Friday, February 24, 2012

Oscar 2012: A Personal Ballot

I’ve been writing all about who I think will take home Academy Awards this year. While some of my own choices overlap, let’s face it, the Academy doesn’t give a fat flying turd what I think should win. And quite frankly, writing letters to the likes of Gavin MacLeod, Jaclyn Smith and Erik Estrada (yes, they’re all Academy members!!) isn’t going to change that.

So, purely for the pleasure of entertaining and horrifying readers, here are my choices for the major categories. As usual, I’ve attached links to the original reviews for some of these films.

Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay: Midnight in Paris

I could watch this movie over and over and over again, and repeat. When I was an English major over a decade ago, I fantasized about traveling to a time period when I could rub shoulders and befriend the literary glitterati of a certain era. For me, that was the Bloomsbury Group in the 1930s in the UK. I used to daydream about watching Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey act like the early frontrunners of Will & Grace, warding off E.M. Forster’s advances, listening to Vita Sackville-West read out her letters and trying gently to tell Virginia Woolf to stop bumming everyone one before putting her on the train and returning to the café and gossiping about the similarly-themed Algonquin Table in New York. Woody Allen dreamed of Paris, and he made it come true. This was the screenplay I wished I had written all those years ago, and he did it better than I could ever write it. It may not be an earth-shattering achievement with political substance like Milk, or a genre masterpiece like Pan’s Labyrinth, or a game-changer like Inception, but Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris easily, comfortably sits amongst his masterpieces.

Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson’s quiet spy game is unquestionably one of the greatest espionage films ever made. This was what that whole world was really like: men in stuffy suits sitting in soundproof war rooms, barely getting to see the sun let alone run around the world cracking Russian war codes and chasing rogue agents with guns and surviving ten-story falls. Spy work, while exciting, could also be exacting, and absolutely requires that only a mind well-suited to playing chess could or would survive in that environment. Gary Oldman gives a brilliantly muted performance as the immortal George Smiley, carrying on with an intelligence burning like an eternal flame behind his eyes, yet saying or giving away nothing. The labyrinthine script by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor requires your full attention, and sometimes you may be confused by what you hear, but it is assembled like a Monet: up close, you can’t make sense of it, but far away, it makes perfect sense. And Maria Djurkovic’s period art direction doesn’t look like a fancy movie set: it looks like the entire era had been lifted wholesale and put into Shepperton Studios. It’s an incredible film that I’ll be returning to repeatedly.

Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Costume Design: The Artist

Consider this a pair of valentines for the husband-and-wife team of Michel Hazanavicius and Bérénice Bejo. Everyone has been going on about this lovely diamond of a film’s star Jean Dujardin, which I will not question, but Bejo is the find of the picture. She’s its heart and without her soulful presence, the whole thing might have been more sentimental than it had any right to be. Hazanavicius created this lovely homage without giving a damn about its commercial viability and made one of the most charming, all-out entertaining films in a long time. I could show this to my relatives who don’t speak a lick of English and they would understand everything and enjoy it. It helps that the period’s costume design by Mark Bridges never feels over-the-top, but appropriate to the period without overwhelming the rest of the visuals (and they’re stunning). I reward his gumption, dedication and execution, and I found few other performances by anyone, male or female, to be this breathtaking all year.

Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both for Melancholia

This is a film about depression, and yet it’s one of the most searing masterpieces of this or any year. Dunst makes a ferocious comeback performance as the depressed bride Justine, who cannot find purpose or joy on her wedding day, and does and says things to spite people and just to feel, well, anything. Having seen friends gone through the same process, I can say that Dunst has it exactly right. It’s so powerful a work and a performance that those same friends of mine (no names mentioned) refuse to see this film no matter how well they are doing, because it may trigger something. And Gainsbourg, one of the most adventurous, toughest, courageous actors of our time, matches Dunst as the uptight sister who, in the face of inevitable cosmic peril, finds that all of her faculties, intelligence and talents fail her in a moment of extreme crisis. I reward them both with my Best Actress prize because one could not have existed without the other.

More categories and who I predict to win the Oscars, after the jump.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Picture

For my entire coverage on the Academy Awards, click here.

A few ground rules on the likely Best Picture winner. In Oscar history, the winner almost always takes Best Director as well, or is at the very least nominated in that category. It is also often a nominee or winner for Best Screenplay (either Original or Adapted). Remember the rules that I had mentioned in my post on Best Director, they are for the most part true. Taking this rule into consideration, we can realistically remove several of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees out of contention for the big prize: The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, War Horse, Moneyball and The Tree of Life. That leaves us with four viable Best Picture contenders: The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris.

With such a huge crowd, going through each nominee with the above hard-and-fast rules and applying to each nominee, we can whittle down the likelihood of each nominee’s chance to win the big prize.

First off, let’s forget the jaw-dropping inclusion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Stephen Daldry’s surprise nominee was supposed to have been Oscar bait, with across-the-board nominations and big box office to go with it. It touches on the sensitive legacy of 9/11 and is the first tackling the subject to get into the final group. But with its below-average critical reviews and soft box office (even with big stars like Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock it pulled in barely $30 million), it looks like a prestige project that disappointed. Without directing or writing nominations, it’s the first rank outsider.

We can also knock off The Tree of Life. It’s a big-budget film several years in the making, brought in a small box office take, and despite overall strong critical notices, those who didn’t like the film outright hated it: viciously, passionately, vociferously. It’s just too “out there” for more conservative Academy members. It’s out.

Next to be removed from the list is another big-budget Oscar-bait prestige project, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. It had the pedigree of a likely winner: Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, one of the most popular film directors of all time at the helm, and it performed strongly and steadily commercially. Without directing or writing nominations, however, and a near absence from the winning circle at the guilds, it’s just an also-ran. Note that of its six nominations, five are in below-the-line technical categories.

I’m going to also remove Moneyball on the basis that despite six nominations including four high-profile ones, it didn’t win any of the precursor Best Picture awards and lacks a directing nod for Bennett Miller. Had he made it into that category, this popular and critical favourite would have made a much stronger case.

I’m reluctantly removing The Help from consideration as well. I had previously thought it had the mileage to go the distance, since it’s a big box office success and tackles race issues in America. The closest parallel I had with it was Crash, which was the upset winner six years ago, but even that had directing, writing and editing nominations to go with it. The Help doesn’t have any of it. Its other close parallel was 2009’s The Blind Side, but it also lacked these nominations and its popularity alone couldn’t let it get past The Hurt Locker.

Let’s turn to the remaining contenders, which you can view after the jump.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Actor

This year’s Best Actor Oscar race is similar to the Best Actress contenders. There are two main contenders neck-and-neck at the front, with a possible spoiler, a veteran dark horse, and a surprise nominee. In other words, as with Best Actress, we’re looking at a nail-biter down to the finish line, making this first time in years where there is no clear winner or obvious choice.

Here are the nominees for this year’s Best Actor Oscar.

Demián Bichir for A Better Life

For him: A shock nominee, many feel that he took a spot that may have been meant for a bigger star (cf. Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar). His little-seen art-house film, for those who have actually seen it, is beloved by a small but vocal group of voters and word is that those who’ve seen his performance declare his work to be the best, hands-down. He received a surprise SAG nomination as well, indicating popularity and support amongst his actor peers.

Against him: Very few people saw this film, which is streaming on Netflix after an unremarkable theatrical run. SAG nod aside, he received no other recognition this season. The film, about the immigrant experience in America, is topical and challenging, and may be a bit too political for more conservative voters’ taste. He also represents the lone nomination for his film and at least three of his nominees are front-and-center in Best Picture nominees. For Bichir, the nomination is the reward.

George Clooney for The Descendants

For him: I’ve referred to him as “Mr. Popular” more than once, and indeed he has support from critics, audiences and the Academy alike. He’s won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and National Board of Review honours this year for his role. Clooney has career-best notices and he’s in a Best Picture nominee with broad-based support. He’s proven his versatility by having received seven career Oscar nominations (to date) in the fields of writing, directing and acting. He’s even nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for his well-received directorial effort The Ides of March. Somehow he’s straddled the gossip pages and the critics’ notices, winning respectability while also gracing magazine covers. Although he has a Supporting Actor prize already, for a leading man of his stature, it’s only fitting that he one day win the Leading Actor award as well. Is it time?

Against him: He’s already got an Oscar. It may be too much, too soon, and it’s not like he won’t have any other chances later on in his career. He’s got to watch his back as there’s a great challenge in the form of exciting newcomer (on this side of the pond) Jean Dujardin and his good friend Brad Pitt, both of whom are nominated and are leads in Best Picture nominees. Perhaps Clooney will one day be recognized for directing or writing, instead?

Jean Dujardin in The Artist

For him: Not initially the frontrunner, this charming Gaelic superstar – who’s as big as Clooney and Pitt in France – added to his Cannes Film Festival award by sweeping the Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA prizes within the last month. He faces an acting challenge that no one else in the category takes on in that the role is a silent one. Dujardin didn’t even speak much English a year ago, and yet he learned it in a crash course and has been hitting the American talk show circuit to promote the film tirelessly, even hosting Saturday Night Live. That, folks, is dedication. The mighty Harvey Weinstein’s TWC is behind the campaign and they get results. He could win his award a la Roberto Benigni’s surprising victory for Life is Beautiful.

Against him: The Benigni comparison is a double-edged sword, as it is one of the more derided and criticized Oscar wins in the last twenty years. Dujardin has not yet signed on for any roles in Hollywood, which might make Academy members who are prone to cronyism a bit cagey about choosing a foreigner for the prize. (Then again, that didn’t stop them from choosing all-foreign winners in 2007.) Since the role is silent, they may also wait until they see him in a speaking role before rewarding him. Some Academy members may be resistant to seeing a high-concept silent movie.

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

For him: One of the most revered film veterans, a one-time experimental and still-edgy British actor, Oldman has switched effortlessly between independent films such as Withnail and I and big Hollywood blockbusters like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Harry Potter franchise. It’s been widely noted that this is only his first career Oscar nomination and that might lead some to vote for him as a de facto career award.

Against him: He was MIA from all of the precursor award shortlists and needed at least one major win to make a stronger case for him here. He was the frontrunner for BAFTA, his one solid shot all season at a major acting prize, but he still lost when Dujardin and The Artist cleared the board there. With so many of his fellow nominees in Best Picture nominees, it’ll be tough to make a case for his win. He’ll be back.

Brad Pitt in Moneyball

For him: Like Clooney, he’s insanely popular, a global superstar with few peers. He’s also a multiple nominee this year, as he’s credited as a producer on Best Picture finalist Moneyball. Won the notoriously tony New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics best actor awards, indicating that they fully support his artistic choices. And with his role in The Tree of Life, he’s the only nominee in this category to appear in two Best Picture nominees, speaking to the adventurousness of his roles and its artistic payoff. It may be irresistible to Academy voters to give him a statue, as longtime spouse Angelina Jolie has one as well.

Against him: He may be too much of a tabloid favourite to get Hollywood’s most glittering prize. With Clooney and Dujardin winning the lion’s share of awards in the last month of the season, and both their films still playing in theatres, Pitt might have lost some momentum for Moneyball. It’s a talky role, with lots of long monologues, but doesn’t have the big emotional breakdown or typical “Oscar clips” that his main competition has. Perhaps like Robert Redford, to whom he has often been compared, he’ll win for producing or directing one day, instead?

The lowdown

I mentioned that the race was a parallel to Best Actress. In terms of the winners’ chances, here’s how I break them down:

Jean Dujardin = Viola Davis – the likely winner, a mid-career character actor in a Best Picture nominee
George Clooney = Meryl Streep – the megawatt star who was the early frontrunner, but will be recognized again in the future
Brad Pitt = Michelle Williams – the spoiler who could sneak through if the two leaders cancel each other out
Gary Oldman = Glenn Close – respected veteran who could have won had his / her film received more support (coincidentally, both films have three nods apiece)
Damien Bichir = Rooney Mara – surprise nominee and out-of-left-field shock winner if this happens, and neither name slips off the tongue easily

I’m forecasting a win for Dujardin, but won’t be surprised if Natalie Portman reads out “George Clooney” instead.

The Oscar will go to: Jean Dujardin for The Artist.

For more Oscar-related coverage on this blog, click here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Director

To start, there are a few simple rules for predicting the Best Director Oscar winner. In general, here they are:
  1. The winning director has almost always won the Directors Guild of America (“DGA”) prize a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony.
  2. The Best Director Oscar often goes hand-in-hand with a Best Picture win for the same film.
  3. If the DGA and Best Picture Oscar don’t match, the Best Director often goes to the DGA winner anyway (cf. Born on the Fourth of July, Saving Private Ryan, Brokeback Mountain).

And now, as with all rules, there are a few exceptions. These aren’t hard-and-fast loopholes or rules, they just … happened when the envelops were opened and the winner announced.
  1. The first instance of the DGA prize not matching up with Oscar was at the 1968 awards, when DGA winner Anthony Harvey lost for The Lion in Winter to Carol Reed for Oliver!
  2. Further to exception #1, there have been a few instances when the match-up failed to materialize: 1995 (Mel Gibson over Ron Howard); 2000 (Steven Soderbergh over Ang Lee); 2002 (Roman Polanski over Rob Marshall).

In other words, all things being equal, the DGA winner is the single most powerful prognosticator of who may win the Best Picture Oscar. Last year, David Fincher looked absolutely unstoppable for the Oscar, until Tom Hooper scooped the DGA and went on to claim the Oscar, and The King’s Speech outdrew The Social Network for the top prize. In other words, the DGA is almost absolutely authoritative when it comes to predicting the Oscar, like a Supreme Court decision with little to no room for appeal. It also has a domino effect, as the prize also often dictates the Best Picture winner, and may have a trickle-down effect in the lesser categories, resulting in a Slumdog Millionaire-style sweep.
We already know that Michel Hazanivicius won the DGA for The Artist. This already gives away who I think will take home the Oscar. But in the event of an upset – such as the jaw-dropping victory Roman Polanski pulled off in 2002 for The Pianist over Chicago’s Rob Marshall – let’s consider how the other nominees stack up against him.

Michel Hazanivicius for The Artist

For him: DGA winner. Also just scooped up the BAFTA. He has been responsible for the entire picture, from writing the script to directing it, and even editing it long after production ended. Hazanivicius is nominated for three, count’em three, Oscars this year, for each of those efforts. It shows creative complete control from beginning to end, short of actually coming up with the funds to produce the picture. In terms of money, it helps that Hazanivicius made his film for a lean, mean $12 million and it’s already turned out a tidy profit.

Against him: In the event that the Academy sees fit to award him Best Original Screenplay instead, and he’s the shoo-in for Best Editing, they may elect to give the prize to someone else in an effort to spread the wealth. Plus, no one in Hollywood seems to be able to pronounce, let alone spell, his name correctly. (Think about the presenter who may flub it up at the podium.)

Alexander Payne for The Descendants

For him: Critical darling who made three back-to-back Oscar-recognized films, including 2004’s Adapted Screenplay winner Sideways, returns with a slice-of-life dramedy made on a shoestring budget, yet with a major star, and turns it into a critical and commercial success. Payne is recognized as being one of the medium’s best writer-directors, and actors clamor to be in his character-based films the way they do for Woody Allen.

Against him: He’s already won in the past, and there may be a perception that his greater strength might seem to be in screenwriting rather than in directing. The small character-based Descendants has the look and feel of an intimate drama, and up against period pieces and experimental, avant-garde competition, looks relatively small in comparison. He’ll have a better shot at Adapted Screenplay, where he’s one of the front-runners.

Martin Scorsese for Hugo

For him: Ah, Marty! He has the Golden Globe and National Board of Review prizes to back him up, and his film is up for a leading 11 nominations, more than for even purported front-runner The Artist. He’s an industry legend who lost for such landmark films as Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, and he’s worked with just about everyone in Hollywood. One of the industry’s favourite sons, his victory for The Dpearted five years ago was greeted with one of the longest standing ovations in Oscar history and was a popular win.

Against him: He’s already had his Oscar payday, and Hugo was a $150 million money pit that couldn’t turn great reviews and critical prizes into long box office play. Hollywood doesn’t really like to honour films that don’t make money, or at the very least break even.

Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris

For him: Nominated for just about every single precursor award, he made his highest-grossing film ever on a relatively flimsy budget, and garnered some of the best reviews of his career along the way. A frequent nominee in this category (this is seventh attempt) he’s won just once, for 1977’s Annie Hall.

Against him: If Allen is true to form, he won’t even show up to collect his Oscar if he were to win (he’s only ever gone to the Oscars once, in a 9/11 tribute for the 2001 awards). The Academy likes to see winners gush, and even Scorsese turned up every single time he was nominated and faced his losses with good humour and on-camera. This is not to say that Allen’s a sore loser, it’s just to say that the Academy Awards just aren’t his thing, and maybe that perception might hurt him. Plus, he’s one of the front-runners for Best Original Screenplay and already has three career awards, indicating that there may be no need to honour him here.

Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life

For him: He swept through the critics’ prizes, winning more awards than just about anyone this year. He’s a previous nominee who hasn’t won yet, despite his reputation for being a true auteur and a major force in American filmmaking. The film is a searing, uncompromising vision signaling complete artistic freedom, with minimal studio interference, which a lot of directors will recognize and respect.

Against him: He’s painfully slow at releasing movies, at one point taking 20 years between films. His uncompromising vision is also a complete turn-off for a lot of people who flat-out despise his work. Malick doesn’t make crowd-pleasers and he is not a journeyman director who could happily switch between blockbusters and artistic offerings (cf. Martin Scorsese). He also didn’t make the DGA shortlist, indicating a lack of industry support. But if anyone’s going to pull off an upset, it just might be him.

The lowdown

Team France! Hazanavicius has this in the bag, but I’m going with a no-guts-no-glory call for Malick should Hazanavicius’s name not be the one called out on Oscar night.

The Oscar will go to: Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Actress

In our continuing coverage of the Oscars, we break down the nominees for Best Actress. Here are the candidates, and the reasons why and why they may not win the Oscar. Fasten your seat belts, as Bette Davis once said: this just might be the most competitive category of the night.

Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs

For her: Unbelievably, this is Close’s sixth career nomination and she has never won an Oscar, despite landmark performances in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons. She’s already won just about every major acting accolade over her career, including three Emmy Awards and three Tony Awards. Albert Nobbs is a passion project, as she played the role on the stage in the early 80s and took nearly thirty years, due to unforeseen stops and starts in production, to bring her pet project to the screen. Close also co-wrote the film’s script and theme song, showing her dedication to the project. Oscar loves a gender-bending performance, as evidenced by wins in the past for Gwyneth Paltrow, Hillary Swank and Linda Hunt.

Against her: The film performed poorly at the box office and received tepid reviews, some of them for Close herself. Even the excellent notices she received were overshadowed by higher praise for her nominated co-star Janet McTeer, who is also performing in a gender-bending role. While there is considerable love and respect for Close, there’s no groundswell of critical or public consensus to bring her the big win. With Viola Davis and Meryl Streep running neck-and-neck with Michelle Williams a close third, Close just doesn’t have enough momentum to overcome her competition. And while short-listed for various prizes including the Globe and SAG, Close herself hasn’t won any for this particular performance.

Viola Davis in The Help

For her: A previous nominee, Davis is also the front-and-center star of one of the year’s Best Picture nominees, and a popular one at that. It’s the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee this year, likely seen by just about the entire voting body. She’s won SAG, Critics Choice and National Board of Review prizes for individual and / or cast performances. She’s the only nominee here to star in not one, but two Best Picture nominees (the other being Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), speaking to the quality of the films in which she chooses to appear. While the film caused some controversy over its depiction of race relations in the Deep South, even the film’s detractors conceded that Davis’s work transcended the material. There’s also a political dimension at play, as the only African-American to ever win this category did so ten years ago – Halle Berry – and the Academy might want to correct that imbalance.

Against her: Fierce competition from her good friend and former co-star Streep, who once said in a speech that “someone should write this woman a movie!” There are some critics who don’t like how the role was written, as it may have (inadvertently or otherwise) tapped into some racial stereotypes. The Academy may wish to steer clear of racial politics, but that hasn’t stopped them from awarding a controversial film with its top prize before (cf. Crash).

Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

For her: The year’s big breakout role and surprise nominee, Mara is the youngest nominee this year and one of the youngest ever. It’s the first of three films in which she’ll embody the character Lisbeth Salander, considered one of the most iconic figures in contemporary literature and film, and the Academy loves to honour ingénues. The performance is also considered physically demanding: she bares her body and has a graphic rape scene that is arguably the most challenging since Hillary Swank’s winning turn in Boys Don’t Cry.

Against her: The memory of the original TGWTDT is still fresh for a lot of viewers, many of whom preferred the performance of its original star, the un-nominated Noomi Rapace. Given that she’s got two more films to make in the trilogy, Mara will have another opportunity to perform the role and potentially be nominated for an Oscar. She has a bright future and with so much competition by veterans and more distinguished actors, she is the one rank outsider in a tight field. There are also those who believe that she took a spot meant for Tilda Swinton, unrecognized for her work in the acclaimed We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

For her: Another year, another parade of prizes for Streep for a great performance. This year, her count includes a BAFTA (her first since the 80s), a Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics, amongst many others. Oscar likes to reward actors in biopics who age and die and / or go insane, and this role has it all (except for the death part). Streep also affects a British accent for the first time in a long while, and her impersonation is considered spot-on. There’s been a campaign reminding voters that it’s been 29 years since she last won, for her legendary performance in Sophie’s Choice, which may remind voters that it’s finally time to honour the current consensus as the greatest living actress.

Against her: The film received some terrible reviews and, despite initially promising box office, did not perform well, at least not in North America. While most critics have raved about her work, those who hated the film also dismissed her performance. Streep already has yet another award-worthy work lined up, the leading part in the forthcoming August: Osage County, in the role that won its original star a Tony Award and is considered another opportunity for her to showboat and do what she does best. It might be perceived by voters that there will always be another chance to reward Streep, even without actually giving her the award.

Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

For her: A career-transforming role, Oscar happens to like biopics and that’s why both she and Streep are in the race. Williams, at age 32, is the youngest American actor to receive three Oscar nominations at that age, beaten only by Brit Kate Winslet, who accomplished the same feat by age 26. Williams has successfully graduated from being a Dawson’s Creek alumnus into an accomplished and adventurous actress. Add to this several prizes this season for her role, including the Golden Globe, and she’s been short-listed for every other major prize out there.

Against her: There are still some, believe it or not, who might consider her a “TV actress” who made good. While her reviews for Marilyn were excellent, the film’s notices overall were not as enthusiastic. Many have considered her performance an “interpretation” rather than a total mimicry, and that has led less kind critics to say that the role is not “on the nose”. In a year when she’s going toe-to-toe with Davis and Streep, she might be overlooked if she doesn’t benefit from a split vote. She’s a strong third-place, but may not have overall support for her film to make it to the winner’s circle. Plus, with such an impressive resume at such a young age, it’s more than likely that she’ll get nominated again, and like win.

The lowdown: It’s Davis vs. Streep in a photo finish, with Williams being the tiebreaker. I’m calling it for Davis, but wouldn’t be surprised to see Streep take Oscar home for the third time.

The Oscar will go to: Viola Davis for The Help.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Supporting Actor

Let us have a moment for Albert Brooks. Despite winning a slew of critics’ group prizes, including the New York Film Critics Award (the first given out all season) and short-listed for Critics Choice and the Golden Globe, he was not nominated for an Oscar. Without him, the competition just got a little duller as he was one of the main challengers for the award and delivered one of the very best performances in the last ten years on film, only to be left unnoticed by the Academy.

With that in mind, let’s assess this category with the five performers who did make the list.

Kenneth Branagh for My Week with Marilyn

For him: The versatile writer-performer has often been compared to Sir Laurence Olivier in his career, and now he plays him in this film! In all seriousness, this is Branagh’s fourth career nomination, having been shortlisted before for acting, writing and directing. He’s distinguished himself by appearing in small independent productions, Shakespeare adaptations and big-budget Hollywood films. Branagh is also notable as being one of the few performers who can comfortably transition behind the camera and appear as a journeyman director, while still leaving his artistic credibility intact.

Against him: His work here has been overshadowed, despite his being shortlisted for all the important guild prizes, by his co-star Michelle Williams, one of the Best Actress front-runners. He’s also up against two very respected veterans, each of whom makes a more compelling case for being rewarded for an Oscar, performances aside. It may not be his time, at least not yet.

Jonah Hill for Moneyball

For him: Famous funnyman turns serious actor and is rewarded with a nomination. He appears alongside Brad Pitt in a Best Picture nominee and, if that film pulls off a mini-sweep, he may be swept up along with it.

Against him: His body of work to date. Known as a comedy star appearing in Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Academy members may not take him seriously due to his previous work in comedy. It’s unfair of course, but voters may wish to wait a while until he further proves his versatility in other dramatic roles before rewarding him. He’s up against some tough competition, mainly longtime veterans with considerable support in the Academy’s ranks.

Nick Nolte for Warrior

For him: Now on his third nomination, Nolte has long been respected for his work and it may finally be time for him to win an Oscar.

Against him: Unfortunately, it may also be time for two other veterans – namely Plummer and von Sydow – to also win Oscars for their performances in films that are more widely seen. Nolte needed critical prizes to boost his campaign, and he is his film’s sole nomination, indicating perhaps a lack of support for Warrior.

Christopher Plummer for Beginners

For him: One of the juiciest roles of the year, Plummer plays a father who comes out of the closet and finally lives the life he wanted after half a century in the closet. This role requires him to deliver heartfelt speeches, take on a unique character and have a death on-screen. Plummer won the lion’s share of critics’ awards that Broos didn’t pick up, plus awards from SAG, BAFTAGlobe and Critics Choice to boot. Plummer’s role may have been in a comedy, but it’s of the dramatic variety and that’s somehow OK to Oscar voters than a raucous laughfest. Plus, the Academy might just enjoy the tantalizing opportunity to reward Captain von Trapp of the beloved Sound of Music. A win here could give the previous nominee de facto career victory. So how could he lose?

Against him: He could lose to another veteran with a career as long as he’s had, that’s how. He could split the beloved veteran vote with Max von Sydow, and given that he represents Beginners’s sole nomination, there may not be enough widespread support for the film overall to give him the big win.

Max von Sydow for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

For him: With a long career including roles in Ingmar Bergman’s most iconic films, Hollywood classics such as The Exorcist and prestige projects like Pelle the Conqueror, for which he received his only previous nomination, von Sydow could pull a surprise win here as the equivalent of a career victory, much like Plummer. His advantage over Plummer is that he’s appearing in a Best Picture nominee, much like Hill, and could be the film’s only legitimate shot at an Oscar win.

Against him: His film, despite the nomination, was widely panned and didn’t gain the traction at the box office many predicted. Voters may also consider that this particular film, measured against his other works, may simply not measure up in stature and may not be the appropriate vehicle to give him an Oscar. Even Plummer’s film was met with enthusiastic critical response and wasn’t a box office flop like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.


It’s going to be a tight race between Plummer and von Sydow for the award, and only Branagh has a real shot to come between them. Nevertheless, I’m betting that all that talk of an Oscar for Plummer since his film opened last summer will be realized on February 26.

The Oscar will go to: Christopher Plummer for Beginners

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Pina”

“Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” – Pina Bausch

Not everyone communicates in the same way. I have the gift of gab, and therefore talk and write for a living. Others convey meaning using numbers. Still others do it through a combination of speech and body language, often in a different role that requires them to do so. And there are still others who can only express themselves wordlessly, through the art of dance.

The late German choreographer Philippina “Pina” Bausch is remembered by the members of her dance company as a woman who spoke little, but who observed and conveyed volumes while using a near-extreme economy of words. She was a great ballet director and founder of the Wuppertal Tanztheater, arguably the world’s most innovative contemporary dance company. The great German film director Wim Wenders admired her, and together they were going to make a film about her life’s work. Unfortunately, just days before filming started in the summer of 2009, tragedy struck when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died less than a week after her prognosis, mere days before filming began. Wenders and Wuppertal Tanztheater continued with the planned documentary in 2010, reconfiguring it not as a narrative documentary on her life, but as a free-flowing art film comprised of her most famous pieces, staged and re-imagined.

The gamble paid off. Wenders’s stunning, otherworldly Pina (which I previewed here) is amongst the finest documentaries made since the turn of the century. Rather than editing together documentary footage of interviews in a talking-heads format, the company instead staged Bausch’s greatest works for the cinema. We see her famous “Café Müller”, a treatise on the inability of people to communicate in arguably the most social setting, a café. There is also her raw treatment of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, attacked by the dancers on a stage covered in actual dirt and standing in as a feral episode of sexual awakening. Performers pair off or dance solo in glass houses, on the edge of cliffs, in a gymnasium, on the Berlin U-Bahn and even on a water-filled, gloriously rainy stage against a gigantic boulder the size of a small house. Each sequence is dazzling and constitutes a minor masterpiece in and of itself, made complete when viewed collectively.

The purpose is for each dancer to appear as if at a wake for their beloved teacher, each sharing small memories of how they will remember her. The sense of loyalty is strong, as the dancers range in age, body type and ethnicity, and communicate in brief voiceovers in English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Slovenian and other languages. No matter how they verbalized, what they communicated through dance requires no translation. Maya Angelou put it best when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. And the dancers convey their feelings for Pina Bausch for us through dance, for that is how she made them feel and how they most freely express themselves. When caught speechless, all that is left is the dance.

A word must be said of the use of 3-D technology in the film. In a crass big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, the effects are used to show you giant robots or monsters laying waste to civilization, or to make your eyeballs singe with hurt while explosions cause seizures. It has been criticized as a cash grab and a vulgar stand-in for the absence of cinematic substance. The use of 3-D for what is essentially a formless dance narrative may seem incongruous at first, but is actually appropriate. The effect is that you see these pieces as if you were from the balcony of the Wuppertal dance theatre itself, watching a live performance. The use of 3-D doesn’t make itself conscious or obvious. It blends itself so subtly into the staging that it feels organic and doesn’t distract. In other words, it is the cleverest, subtlest, most artistically purposeful use of 3-D in the cinema. Perhaps there is hope for the technology after all.

Wenders’s sublime film is subtitled “a film for Pina Bausch”, not about her. That is exactly correct: this is a labour of love, made not for commercial gain, but for someone who has given purpose and breathed real life into people.  

Pina is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and is the first time I’ve ever said that the extra money to pay for 3-D was worth every penny, and more. It is one of the very best films released in 2011. I’ll gladly see it again, surcharge be damned, anytime.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Modern Film Classics: Kieślowski’s “Three Colors: Blue”

"Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!” – The Simpsons

There is an accident. We see this not from the driver’s or passengers’ point of view. We see this in longshot, as if we were another car passing by it just moments before it happened, and the sight appears in our rear-view mirror. Just a sound; just enough to alarm; just not enough to betray the extent of the damage.

Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche) is the lone survivor of the crash that opens Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1993 film Three Colors: Blue. She is the wife of an accomplished classical music composer, arguably the most important in all of France. The accident kills him and their young daughter. As Julie recovers in the hospital, we find out that the media have been following her husband for months while he has been carrying on an affair, that the marriage was in trouble, and that the accident dealt Julie such a crushing blow that she was still in the hospital recuperating while the lavish public funeral for her family took place. She breaks into the hospital pharmacy, bent on killing herself with a lethal overdose, but is unsuccessful. She is eventually released and is left to deal with her grief while in an emotional stalemate. How paralyzed by grief is she? When Julie sees their faithful housekeeper upon her return, and asks her why she’s crying, the housekeeper replies, “Because you’re not”.

This is merely the first ten minutes or so of Blue. We follow Julie as she sizes up her life, contemplates her surroundings, and slowly builds a new life for herself, one away from the public eye. Julie returns to her maiden name, sells her home and belongings, provides for the housekeeper, and sets up in a small apartment in a nondescript area of Paris to try and live her life peacefully. She is quietly hostile and closed off to reporters asking her invasive questions about her emotional state. Thinking she could leave her past behind, there is but one relic from her past that haunts her: her husband’s final work, a symphony dedicated to the reunification of Europe under the EU banner, and it’s not yet complete. Should Julie carry on with her life, or should she honour her husband’s legacy by letting the piece play? Julie is herself a trained musical composer and could work on it.

To fully understand Kieślowski's film, one must look at the double meanings behind its title. The first of the three films in the celebrated Three Colors Trilogy,  Kieślowski intended the film to explore the colours of the French flag. Blue represents liberty and freedom, and here we see freedom in its cruelest form. Julie has been cruelly severed from everything in her life, but she wasn’t by any means shackled or burdened by her family. She loved her husband and child, and this notion of “freedom”, by  Kieślowski's interpretation, treats it in an abstract form, showing a discomfit between its conceptual manifestation and real, palpable tragedy. What it really connotes is choice and what one can do when there are no longer any responsibilities. Anyone who has lost a loved one, or even a job, can attest that its loss or grief can be frightening and bewildering.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sound Advice: on “Je Suis Malade”

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided to post not the usual songs of love and devotion, but about exquisite romantic misery that can only be borne out of all-consuming love. It’s the kind that’s not healthy for you.

The classic French pop song “Je Suis Malade” was first written and recorded in 1973 by French singer Serge Lama. An overwhelming popular and critical success for Lama, the single brought him his first gold record in France and became known as one of his signature songs. Covered by a whole host of European artists, perhaps the most famous rendition in the modern era remains Lara Fabian’s 1994 version, which became an immense success and a signature song for her, as well.

It is not just a song where the speaker misses someone. The song is a catalogue of all the manifestations in which romantic love creates illness and deprivation. It is not enough for the singer to merely talk about the moon, June and spoon in rhyming couplets. “Je Suis Malade” shows how the singer, translated from the original French to English, no longer dreams or smokes, feels dirty and ugly without the lover, feels abandoned like a child in an orphanage. The romance, for the singer, has no pleasure or joy. There is only despair from an all-consuming love that at once feeds and feeds at the speaker, slowly ebbing joy away, leaving only exhaustion, resignation and a final cri de coeur that commands the lover to listen, and make a definitive declaration of anguish.

For some, it may be overwrought, but this goes beyond the usual romantic sentiments one may find in adult contemporary radio. “Je Suis Malade” is not a romantic journey, nor can it be considered a mere love song. It is the soul’s cry to all the winds, the four directions, the depths of the earth to the limitless outer spaces, that there is nothing more than incurable despair. Love is the devil, love is an all-consuming disease that loves one completely sick. Literally, the word “malade” could be interpreted not just as an illness, but also as a state of fact that the singer is completely heartsick. If you have any compassion at all, you would listen to the rendition by Lara Fabian and beg her to stop or to have someone put her out of her misery but you can’t, for her performance of the single is so singularly emotionally and sonically majestic that you can’t help but listen and wait for the final glory note. 

A popular song across Europe, the single has unfortunately been butchered mercilessly by reality show contestants hoping to become the next (insert country name here) Idol or X-Factor victor. This does nothing to take away from the original song’s potency, nor that of the remarkable cover by Lara Fabian. While it’s certainly not healthy to live the kind of love, it is certainly an antidote to declarations of love by positive affirmation. What other love song would drive one to such despair and yet still announces to the audience, “Listen, this person is in love, no matter how much it hurts them”?

In addition to the version by Fabian, the piece works well as an interpretive dance. Have a look at the free dance for this season for Canadian ice dancers Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. Looking at this dance, one cannot help but be swept up in the body language between the two, the anguish and the final pose where she is on the ice, begging him to love her. Weaver’s tears are real and, while you may joke about figure skating, one must not forget that it is itself also an art form and another type of theatre.

With that in mind, consider the next song of love you hear, and wonder if any will compare in its depiction of all-consuming love will compare to “Je Suis Malade”.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Supporting Actress

I know I’m a bit early in predicting Oscar winners, but this year this particular major category is all but a mortal lock, so I’m going to write about it so that I can concentrate on other categories. Here is the breakdown of the possible reasons why each of these nominees can or will win the Oscar this year.

Bérénice Bejo for The Artist

For her: A major breakout role in a Best Picture nominee, the charming French star Bejo could benefit from her constant promotion of the film at Academy screenings and Q&As. This strategy worked well for then-little-known Marion Cotillard, who won the Best Actress Oscar four years ago for her unforgettable work in La Vie En Rose. This role is a bit of a category cheat, since it’s arguably a leading performance given the amount of screen time she has. (Heck, even the BAFTAs put her in the leading actress category.) Bejo has been nominated for every major guild prize, including SAG, Golden Globe and Critics Choice.

Against her: It’s a non-speaking role in a silent film, and Academy members may want to hear her in a speaking part before deciding to award her with their most glittering prize. Despite her numerous nominations, she didn’t win any of them and is usually considered an also-ran, category-wise. Bejo’s nomination may itself be the reward.

Jessica Chastain for The Help

For her: Another breakout performer, Chastain has no less than six films in play this year, with roles in Ralph Fiennes’s Shakespeare adaptation of Coriolanus, the indie favourite Take Shelter, the little-seen Texas Killing Field, the political drama The Debt and The Tree of Life, the latter making her the only nominee in this category to appear in two of the year’s Best Picture nominees. Chastain’s prolific presence gives true meaning to the term supporting actress. She had a major run of the critics’ prizes, winning awards in almost all major groups whilst sharing in Best Ensemble citations from SAG and Critics Choice.

Against her: The sheer body of work this year may be to her disadvantage, as she has also lined up a number of roles coming out for the next two years. Her versatility could, in fact, indicate to the Academy that since she could become a major star, she may have other chances to be rewarded. Chastain could also split votes with her co-star, the beloved Octavia Spencer.

Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids

For her: If ever there was a single memorable scene from any of the five women in this category, it’s likely McCarthy’s character’s unexpected bowel movement in a posh bridal salon. In other words, given the material she had to work with, she just might be the most fearless performer of the bunch. Short-listed for numerous awards and the unexpected winner at the Boston Film Critics, McCarthy is also the most high-profile nominee, since she appears weekly in the CBS hit comedy Mike & Molly, for which she won a surprise Emmy Award last fall.

Against her: That bathroom scene, puerile as it is, may turn off Academy voters who are already allergic to comedy. She also doesn’t have the aid of appearing in a Best Picture nominee or a prestige project unlike her other fellow nominees.

Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs

For her: Veteran British character actress goes drag king à la Gwyneth Paltrow and Linda Hunt, and may end up being rewarded for her gender-bending performance. She easily received the best notices accorded the film, even from those critics who didn’t like Albert Nobbs. Plus, she has a theatre pedigree, having won a Tony Award in the past and appearing in prestigious British film, TV and stage productions.

Against her: The film doesn’t have the momentum of any of the women appearing in Best Picture nominees, or the sheer wide audience appeal of McCarthy’s movie. She needed critical prizes and not just rave reviews to boost her chances.

Octavia Spencer for The Help

For her: Winner of the SAG, Globe and Critics Choice awards, it’s a scene-stealing turn in a Best Picture nominee and popular hit. She also shared in some critics’ group awards along with co-star Chastain, and her gracious appearances on the awards show circuit have been well-received. She is a popular favourite and has also been seen supporting smaller independent projects at Sundance, proving that she has a wide and varied list of colleagues and friends rooting for her to win. (Some of them are even Academy members and reputation goes a long way. Just ask Eddie Murphy.)

Against her: Possibility of split votes with Chastain, but otherwise there are none to think of. Even those who didn’t like the help agree that her performance was a highlight.

Unless she declares her undying love and devotion to Kim Jong-Il or defects to North Korea, Spencer has this one in the bag.

The winner will be: Octavia Spencer.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Modern Film Classics: “Goodbye Lenin!”

One of the best things they don’t tell you in German tourist guides are those small shops that sell Soviet-era goods. When the Berlin Wall fell, the flush of capitalism flooded East German shops, washing away goods from that era, including now-defunct brands like Spreewalt brand pickles, Moccafixgold hot chocolate, and Trabant automobiles. These were replaced by more familiar names such as General Mills, Starbucks and Audi. Nevertheless, there remains some fondness for the East German days by the older generation, a nostalgia referred to affectionately as “Ostalgie”. I thought about this while watching Wolfgang Becker’s raucous 2003 German dramedy Good Bye, Lenin!

We first meet the Kerner family in 1978. Young Alex (Daniel Brühl) dreams of becoming an astronaut (called “cosmonauts” back then) some day. His sister Ariane (Maria Simon) has the potential to become a great academic. Their father has gone missing, presumed to have taken up in the West with a woman of ill repute, according to their brittle mother, Christiane (Katrin Saß), who responds by becoming a leading educator in the East German Communist Party. A decade later, Alex and Ariane have become layabouts and Christiane is still going strong. On October 7, 1989, during an anti-government demonstration, Christiane sees Alex being taken by riot police and promptly suffers a heart attack. As she lays in a coma, she has no idea that Communism has collapsed, that the Berlin Wall fell, and that German reunification had been realized. Doctors warn Alex and Ariane that their mother is in such frail health that she cannot be excited or disturbed, and they wonder if she will ever wake up.

By the summer of 1990, Alex ekes out a living by installing satellite dishes and has struck up a relationship with the Russian nurse looking after her mother, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). Ariane has quit university to work at Burger King and is now in a relationship with her free-wheeling coworker Rainer, who enjoys dancing to Indian trance music in the cramped family apartment when he’s not whiling away in his tanning bed. All seems to carry on well until one day, Christiane awakes. Alex, not wanting to disturb his mother or shock her by revealing the truth – that Communism and the system she had believed in so fiercely and unquestionably had evanesced, leaving her without a legacy for her life’s work – decides to bring Christiane back home into her old room in the apartment, filling the space with now-outdated Communist propaganda and shielding her from the truth about German reunification. The ruse becomes so elaborate that when she craves Spreewalt pickles, Alex finds out that grocery stores no longer sell them and he resorts to buying a Dutch brand that he then puts in old Spreewalt jars. Eventually, he recruits his zany coworker Denis (Florian Lukas) into filming fake newscasts for his mother to watch, confirming that all was alive and well in the DDR (German Democratic Republic). As Denis is an aspiring filmmaker, they stretch the truth by concocting stories on alleged political developments, and create an entirely new reality exclusively for Christiane, who has no idea what’s going on.

The film is structured like a juggling act, with Alex as the juggler adding not only more balls to his act, but also flaming torches, electric saws and knives, struggling to balance everything in the figurative air. They might have created a birthday party for the bedridden Christiane in her room, with “official greetings” from the Party and East German Youth singing songs of loyalty to the DDR, but they can’t conceal the unexpected Coca-Cola ad that is being installed at that exact moment in the building across the street. When Christiane suggests an outing to the family’s summer cottage, Ariane snipes at Alex’s elaborate ruse that he should set about redecorating all of Berlin if he expects to keep up appearances.

While I have just described possibly the zaniest film ever inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is a film that is informative and has great insight on the immediate fallout. As the Communist system no longer existed, seniority amongst its ranks amounted to nothing, and high-ranking officials that Christiane knew have defected or been made unfit for useful employment, turning to drink and endless hours of television to fill the abrupt void foisted upon their lives. Capitalism resulted in a strange devaluation of the old system, and Becker understands that the new freedom was not for everyone. It reminds me of the old Simpsons episode where an ant colony is destroyed and the made-up subtitles read, as the ants go flying into space (this was on a spaceship), the ants squeak, “Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!”