Late Oscar Reactions: Changes, Good and Bad

March 2, 2009
this man is a dandy

this man is a dandy

Despite the lack of surprises among the actual winners (see mostly accurate predictions here, here, and even here), the general consensus seems to be that Sunday’s 81st Academy Awards were one of the most entertaining Oscar ceremonies in years. Much of the credit goes to producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, whose had cryptically promised big changes to the telecast in the press leading up to the show.

While I do think that, overall, the show was unusually brisk and amusing, I’m not sure all of those big changes were successes. So I thought it’d be useful to evaluate each of them on their own. Without further ado…
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The Bizarre Logic of the Oscar Snub & Three Actual Snubs

February 3, 2009

Oscar nominations have been out for two weeks now, and there’s only so much speculating one can do before the big show on February 22nd.  So after writing the obligatory “The Academy Got It Wrong” column (or it’s more world-weary cousin, “The Academy Always Gets It Wrong, So This Year Shouldn’t Come As A Surprise To Anyone”), one of the only things left to talk about are the Oscar “Snubs.”  This is an interesting distinction, because the snubbees most written about aren’t usually those that did the best work, but rather those that offered the same old, middlebrow Oscar bait and somehow failed to get recognized for it.  The result is an odd phenomenon where the writer expresses regret that one solid performance in an unloved, mediocre film took the place of another solid performance in an unloved, mediocre film .  Oh, the outrage!

I’m not calling out every snubbee as undeserving.  In fact, before I go any further, let’s get this out of the way.  Sally Hawkins , you’re excused – though honestly, for a movie as un-Hollywood as HappyGoLucky, she was fortunate just to be in the conversation.  Bruce Springsteen, you too were legitimately snubbed – much as the aging-rocker-wins-Oscar thing is played out (Bruce has even done it already for Philadelphia), it’s a solid song and I really don’t understand why it didn’t make the cut.  And finally, those of you in the Wall-E and/or Dark Knight for Best Picture camps, I’ll concede that you’re entitled to your anger – mainly because that’s a whole other argument I don’t want to get into.

What really seems ridiculous to me is the likes of, say, Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cate Blanchett, to name a few, eliciting pity for not being nominated for work that would’ve been seen as Exhibit A in Oscar-Getting-It-Wrong had they actually earned the expected nod.  The only reason Eastwood’s omission came as such a shock is because he always gets nominated – he’s already won four (four!) other Oscars, all for better movies.  DiCaprio’s never won (though he too seems to be always get nominated), but seriously, it’s an OK performance in an OK movie, Revolutionary Road, that didn’t really belong in the conversation in the first place.  And Blanchett in Benjamin Button?  Here’s a frightening thought: if she had garnered the expected nod for Best Actress, that would’ve brought the movie’s total to 14 nominations, tying for MOST OF ALL TIME with All About Eve and Titanic.  Ugh.  Ladies and Gentlemen, the three Greatest Movies of All Time, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: All About Eve, Titanic, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Weird.

OK, enough hatin’.  The original goal of this post was to call out some work that I thought was actually really great, and despite earning widespread acclaim in films that had support in other categories, never really entered the conversation of possible nominees and thus doesn’t really qualify as a snub.  Behold the Unsnubbed of 2008.  

Bill Irwin, Best Supporting Actor, Rachel Getting Married

Sure, nominee Anne Hathaway and legitimately snubbed Rosemarie DeWitt were great, but for me, Irwin was the standout.  He’s the perfect embodiment of the movie’s unique blend of warm-hearted sentimentality and indie miserabilism (that was intended as a compliment, by the way).  His sweet and sensitive Paul seems like the kind of dude you would totally want as your dad, until you realize that the same permissiveness and “everything’s OK here” understanding that made daughter Rachel (DeWitt) grow up to be such a sweetheart, have helped turn Hathaway’s Kym into a self-absorbed monster.  Not a lot of actors could’ve pulled off that odd balancing act between World’s Greatest Dad and enabler, yet, with the exception of a nomination for Best Supporting Actor from the Chicago Film Critics’ Association, Irwin went completely unrecognized by critics’ groups and other award-givers.  

Robert Downey Jr, Best Actor, Iron Man

I’m not the biggest fan of blockbuster acting being held up as greatness, but in a universe where Johnny Depp gets recognized for that way-too-long pirate movie, Robert Downey Jr. deserves a shot for his turn as Tony Stark in Iron Man.  Honestly, with the possible exception of Heath Ledger, can you think of any other performance this year that was as universally beloved by both critics and mainstream audiences?  For most of the 93% of critics and $318 million worth of moviegoers who touted the film, Downey’s performance was the number 1 reason why this movie worked so well.  I know he was nominated for Tropic Thunder because it’s kind of been his year, but isn’t Iron Man the reason that it’s his year?

Darren Aronofsky, Best Director, The Wrestler

The fact that Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei are both Oscar-nominated for a movie about professional wrestling should give you some indication that Aronofsky is up to something unique here.  Yes, I give Rob Siegel’s script a share of the love (as well as a lot of the blame for the movie’s faults), but credit Aronofsky for turning a subtly ironic sports tragedy into an intimate, bare-bones acting exercise.  He makes the heavy aspects of the film work without ever sacrificing the comedic moments and gives the behind-the-scenes wrestling stuff a totally authentic feel.  All this from a guy who, after Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, nobody would’ve pegged as an actor’s director.

OK, so it’s a short list, but I have no interest in digging up sketchy examples just to fill out a top ten list.  Feel free to post your own examples in the comments section below.  Keep in mind I’m trying to stick to the criteria of work that, had the  film’s marketers seen its potential or the critics’ awards broke differently, might have had an actual shot.  So great stuff like Arnaud Desplechin’s direction in A Christmas Tale or Anamaria Marinca’s performance in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days doesn’t really count, because, you know, the Academy always gets it wrong.



Silent Light

January 28, 2009

Silent Light, the new film by super-arty Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, is the kind of movie that’s almost impossible to talk about without sounding like an asshole.  I’ve been wanting to see it for a few weeks now, but I’ve kind of had a hard time getting someone else excited about seeing it with me.

“Yo, I really want to see this movie Silent Light.”

“OK, what’s it about?”

“It’s, um…it’s about like, these Mennonites.  In Mexico.”

“Oh.”

“And, um…I guess somebody…has a crisis of faith or something.

“…”

“It’s the first movie ever filmed in Plautdietsch!”

OK, so this is clearly not a movie for everybody.  It’s slow, it’s enigmatic, the actors are all first-timers (real Mexican Mennonites!), and it’s in fucking Plautdietsch, which is a dialect spoken exclusively by Russian Mennonites.  But if you’re the sort of person whose interest is piqued by the exotic, holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-this-movie-exists factor, Silent Light is a gorgeous thoughtful movie and yeah, you’ve probably never seen anything like it.

After a six-minute opening shot of dawn breaking that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie, we meet Johan and family as they prepare for breakfast.  We know something’s wrong when Johan takes a solid five minutes to finish his silent prayer – clearly, this is a dude with something weighing on him.  Pretty soon, we find out what it is.  Though he’s married to Esther, he’s in love with another woman, Marianne, and has been carrying on an affair with her for two years.

It’s not that he’s afraid of getting caught.  He’s already told Esther everything, and the pain of knowing is evident in her face.   And there’s virtually no pressure on him from his community or his church – indeed, even Johan’s father the priest assures his son that he will stand by him no matter what.   So it’s up to Johan to decide what is right, and he cannot. He loves Esther, and she is the mother of his several children, but Marianne (who, it should be noted, is no more attractive or younger than Esther) feels like his soul mate, or one character calls her, his “natural woman.”

That’s about all you get in terms of drama in this story, with the exception of a few major turns toward the end that I won’t spoil.  It’s a dilemma we’ve all seen before, but Reygadas manages to use this simple problem to tackle some real heady questions – about faith, morality, and nature, to name a few – and does so not with dialogue where one character (preferably a wise old man) states the theme in no uncertain terms, but through striking photography and sound design.

A recurring theme in the film is man’s clumsy co-existence with nature.  These are Mennonites, people who live a simpler life than anyone reading this could possibly imagine, and yet Reygadas continually emphasizes how out of sync they are with nature.  That opening shot I mentioned, of a new day beginning over the sounds of wilderness, is followed by a hard cut to Johan’s home, which, austere as it is, still comes as a bit of a shock after six minutes of pure nature.  The most overwhelming sound, much louder than the birds singing and the bugs chirping, is the tick-tock of the kitchen clock, a noise so unnatural that, after his family leaves, Johan climbs onto a chair to turn it off.  Then later, when we first see Johan approach his mistress in a field of daffodils, we get a close following shot of his feet trudging through this idyllic landscape, crushing the flowers, tearing through the tall grass.  Here is man fumbling through paradise, trying to live to the impossibly perfect standards of the natural world around him, but inevitably falling short.

Another interesting topic Reygadas leaves us to ponder is the meaning of the title.   We aren’t given a clear answer, but there are scenes that may give us a hint to what the director means.  Before Johan and Marianne sleep together, Marianne first closes the curtains to block out the sun, but Reygadas’s camera lingers for a moment on the thin center of the fabric, where we can see the light still comes though.  Then in one of the film’s final scenes, a character is bathed in bright white light before committing something really only describable as a miracle.  What is the Silent Light?  Is it God?  Is there a God?  How the hell did Mennonites end up in Mexico?

If it sounds as if I’m reading a lot into Silent Light (and I probably am), it’s because this is the sort of film that invites thought.  It’s slow, deliberate pace lowers your heart beat and lulls you into a state akin to last few minutes before sleep, when your mind clears and you dare to ponder the larger questions.  Besides, what else is there to do in a dark theater during long takes of cows being milked but wonder what the hell it all means?

I loved the way this film raised those issues, and so I was a little troubled by the ending,which, for me at least, gives a pretty definitive answer to one of those Big Questions.  There are some other problems I have with the film.  Though the performances are effective, they’re of the plain-spoken non-actor variety, which means they’re played on a very low key and I could easily see somebody finding the acting and really the whole film dull. I also could have done without a few of the many scenes where one of the three main characters is weeping alone, lost and confused by their thorny situation.

But I mostly overlooked these points because, really, Silent Light of one of a kind.  It may bore you to tears if these kind of movies aren’t your thing, but for me, it’s the best damn Mexican Mennonite movie I’ve ever seen, and good enough that I’ll be sure to check out whatever crazy corner of the earth director Carlos Reygadas decides to explore next.