Quest for excellence at the 84th Oscars
Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) 84th Annual Academy Awards should be another pleasurable four hours of waiting for that seal of excellence to be handed out by 6,000 academy members. Every year, everyone in the movie industry who takes the craft seriously strive to snag that 8.5-lb Oscar statuette of 93-percent tin plated with 24-karat gold.
Striving for excellence is an often impossible task. If you’re a filmmaker, you’re measured against the likes of Bergman, Ozu, Bresson, Antonioni, Dreyer, Buñuel and the rest of the illustrious gang.
The academy’s avowed intent is to search for excellence in the cinematic art. But the more perceptive know that, worthy or not, one could get an Oscar if he/she has made some earth-shaking noise. So it’s open season, especially nowadays when any pedestrian who can wield a digicam can become a filmmaker.
Some critics call 2011 the Year of the Auteur, or the Year of the Art Film—when young and old masters of world cinema came out of the woodwork with their latest outputs: Jean-Luc Godard, Terrence Malick, Roman Polanski, Manoel de Oliveira, Woody Allen, Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Gus van Sant, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Béla Tarr, Lynne Ramsay, David Cronenberg, Steven Soderbergh, Kenneth Lonergan, Jafar Panahi, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Suleiman, Werner Herzog, Roland Joffé, Tsui Hark, Raúl Ruiz.
Our own filmmakers must contend with these masters. While other countries send for consideration for Best Foreign-Language Film such movies of mythic proportions as “Katyn” and “Incendies,” what do we send year after year? (Not to denigrate our entries, but we’re talking of world cinema here, not regional cinema.)
As in years past, this year’s Oscar nominations are characterized by snubs and surprises. Too numerous to mention are films and performances that the academy has totally ignored.
Those it has nominated for Best Motion Picture are: “The Artist,” directed by Michel Hazanavicius; “The Descendants” by Alexander Payne; “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” by Stephen Daldry; “The Help” by Tate Taylor; “Hugo” by Scorsese; “Midnight in Paris” by Allen; “Moneyball” by Bennett Miller; “The Tree of Life” by Malick; “War Horse” by Spielberg.
Two noteworthy biopics were released last year: Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady,” a convoluted portrayal of the life and times of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from girlhood to dotage; and Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” retelling the life of FBI creator Hoover from closet to death. For some mysterious reason, “J. Edgar” has been left out in the cold, with not a single citation, when it’s arguably Eastwood’s best work since “Mystic River.”
Also snubbed: Jeff Nichols’ apocalyptic drama “Take Shelter”; JC Chandor’s Wall Street drama “Margin Call”; Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” a terrifying tale of juvenile rage and a mother’s love; but especially Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” (a more terrifying tale) about the end of the world, whose finale’s spooky cosmic display could swamp the Malick film’s cosmology. Notes film critic Graham Fuller: “No backlash could diminish the power of Von Trier’s most beautiful film, which contains trace elements of Friedrich, ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ and Tarkovsky.”
Although there’s an apparent decline in indie cinema (Sundance fare can be tiresome, and one can take only so many home movies), “Margin Call” would stand as an exemplar of first-rate filmmaking on a $3.5-million budget. Obviously inspired by Lehman Brothers and structured like a David Mamet play, it depicts Wall Street’s mortgage meltdown on the eve of the 2008 Great Recession. It premiered months before the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, and The New Yorker describes it as “easily the best Wall Street movie ever made.”
In terms of ensemble casting, tight structure, superior script, and turning a dull and banal subject into something suspenseful, it is this year’s “The Social Network.” It gets only one, but rightly deserved, nomination for Best Original Screenplay. (But the Academy has also nominated “Bridesmaids” for this category. What were they thinking?)
We’d rather have “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” pushed out of the roster and any of those above replace it. Maybe also “War Horse”—but that’s close to impossible, considering it’s the first movie in six years by the Prince of Hollywood.
For Best Animated Feature Film, “Chico & Rita,” though made by Fernando Trueba, would barely make the cut, Hollywood protectionism being strong. Consider last year’s “The Illusionist.” Although scripted by Jacques Tati, that one went under the Academy radar simply because it was French.
“Rango,” by Gore Verbinski, is unusual for a cartoon. It’s an anthropomorphic western ransacking the classics, from “Once upon a Time in the West” to “Chinatown” to “Yojimbo.” And it’s kid-friendly. We’re betting on it, if only for the exceptional voice talent of Johnny Depp (unrecognizable). But we’re more enchanted by “Rio” for its perky, color-splashed animation. It’s not nominated.
In the company of Kenneth Branagh (“My Week with Marilyn”), Max von Sydow (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”), and Nick Nolte (“Warrior”) for Best Supporting Actor, Jonah Hill would be the odd man out. As the statistics-obsessed assistant manager of a baseball team in “Moneyball,” he is competent, often touchingly funny, but there are far worthier actors who aren’t nominated.
Nolte we’ve known as a strong performer since as early as “Dog Soldiers.” As a recovering alcoholic trying to win back the love, trust and respect of his sons, he delivers a restrained performance that finally bursts into a jolting scene of relapse. His drunken monologue of Ahab’s speech from “Moby Dick” is as heartbreaking as they come.
Nolte could win, if not for the winsome performance of Plummer in “Beginners,” as a dying man who crawls out of the closet to find life a joy. It’s a surprise that, at 82, the finest Canadian actor has not won any Oscar—that’s a few more votes to his credit. The subtlety of Plummer’s acting stands out in two scenes: when he dances charmingly with new friends; and holding hands with his son on the edge of the bed, talking of their pain.
Notables snubbed for this race: Albert Brooks in “Drive”; Arnie Hammer, “J. Edgar”; Joel Edgerton, “Warrior”; Ezra Miller, “We Need to Talk about Kevin”; Edward Hogg, “Anonymous.”
For Best Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer as the vindictive black maid and Jessica Chastain as the ostracized white trash in the “The Help” are equal in effectiveness and emotional wallop. It boils down to the number of black votes and white votes so either of the two could win.
Otherwise, it should be Janet McTeer as a woman disguised as a handyman in “Albert Nobbs”—so convincing in her performance, we didn’t sense anything awry until the reveal.
Snubbed: Judi Dench in “J. Edgar”; Vanessa Redgrave, “Anonymous”; Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants.” Especially conspicuous is the snubbing of Redgrave for her role as a doddering Queen Elizabeth I in Roland Emmerich’s movie. Her portrayal in that sequence alone where she watches in shock and awe a court performance of “Hamlet” could shame some finalists in the Best Actress race.
And the academy nominated Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) for her role as a bridesmaid with upset stomach? Why?
Another surprise is the Best Actor nod for Gary Oldman as a very quiet spy in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”—not because he’s been nominated but that he should have been cited two decades ago, as early as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” or even “JFK.” The quietness of his “Tinker” role as George Smiley could work against him.
Jean Dujardin is known worldwide for the James Bond spoof “OSS 117.” He may have won several awards for his role as a silent-movie actor struggling through the transition to the talkie era in “The Artist,” but the Oscar seems a far shot, again because he’s French.
George Clooney, as a patriarch caught in the maelstrom of family tragedy in “The Descendants,” is too restrained. We can’t remember a single scene where he generates some firework, except when he whispers a tearful farewell to his comatose wife. But Clooney is Mr. Affable, so, of course, he’ll win.
Brad Pitt, as the general manager of a baseball team in “Moneyball,” gives a showoff-y performance that usually gets noticed by the Academy. We’re betting on him, though our heart goes to Leo.
Snubbed, though strongest on the radar before nomination time are: Michael Fassbender in “Shame”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”; Ryan Gosling, “Drive” and “The Ides of March.” And we add those plainly overlooked: Woody Harrelson in “Rampart”; Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”; Christoph Waltz, “Carnage”; Will Ferrell, “Everything Must Go.”
The snubbing of DiCaprio is quite obvious, especially since he consistently delivers fine performances from film to film year after year, and just as consistently gets snubbed. As FBI director Hoover, he sometimes gets shrill but, mostly, his performance is finely nuanced.
For Best Actress, Glen Close as a woman disguising as a man to survive in 19th-century Ireland in “Albert Nobbs” comes off rather weird.
Suppressing her gender causes Close to act wooden; she speaks and moves funny, sometimes she almost looks like Peter O’Toole.
Viola Davis, as a black housemaid in 1960s Mississippi in “The Help,” embodies contained violence. Quiet most of the time, she nonetheless vividly expresses through look, gesture and tone of voice all the hurt, rage and pathos of the oppressed in civil-rights-era America. She could win, if not for Meryl Streep.
Streep is an Oscar fixture, with 16 nominations and two wins. Of her real-life roles, her portrayal of Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” is considered her masterpiece. She invests the role with enough epic proportion by playing three Shakespearean characters at once: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and King Lear.
The most telling moments are not the scenes where she acts like a storm trooper, as when she confronts the Falklands War head on; but the ones where she’s most normal, as when she succumbs to image advisers, saying she can forego the hat but absolutely not the pearls. If Streep doesn’t win this time, that would be sympathy vote for the competition. That’s cruel, but it’s far crueler to hand out the award like an act of mercy killing.
Snubbed: Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk about Kevin”; Kate Winslet, “Carnage”; Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia”; Anna Paquin, “Margaret”; Olivia Colman, “Tyrannosaur”; Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Macy May Marlene”; Adepero Oduye, “Pariah.” Swinton is most compelling as a mother who doesn’t know what to do with a son who has turned into a cross between Damien and Oedipus. Often she looks like an android, but the complexity of emotions she can register through her face, voice and body is rivaled only by Streep, Redgrave and Close.
For Best Picture, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is not loud enough on our radar; just too soft, like Daldry’s previous movies. It’s kid stuff.
“War Horse” is another Spielberg movie in maudlin mode. Almodóvar and Scorsese have pillaged the B-movie chillers of the Hammer Studio, turning around the mad-scientist and Nazi-doctor genre (“The Skin I Live in” and “Shutter Island,” respectively) and moved on, but apparently Spielberg is still stuck in juvenilia. Such arrested adolescence is demonstrated by this movie’s anthropomorphism. The equine sentimentality would geek the compassionate dinosaur in the Malick film.
There are undeniably masterful strokes, such as the gripping battle scenes, and when the horse is entangled in barbed wire—moments preternatural in their realism. But Spielberg can’t stop himself, and ends the movie with silhouettes in a sunset-flushed landscape, to throbbing music by John Williams.
In “Midnight in Paris,” Allen harks back to his “Annie Hall” form. It’s quite enjoyable; lushly filmed, too, but everything plays like an inside joke.
“The Artist” has won so many awards, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t get this one. But it’s a comedy and light entertainment, so academy members might dismiss it. Its silent-movie technique is not new; it became trendy in the 1970s. After the novelty wears out, that’s the time to give our appraisal.
“The Help” has an impeccable ensemble, its storytelling is well-structured, its look has that supernal glow of yesteryears, but its premise is questionable: Black is good; white is bad.
In the first few scenes of “Hugo,” we thought Scorsese would be ransacking the Spielberg Studio. But then the children’s Dickensian world turns magical and the movie turns into a tribute to cinema art, as embodied by Georges Méliès. Some say this is a masterpiece. Still, it’s kid stuff.
The plot of “The Descendants” seems like an elaboration on the indie darling, “Grace Is Gone,” a few years ago. It is enhanced only by the paralleling of the disintegration of the family and the selling of ancestral land. This, too, has won several awards, so an Oscar win is not farfetched.
“Moneyball” is another banal subject turned into thriller—not a surprise since one of its writers is Aaron Sorkin, the same guy who gave us the snappy “The Social Network.” This is head and shoulders above most sports movies, and its subject, baseball, is dear to the hearts of Americans. So victory shouldn’t come as a surprise, either.
“The Tree of Life” has the quality of myth. Running through the film is a voice-over in the sonorous tone of the Book of Job, and a visual trope paralleling the birth of the family and the beginning of the cosmos. The eye-popping visuals fluctuate between the misty and the incredibly lucid, the unfolding of the universe composed of shot after stunning shot of things animate and inanimate, from the amoeba to the galaxy, from the human fetus to pure light. The cosmic is the microcosmic.
Malick’s semi-autobiographical story begins as a simple family life in 1950s Texas, takes on an Edenic conflict, moves to the Unreal City, and ends in paradisiacal bliss. For this philosopher of the cinema, the answer to the barren lives of cities and the aridity of civilization is a return to roots and spiritual renewal. Why then shouldn’t this magisterial film win?
The surefire indicator of an Oscar winner is the 3 Ps: Popularity, Populism and Protectionism. Obviously, the Malick film falls short of any one of them.
Manoel de Oliveira, the world’s oldest active filmmaker at 101, just premiered his “The Strange Case of Angelica” at Cannes and is now planning his next film project. He says Hollywood needs to undergo a “second youth.” That’s what we mean by striving for excellence.
If you’re looking for excellence in cinematic art, the Oscar is not the barometer. If you’re looking for justice in Hollywood, fat chance.