Well, here we are… 3/4’s of the way through the year and the Academy Award nominees are almost completely up in the air. Sure, the major nominees are usually held off until the last few months, but with ten Best Picture nominations up for grabs you’d think there would have been a greater effort to find cream in the crop. Inception seems like a lock for Best Picture, as does Toy Story 3 and maybe a few acting nominations for Winter’s Bone, but seriously… it’s looking grim.
So while we have Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, The Coen Brothers and more coming up in the final stretch, we here at The California Literary Review thought we’d take this opportunity to promote a few potential nominees we don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. From gentle reminders of critically-acclaimed films to unlikely standouts, these picks are all worthy of Oscar Buzz. So start buzzing, hmm?
BEST PICTURE: MicMacs
In my review of MicMacs for rival site Crave Online, I called Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film “definitely the best film of the year so far.” It certainly was, and although Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World have both ever-so-slightly edged MicMacs out of my #1 spot, Jeunet’s first film since A Very Long Engagement – and his best film to date – remains one of the 2010’s crowning accomplishments. It would be a shame to find such a wonderful piece of filmmaking snubbed by the Academy, particularly with ten Best Picture nominations ripe for the plucking.
Danny Boon stars as Bazil, whose father was killed by a landmine, driving Bazil’s mother mad with grief and forcing him into a Dickensian life of orphanages and loneliness. As an adult, Bazil is shot in the head by a stray bullet, which lodges itself so firmly into his brain that it cannot be removed without turning him into a vegetable. So the doctors leave it in, knowing that it could kill Bazil at any moment. Bazil could live to be a very old man, or die before he leaves the hospital. Repeatedly throughout the film Bazil suffers from a sudden seizure, which he alleviates by smacking himself upside the head and knocking the bullet back into place. Oh, and because he was in the hospital he loses his job and apartment. This is a feel good comedy about innocence and hope, incidentally.
You see, Bazil falls in with a crowd of homeless eccentrics who take him in as family, the first he has known in perhaps his entire life. Bazil is poor but happy until one day he makes a startling discovery: The company that made the landmine and the company that made the bullet in his skull are both in his neighborhood, and right across the street from each other. He tries to confront the evil owners of these weapons manufacturers, but when he is kicked to the curb he begins an elaborate plan to exact justice on those who profit from human misery. His newfound family, comprised of people with unusual skills like contortionism and human bulletry, join him for the ride as Jeunet takes the audience on an unexpected and highly entertaining tale of imagination versus cynicism.
MicMacs feels at times like a companion piece to Amelie, Jeunet’s most popular film, without ever seeming like it entirely revisits the same territory. Once again the director depicts a world of beautiful dreamers forced who are forced to share the same planet as brutal monsters, and once again romanticism prevails. Jeunet’s iconic eye is in full display here as he peppers his landscapes with posters for his own film, and unforgettable scenes abound, like a sequence in which two characters are blindfolded and picture what’s going on around them in similar but distinctly different interpretations.
MicMacs is a remarkable film worthy of recognition come Oscar time. Hey Academy, remember when you snubbed Amelie for Best Foreign Film (and four other Oscars to boot)? This is your chance to make up for that.
BEST DIRECTOR: Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
It would be nice to think that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, universally acclaimed but financially unsuccessful, has a place in the Best Picture nominees this year. Even with only five possible nominations, movies like The Shawshank Redemption have been able to hit the same criteria and boost their visibility via Oscar consideration. Scott Pilgrim may be able to ride the District 9 vote, where hip young Academy Members manage to prove how cool they are by sticking up for the pop cultural underdog. But the fact remains that no matter how many movies are nominated for Best Picture, only the five that also get nominated for Best Director will be considered the “real” nominees. And Edgar Wright deserves one of those spots.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World portrays a highly subjective view of a very humdrum reality, filtered the through videogame-addled minds of the target demographic. Much like (500) Days of Summer accurately conveyed young and modern views of romantic courtship rather than blindly hewing to traditions set forth in the 1930’s of what a romantic comedy should be, Scott Pilgrim dares to tell a unique story of courtship using broad entertainment as a primary weapon. Comic book flourishes are present but only foregrounded when they serve the story, not as some pathetic attempt be “hip” for hipness’ sake. Martial arts and special effects represent concepts that are otherwise familiar or uncinematic: overcoming one’s past to move on to a brighter future and a ho-hum battle of the bands are given an exciting makeover that amplifies dramatic content rather than distracting from a lack thereof.
All of this is expertly crafted by Edgar Wright, who admittedly toyed with every single one of these conventions in his television series “Spaced,” which remains ahead of its time in its humor, creativity and honest depiction of the life as perceived by modern youth, not by old fogeys pretending to know what young people are like. But if “Spaced” was Wright’s Mean Streets, then Scott Pilgrim is his Goodfellas. All the concepts he toyed with previously are now fine-tuned, carefully modulated, and cranked to 11. He’s too young a filmmaker to call Scott Pilgrim vs. The World his masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece, that’s for certain. Vibrant, lively, meaningful and most importantly for the Academy, a work of exceptional craftsmanship. Edgar Wright proved himself one of the very best directors of the year, even if the Academy ignores him (philistines…).
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer
Hey, has anyone heard of this Roman Polanski guy? You have? And you know all about the bulls*** he pulled a few decades ago? Great. Let’s move on.
Early this year – so early the Academy could easily forget about it – Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer quietly infiltrated cinemas to rave reviews and audience indifference. It’s a slick production, and one of those rare thrillers that manages to engage without a single explosion or high speed car chase. In the film, Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer hired to complete the memoirs of the former British Prime Minster after the original ghost writer dies under mysterious circumstances. Soon, McGregor finds himself embroiled in mystery, intrigue, seduction, and an Academy Award-worthy performance by Pierce Brosnan as Adam Lang, the Prime Minister who may be much more (or much less) than he seems.
The Ghost Writer may be an underdog in categories like Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay, but to date I’ve heard no buzz whatsoever arising from Pierce Brosnan’s exceptional portrayal of Lang. Brosnan plays off of his oft-used “suave” persona and Polanski cast him well: Take one look at this man and you can not only believe he’s a politician, but you also believe you could have voted for him. As Ewan McGregor learns more about Lang’s history and sordid present Brosnan’s performance never significantly changes; instead, it was layered enough in the first place to fit every interpretation of the character the audience can come up with, from sinister to pathetic, from a political mastermind to an average joe in tragically above his head.
Brosnan doesn’t get many of the showstopping scenes other Academy Award-winning performances boast – he doesn’t get to belt “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” or drink anyone’s milkshake – but that makes his work in The Ghost Writer all the more impressive, and all the easier to overlook. Without a performance as strong as Brosnan’s The Ghost Writer wouldn’t have held up to any kind of scrutiny, and it took a surprisingly deft hand from an often underrated actor to pull it off so effortlessly. So effortlessly, in fact, that it must have taken a lot of work.
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Ken Seng, Step Up 3D
Stick with me on this.
Step Up 3D got a surprisingly glowing recommendation from me, even though I spent the entire week beforehand in full-on “snark” mode about the previous entries in the franchise. I found Step Up 3D to be an unexpectedly sweet and creative little movie, thoroughly at peace with its motives (which were kindhearted) and thoroughly capable of providing gleeful entertainment. But as much as I enjoyed this diminutive artistic success I am not naïve enough to think that it deserves Best Picture consideration. If the unions ever successfully lobby for a Best Choreography Oscar category this kind of accomplishment would be a lock, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. No, as a whole Step Up 3D is not Oscar material, but its cinematography sure is.
I’ve never been sold on 3D as a natural evolution of the cinematic medium, and frankly I’m still not, but alone amongst the recent crop of 3D spectacles Step Up 3D convinced me that there is at least a place for uncomfortable glasses in the world of film. Step Up 3D is one of the rare movies that actually uses this “new” technological advancement to contribute to the story, not just to boost ticket prices. Yes, some of the gimmicks are gimmicky, and there’s an unfortunate choice to display 2D video images in 3D (which took me out of the film a bit), but Ken Cheng – in alliance with director Jon Chu – nevertheless successfully crafted a new, successful take on dance choreography.
Cheng’s use of predominantly wide-angle lenses and high-key lighting successfully compensated for light loss (one of the many intrinsic problems with 3D filmmaking so far) and the audience’s ability to compensate for depth. Certain 3D films like Piranha often used shallow focal lengths like any normal movie, to direct the eye and create three-dimensional effects with a 2D image. With a 3D film this is unnecessary. The depth is automatic and the human eye will scan for what’s important in the film through alternate visual techniques like proper framing. But more importantly in the dance sequences in particular was Cheng and Chu’s decision to keep the action as close as possible without needing to rely on choppy editing and insert shots. This shooting style allowed the 3D to really shine and demonstrate people performing impressive physical movements in a perceived “real” space. Watching somebody backflip on-screen is one thing, but to be there and see that kind of movement up close and personal adds to the individual’s accomplishments and the audience’s involvement in the choreography.
In short (too late, blah blah), Step Up 3D may have some of the best cinematography of any dance movie ever. It would be nice to see that rewarded come Oscar time.
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Julianne Moore has been nominated for Academy Awards in Leading and Supporting Actress categories four times. She’s one of those rare, magical actors capable of immersing herself so completely in a role that she almost disappears. In P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, her shrilly hysterical, miserable character had audiences straddling that fine line between horror and pity. In Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, her gorgeous, soft-spoken suburban housewife had us all falling head over heels. I only mention these roles because well, the Academy’s politics don’t always make complete sense, but after all those noms, they surely recognize Moore as one of the best of her generation. She was snubbed last year for her role in A Single Man (in which her desperate, lonely counterpart to Colin Firth’s complex George could hardly have been played more artfully), and that means the Academy is might be prepped to award her for Supporting Actress in The Kids Are All Right.
Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right features Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple who each had one child from the same sperm donor, then raised them together. When the kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) reach legal age, they contact the sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Paul, a free-spirited, self-absorbed ladies’ man, wreaks complete havoc on the family when he begins an affair with Moore’s character, Jules.
Played by anyone else, Jules would be sort of hateable (Moore often seems to choose complex, sympathetic and sometimes ugly roles). She’s self-centered and sort of aimless, but her loneliness is palpable. Once Bening’s Nic finds out about her affair, Jules’s guilt and pain are apparent in her every facial expression. When Nic confronts her, Moore’s face is difficult to watch—you can see her emotions right beneath the surface. Near the end of the film, she makes an impromptu speech to her family about how sometimes you f*&# up, sometimes you hurt the ones you love, and there’s nothing that can take it back…and that scene alone should garner her a nomination, if not a win. People screw up, sometimes really badly, and if you still find yourself feeling sorry for them, that’s a good performance. Bening and Moore have beautiful chemistry as mothers, as lovers, and as partners; my guess is that both will be nominated this year.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Inception
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is the biggest hit of the summer… and probably the year so far. 2010 has been pretty dull—but of course, it’s only September and Oscar season hasn’t quite picked up yet. Nonetheless, Inception will almost certainly receive a whole bundle of nominations. I wrote in my review that Inception redefines the psychological thriller genre—and though this is due in large part to sheer creativity and skill in the writing, it also owes to the fantastic visual effects.
I went to see Inception for a second time last week, and was still blown away by how seamlessly the visual effects team integrated computer graphics, sets, and live actors. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb and Ellen Page’s Ariadne sit on the sidewalk at a French café, the world begins to explode around them bit by bit, leaving the actors untouched. When the physics of the dream-world endure a massive upset—when the world folds in on itself, in short—I still found myself lifting my head to peer up at the magnificent change happening to the city streets. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Arthur performs a number of anti-gravity fights that are completely flawless, to the degree that I (granted, not an effects junkie) wondered if they’d rigged the actors up or even if they’d filmed parts underwater. The point here is that as farfetched as Inception really is, everything appears completely real. You know, like dreams do.
BEST DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan, Inception
Nolan has been on the scene for almost fifteen years, but he’s not terribly prolific, appearing instead to prefer quality over quantity. The Academy took notice of Memento in 2000, and granted Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for his unbelievably spooky take on the Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008, but Nolan himself hasn’t been nominated for Best Director. He’s a dark horse in the running who performs multiple roles on each of his films (usually writer, producer, and director), and Inception is likely the tipping point in his favor.
Nolan’s films extract fantastic, career-making performances from his actors, and truly magnificent work from his crew. I know little about his directorial style, but it’s easy enough to see he’s brilliant at what he does. It may be a few more years before he wins, but considering the past nominations his films have garnered, it’s about time the Academy worked up to giving him his due.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Roman Polanski and Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer
Sometimes it’s best for filmmakers to play it simple. This year it’s been especially true. Quality at the movies has been hard to come by, and Inception notwithstanding, most of the really good work has come from fairly low-profile projects.
With public opinion of the always controversial Roman Polanski at an all-time low, it is no surprise that his latest feature did not make much of a splash in America. However, he’s lost not one bit of his knack for drama and suspense. Fortunately, plenty of good actors are still willing to work with him (though you have to wonder which ones have refused outright). In this tense thriller about false memoirs, state secrets, and assorted intrigue, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Olivia Williams all circle one another with the paranoid ferocity of starving dogs. Kim Cattrall gets to flex some muscles beyond the reach of her her infamously oversexed TV persona, and Tom Wilkinson steals one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes as sinister academic with more than a few things to hide.
But an able cast and a skilled director only bring a picture half the way. There must be a script, and a good one. Polanski and novelist Robert Harris adapted the screenplay from Harris’s novel The Ghost. I enjoyed the twists and turns of this film so much that I went straight out to find and read the book. What we have here is a straight, faithful adaptation of an engaging and cleverly crafted story. It may not be a novel destined for greatness, but it is a page turner, and the film is the moving picture equivalent. Minor details were changed here and there, but the spirit and impact of the tale remain intact. Nothing fancy, just good execution. Enjoy it yourself if you have the chance.
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Michael Shannon, The Runaways
This film came and went rather quickly and quietly, but many of the few people who saw it in its first run seemed to like it. Myself included, and that was a pleasant surprise. The trailer didn’t make it look like anything special. But it was, just a little bit – a stylish tidbit of history about the real-life Runaways, rock and roll’s original bad girls. As Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart had big shoes to fill, and she managed that all right, I suppose. Dakota Fanning was a bigger surprise, in a strong and sobering performance as torubled frontgal Cherie Currie. I really enjoyed Scout Taylor-Compton in her just plain mean turn as Lita Ford. I don’t know what the real Lita had to say about it, but it was convincing, and in its own hateful way, kind of charming.
To anchor and exploit their youthful fury, along comes ruthlessly eccentric producer Kim Fowley, because of whom (and in spite of whom) the Runaways rose to prominence by harnessing the power of the teenage sex drive and blasting it back at everyone who would listen. Michael Shannon, veteran of the bizarre, and one of my own favorite character actors, radiates eerie charm and edgy menace all at once in this role.
Shannon’s Fowley embodies an unsettling tension between mentor and antagonist. He toughens the girls up with abusive tirades, which seem as much a source of cheap amusement for himself as they are practical lessons in rock and roll. Once the band mines sufficient wisdom and influence from his teachings, the next priority seems to be finding away out from under his oppressive thumb.
Fowley is a fashion chameleon as well, transforming along with “the scene” every time we see him. His avant-garde ramblings and quick-change temperament are a near-perfect metphor for the instability of art and fashion. When we last see him, he is alone, alienated by the Runaways, presumably transformed and primed for the next big thing. Juggling charisma and the creeps is no easy task, but Shannon is a pro. As a bonus, even the real Kim Fowley expressed his approval of the performance.
BEST ART DIRECTION: The Wolfman
The Wolfman arrived with reasonable fanfare, but due to production delays it also arrived several months behind schedule. This is rarely a good start for a film, and can overtax the anticipation of fans and critics alike. The reviews were mixed, but make no mistake. The Wolfman was a perfectly respectable summer scare flick, especially considering some of this year’s dreadful alternatives.
A remake of the 1941 “definitive” Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Junior, this film weaves its own angle on a poignant story of lost humanity and dark family secrets. Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins square off as a father and son faced with terrible wolfish mayhem on the English moor near the end of the 19th century. This is a period piece, and a very stylized one. Victorian England is a wonderful setting for nightmares, and every frame in this film is sooty and ominous.
From spooky manor houses to eerie crypts to turn-of-the century madhouses, every surface in the film oozes dread and foreboding. Rick Baker’s wolf makeup is great, as are the costumes. But the total look is what sells this film. It won’t change the way you see movies, but it might make you nostalgic for your favorite horror classic. In many ways, and especially in its seamlessness of style, The Wolfman is one of the purest and most traditional horror film to come along in years.