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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Oscar’s commendable yet curious yearly parade


Gerald SchmitzBillions of eyes will be watching the Academy Awards show this Sunday. The annual ritual attracts the largest global audience for any film-related event. It’s supposed to be a quality not popularity contest. After all, the big blockbusters hardly need more publicity. Expanding the best picture list to a possible 10 also gives smaller independent movies a chance to be noticed. Still, this remains a Hollywood spectacle for the masses, not a highbrow arty competition like Cannes.

Let me start with a couple of things I find commendable about this year’s nominations. First off, among the eight best-picture nominees are two low-budget features — Boyhood and Whiplash — that wowed critics and audiences when they premiered at Sundance 2014. Indeed Boyhood, by far the best reviewed movie of the year including in this corner, is a frontrunner, having already triumphed at the Golden Globes and British academy awards (BAFTAS). Secondly, one can make a good case for almost all of the nominations in all categories.

And yet, there are some curious, even egregious, omissions. How is it possible that J.C. Chandor’s stunning A Most Violent Year — chosen best film by the National Board of Review — failed to secure a single nomination? It’s a more substantial accomplishment, deserving of multiple nominations, than The Grand Budapest Hotel, a typical Wes Anderson quirky amusing diversion that surprisingly co-leads with nine nominations.

Chandor’s third film after the excellent Margin Call and 2013’s All is Lost is set in 1981 on the mean streets of New York City as a couple strive to build their heating oil enterprise amid industry corruption and a city-hall crackdown. Aspiring immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) wants to achieve success “the right way,” but in a cutthroat world where his delivery drivers and sales people are being assaulted. As he’s being robbed he’s also being targeted by a crusading district attorney (David Oyelowo). He’s up against the wall when his bank bails on a crucial transaction. His strong-willed wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who keeps the company’s books, has fewer ethical qualms. She’s prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their two young daughters and the family’s fortune. This is a searing morality play about a rocky path to the American dream that leaves some tragic casualties in its wake.

Another striking omission is no nomination for Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which took both the international critics’ prize and coveted palme d’or at Cannes — world cinema’s highest artistic accolade. Set amid the fantastical cave landscapes of Anatolian Cappadocia, it centres on the insular world of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former stage actor who has become a wealthy landowner and hotelier, passing his time writing articles for the local newspaper and contemplating a book on the history of Turkish theatre. Preoccupied with exalted thoughts, he’s become insensitive to the plight of those around him — his much younger wife Nihal seeking self-affirmation in organizing an educational charity; a regretful divorced sister Necla who lives unhappily with them; an indebted tenant family beset by deeper afflictions. An early incident in which a sullen child throws a rock shattering the window of the truck in which Aydin is a passenger is the first sign of trouble. Aydin acts the role of sympathetic charmer who can talk his way through anything. The movie’s extended marital and sibling dialogues on philosophical and moral themes (Ceylan wrote the screenplay with his wife Ebru) show his penchant for having the last word. It’s that habit of insouciant superiority that makes him both generous and, in Nihal’s word, “unbearable.” Despite an almost 200-minute running time, Winter Sleep is never less than thoroughly engrossing.

The Oscars have always been dominated by English-language movies with the foreign-language category almost an afterthought. Of the five nominated, I have not seen the Estonian entry Tangerines. Canada’s entry, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, a Cannes prize-winner, failed to make the long list. Two other highly praised Cannes selections, the Swedish Force Majeure and Belgian Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, didn’t make the cut. I loved Wild Tales (Argentina), which played at Sundance, but suspect the choice will come down to either Ida (Poland) or Leviathan (Russia).

In the documentary category, which the Oscars also relegate to a sidebar, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, an intrepid examination of the U.S. national security surveillance state and the case of Edward Snowden, has to be considered the definite and deserving favourite. HBO has picked it up for broadcast starting the day after the Oscars.

Perhaps the most egregious omission of all comes in the animation category with the exclusion of The Lego Movie, which had to settle for a best-song nomination for Everything is Awesome (when apparently it’s not). I haven’t seen the Irish Song of the Sea or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the latter a highly praised Japanese feature. But The Lego Movie was unquestionably 2014’s most critically and commercially successful animated movie, ending up on a number of 10-best lists including my own. Snubbing it makes no sense. The nominations also overlook the highly original uses of animated storytelling in Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture (Cambodia/France) and Signe Baumane’s Rockets in My Pockets (Latvia/U.S.).

Moving to the acting categories, controversy has swirled around the exclusion of actors of colour, and on the male side, specifically the slighting of David Oyelowo who incarnated Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma when two other British actors made the list, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything). Frankly there were too many strong performances to be honoured. Brit Jack O’Connell was brilliant in three movies — Starred Up, ‘71, Unbroken. Timothy Spall won best actor at Cannes for Mr. Turner. Jake Gyllenhaal was superb in Nightcrawler.

Among the nominees Michael Keaton (Birdman) could be a sentimental favourite for his bravura comeback. But my hunch is that Redmayne will add to his Golden Globe and BAFTA wins for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. (Forget his role in the Wachowski’s ludicrous Jupiter Ascending now in theatres.) The Academy loves nothing better than an able-bodied actor playing disability convincingly.

On the supporting side, veteran character actor J.K. Simmons seems the clear choice for Whiplash.

In the female categories there are also heavy favourites. Julianne Moore won best actress at Cannes for Canadian David Cronenberg’s caustic anti-Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars (unsurprisingly ignored by the Academy) but seems set to win for her sympathetic role as a professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimers in Still Alice. (Forget her role in the awful recent release Seventh Son.) While Reese Witherspoon had the most physically demanding role in Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, she already has an Oscar as does Marion Cotillard. On the supporting side, Patricia Arquette, the mother in Boyhood, should keep her winning streak.

In the best director category the race is probably between Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu for Birdman and Richard Linklater for Boyhood. But there are anomalies and controversies. Four of the directors of best-picture nominees didn’t make the final five, including the only female director, Ava DuVernay for Selma, which has revived gender-based laments about the Hollywood system. Bennett Miller (best director at Cannes) was nominated for Foxcatcher, which was denied a best-picture nod.

Clint Eastwood (best director, National Board of Review) was passed over for American Sniper despite its best picture, best actor, adapted screenplay and technical nominations. American Sniper has already made more money than all its best-picture competitors combined.

I’ll have more to say about that exceptional war-movie success in a future column. In the meantime, on with the show.