an under-lauded gem that deserves to be seen.
Rian Johnson, Looper
Throughout all three of his works, Rian Johnson has confidently established himself as the indubitable architect of each of his films. When watching movies like Brick or last year’s Looper, you get the sense that he has a complete handle over the images he composes and the allegory he packs inside them. As controlled a director as he is, Johnson is not a selfish or a heavy-handed one (not yet, at least). He is sort of like a Christopher Nolan or a David Fincher, only unburdened by the weight of his own import.
Looper, among the year’s most impeccably made genre films, is peppered with moments of heart and humor that aren’t entirely his own, from the tenderness of the mother/son relationship between Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon, to moments where his actors must deliver dialogue all but urging the viewer to disregard plot holes. Johnson clearly knows when to direct, and when not to over-direct. He didn’t get a nomination this year, but I am modestly confident he will someday. Let’s hope, when the time comes, he’ll have maintained that light yet confident touch.
Surej Sharma, Life of Pi
When it comes to Life of Pi, a movie defined principally by its visual splendor, conversation (and, really, the campaigning) surrounding the performances seldom generate much momentum – unless the performances are particularly memorable. Additionally, the Oscars can’t resist the narrative of a “non-actor” giving a bravura performance, and have given prizes to plenty of folks who fit that bill. In a year not saturated by talk about how great and Quvenzhané Wallis was in Beasts of the Southern Wild (though she was), the 19-year-old nonprofessional actor Sharma might have been able to gain some traction. He certainly would have deserved it – he innovates a startlingly compelling screen presence, made all the more remarkable by the fact that most of his interacting is with a giant digital cat who had yet to be rendered. More seasoned actors constantly bemoan the challenge of acting against digital characters. That Sharma manages to captivate viewers nonetheless might have a lot to do with Ang Lee’s direction, but something tells me the young actor had a good idea of what he was doing.
Hani Furstenberg, The Loneliest Planet
When you set out to make a 2-hour relationship drama with an abundance of natural imagery and a dearth of dialog between your romantic partners, as Julia Loktev did when she made the critically divisive The Loneliest Planet, you’d better make sure you put faces on the screen that are dynamic enough to communicate whatever emotional information you are hoping to convey. Fortunately Loktev manages this very feat with her performances, and The Loneliest Planet becomes anything but a complete slog to watch. Strongest in the acting troupe is her female lead in Furstenberg, whose Nica is forced jarringly into a situation that puts severe doubts in her relationship to her fiancé. Overwhelmed with complex, alternating emotions of betrayal, confusion, love, anger, desire to forgive, and irreversible distrust, Furstenberg handles them seamlessly, and she does so almost entirely through the physicality and physiognomy. It’s not the kind of subtle work we expect from most “Best Actress” winners, but it’s powerful nonetheless.
David Strathairn, Lincoln
In my review for Lincoln, I made it a point to highlight my admiration for Strathairn’s understated work as the naysaying William Seward, in part because I knew it would go virtually unrecognized against Lincoln’s glut of showier, more bravura performances from the likes of Day-Lewis, Jones, Field and, my god, even Spader! And just as the critics ignored the splendid work Strathairn did with his thankless role as Secretary of State (perhaps a fitting destiny for the actor, given that he plays a a second-fiddle historical figure), Academy voters only paid attention to the actors whose performances will look good when clips of them are played on Oscar night. Since Strathairn’s role is not one prone to speechifying, histrionics or posing stoically amidst Janusz Kaminski’s backlighting, his bemused reluctance as he reacts to the politicking within that team of rivals in Washington was unfortunately (and predictably) ignored.
Edith Scob, Holy Motors
It’s not exactly as if Leos Carax’s utterly bent love-letter to cinema and lyrical weirdness had any chance for love by the Academy this year, but even within the teapot where critics created a tempest of praise for this film and its astonishing lead performance from Denis Levant, so few seemed to give due credit to the work Scob does as Monsieur Oscar’s dutiful chauffeur. Being essentially the only person off of whom Levant can consistently react throughout Holy Motors’ duration, what morsels are given of M. Oscar’s persona are delivered (mostly) through their interactions. At the same time, though, Scob manages to turn Céline into far more than a functional supporting player; obscured as it may be, she seems to have an arc of her own, and what endearing scenes she has available to her signify both a sense of duty to whoever the hell is employing her, and a worn-in camaraderie with her passenger/colleague. Scob’s Céline is easily Motors’s most fascinating peripheral character.
Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt, Oslo, August 31
In retrospect, it’s truly remarkable how much information about their protagonist’s troubled past Trier and Vogt manage to inject in the screenplay of Oslo, August 31, especially given that the movie takes place within a mere 24-hour period. Yet walking out of that 90-minute film, I was astounded by how much I felt like I knew Anders, a struggling addict who earns a one-day stint out of rehab for a job interview. Part of this has to do with Anders Danielsen Lie’s heartfelt performance (a close second in my “Oscar Hopeless” Best Actor Category), but the amount of character work and interpersonal history written into the dialogue, which feels contemplative and textured without ever feeling dense or laborious, cannot be denied. Unlike Robert Zemeckis’ film Flight, whose soppy screenplay feels more like an AA commercial than a character study, Oslo’s scribing feels far defter, and far more honest in its depiction of what it means to struggle with the very real problem of addiction.
Gökhan Tiryaki, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
What an amazing year it has been for cinematography! As I mull over my own ballot for the highly prestigious Film Misery Awards, which we plan to post at the end of next week, trying to narrow down my picks for the Best Cinematography category to a paltry five has actually been somewhat painful. I cannot imagine the Academy’s cinematography branch had a much easier time voting on their own ballots, not any more than I could imagine they’d ever settle on an obscure Turkish film from almost a full year ago. But when I finally sat down to watch Anatolia, it truly was Tiryaki’s masterful composition of those desolate steppes that made my viewing experience far less a slog than I had been led to believe it might be.
It’s not simply the landscapes that Tiryaki nails; in a sequence that is as well-shot as it is edited – the silent confrontation between the murderer and his victim’s son – is a surprising use of close-ups and tracking shots that truly caused me to wonder what might happen next. And no other movie this year can boast having a more haunting final shot (though Zero Dark Thirty’s comes close).
Czigler Kata, The Turin Horse
Critics often joke, and for good reason, that Academy voters have a tendency to conflate the word “Best” with the word “Most.” So, instead of awarding a film for the “Best” acting, it is for the “Most” acting. They award a movie for “Best” editing when, really, they mean to award for the “Most” editing. “Most” is frequently the chief criterion for the Art Direction category as well, which is why we usually see winners for fantasy films like Alice in Wonderland and elaborate historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia. This is why I would like to see a movie much smaller in scale get some recognition from time to time. Production Manager Czigler Kata did not have a lot of set to design, but the way Bela Tarr’s film moves from set to set – from home to stable to home to well to home to stable, one’s living quarters stripped down to its most meager essentials – lends a punishingly grim sense of space. Perhaps the set design wasn’t all that elaborate, but it serves the story beautifully.
David Julyan, The Cabin in the Woods
Rewatching The Cabin in the Woods in preparation for my personal top ten list, what really struck me was how perfectly the score captures the generic sound of so many modern horror movie scores being composed today, yet still manages to bring to its own movie an air of suspense and momentum, and even a sense of character. Julyan, whose most illustrious work was with a pre-Batman Christopher Nolan, brings to Woods a well-established understanding of how music in horror films operate, and like the filmmakers, he has a lot of fun playing around inside this sandbox of a horror spoof. But hopefully, Julyan also knew enough about horror to understand that the Academy hates the genre, which explains why he had no chance yesterday.
The Queen of Versailles
To be fair, the Academy already awarded this Oscar to a movie about the economic crisis two years ago by honoring Charles Ferguson’s revealing and enraging Inside Job. While that award was certainly well-earned (though I personally preferred Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop), perhaps it partly explains why another film about the financial crisis – a film like Lauren Greenfield’s hysterical and outrageous chronicle of David Siegel’s struggling family – failed even to make the shortlist this year. That’s a shame, because though Inside Job conveyed outrage at America’s back-assward financial system intelligently and without condescension, I would argue that Greenfield’s depiction of an ultra-rich family suffering through the recession, buckling down in a way neither you nor I would ever consider truly “buckling down,” serves as a uniquely scathing microcosm of our cultures struggle with overconsumption and the insatiable desire for more wealth. More importantly, Versailles is an exquisite example of showing just how well a documentary can succeed as a piece of storytelling and entertainment, and needn’t simply serve as the template for Ferguson-style cinematic lectures or Michael Moore-like political agitprop.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Granted, the Aurochs themselves perhaps represented the most disjointed and undercooked component of Benh Zeitlin’s otherwise riveting debut feature. But the prehistoric creatures’ failings as a thematic element – coupled with Oscar’s preference far bigger spectacles like The Avengers or Prometheus – should hardly have dissuaded Academy voters from considering the visual accomplishments of the year’s scrappy-indie-that-could. Blending old-school movie magic with new-school computer superimposition, Beasts’ effects team is responsible for giving us one of the year’s most striking shots: a gargantuan ancient beast, towering over Hushpuppy, only to quiver and retreat in her presence. Even if it all doesn’t completely work in the movie, the imagery is an inherently stunning achievement. And that achievement alone – showing special effects must be as aesthetically advanced as they are technologically – should have warranted serious consideration in this category.