Thursday, January 26, 2012

RIP: 2011 Oscar Also-Rans

There's so much at play when it comes down to Oscar nominations-- the glorified popularity contest of it all, the media-schmoozing decadence, and perhaps less so, the actual quality of the product.  With film as such the subjective art form it is, it's always bullish to call something "the best,"-- the Academy has thus spoken.  Here's a few of the shunned this season:

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter
The actor, nominated in 2008 for his supporting performance in Revolutionary Road, goes down a seemingly familiar road playing a paranoid middle-American husband and father, who may be experiencing allusions of a looming apocalypse, or losing his mind.  However, this is perhaps one of the finest performances of the year and the compassionate, resonate portrait of a struggling average joe trying to grasp his grasp of reality.  For a subtle, small performance in a tiny independent film, Shannon did quite well this awards season, taking a handful of critics prizes but didn't make it all the way; would have been a nice surprise (ahem...Demian Beshir!)
Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin
The Academy has now gone three for three in snubbing the alien goddess that is Swinton now after the past two years of gigantically esteemed work in Julia and I Am Love and now this...the Academy has some problems I since.  The sick joke is that Swinton did so well in the precursor race (starting with her win at the National Board of Review), and earned nominations from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild; a damning tease.  The snub likely says more about the film itself than the performance (more on Kevin later), because the nutty creepiness of the flick can't come close to diminish the unique power of Swinton's expressive and grief-stricken mother of a sociopath.
Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
Yes, it would be hard to say it's a shock that Dunst's extraordinary, career-expanding performance in Lars von Trier's Melancholia was snubbed for an Oscar, but it's still a bit sad that such a performance didn't gain a bit more traction.  Her win at the Cannes Film Festival last May, and the National Society of Film Critics just last month notwithstanding, here is a big name actress in a game-changer of a performance from a visionary (if divisive) auteur.  It's always strange in years like this one, in which the product is (or least perceived) as week, that the Academy always tends to go moreso to their bandwagon than expand into more startling territory.  That's an error, I believe, since Dunst proved with her massive mediation of depression and passivity clearly isn't afraid of such danger.
Albert Brooks in Drive
This must fall into a case of a performance (one that's massively received critically, that just missed the ball) as a case of the Academy not really digging a certain film versus the performance or the actor.  Drive was always going to be way to cool for the Academy-- too hip, too arty, too over-stuffed with glossy 80s music and way too hyper-stylized to be taken seriously by the stodgy members of AMPAS.  The first tell-tale sign came from Brooks' lack of a Screen Actors Guild nomination, and the general sense of surprise that the supporting categories sometimes bring...c'mon nobody predicted Max von Sydow (from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Loud) and Jonah Hill and Kenneth Branagh...
Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Again, like Dunst this wasn't exactly a shocker-- Olsen strangely never quite received traction in a very competitive best actress race.  Still what's startling is that in a year with an impressive roster of younger ladies in impressive, moody roles, that it was Rooney Mara who received the nomination.  Olsen's work is (arguably) a bit more skillful, as she exhibits a range and control of emotions, as well as charming movie star veneer, all the while playing acharacter whose lack of an identity and sense of self is a strikingly mature piece of work.  Subdued, but emotive as hell...I look forward to a career of more nominatable work in the future.
Ewan McGregor in Beginners
One day, the Academy will realize the error of its ways in the disservice to this fine Scotsman-- perhaps the most generous leading male in the past decade without an Oscar nomination to his credit.  Thinking about it, would Nicole Kidman (Oscar-nominated for Moulin Rouge!) shinned quite so dazzlingly or even Christopher Plummer (nominated this year for Beginners) radiated such gravitas without such a stellar chemistry with McGregor.  His work tends to be more recessive than the Academy prefers in their leading men, but he always manages to make a connection with the actors he shares a scene with-- his charm radiates.  Even as a male lead-- he's the best supporting actor.
Charlize Theron in Young Adult
Even though the South African beauty has an Oscar already on her mantle (for Oscar's favorite female trick of a pretty face going ugly for Monster), and even though she's been a movie star\sexpot\Dior salesman for some time, 2011 was a true year of discovery for Theron.  That she managed to be so funny, deliver such pointed and brilliant line readings and turn the table of an actress being so ugly, whilst being so pretty was a feat that was sadly unappreciated.  Whatever the turn of the Academy, what she accomplished with her tart, startling and complicated work as brittle writer Mavis Gary was utterly inspired and a career-elevator that makes me long for the next messy portrait she tackles.
Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids
While the actress scored a nomination for co-authoring Bridesmaids, the first ever of Apatow-produced affair mind you, it would still be great fun to consider what spunk she would have been as a nominee for Best Actress.  It's certainly no great shocker she was excluded...the Academy thinks lesser of comedies in general, and raunchy ones at that, forget about it (oh wait, they kinda liked this one.)  It is however, the achingly universal qualities she brought to her performance-- that of jealousy, depression, immaturity and depravity that differentiate this as a bargain basement feminine slant of The Hangover, and that she managed to be riotously hilarious at the same time is some kind of miracle in of itself.

"Life's a Happy Song," from The Muppets
The Best Original Song category is typically grating for not just movie fans, but musical ones too, and this year...a stranger one than usual that included just two (Rio's "Real in Rio" and The Muppets' "Man or Muppet)  Shamefully, or perhaps expectantly, they shunned the most joyful song in the most joyful musical of 2011...further anguish should be given to Alan Menken's cheerful and delightfully catchy (and story-mover) "Star Spangled Man" from Captain America.
Michael Fassbender in Shame
This one actually stings.  I can understand that dark, disturbing drama about a man battling a sex addiction may not be the Academy's cup of tea.  I can understand one's perhaps difficulties of the film itself, what with it's patches of reductive reasoning and a dash of Lost Weekend cliches.  I can understand one being turned off by the sight of a naked man.  However, I can't quite settle why Fassbender's tremendous and volcanic work could be overlooked by an Academy of actors who, seemingly, would kill for a role that requires such subtlety, vulnerability and humanity.  For his performance was far more than the over-publicized quick shots of his anatomy, but an aching portrait of loneliness in search of human connection.  And with a cinematic resume that overachieves most in a lifetime in the span of a single year...this was a node that the cinema deserved.

Whilst on the subject of the Oscar-shunned, it's time to consider that will a surprise Best Picture slot was made available to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and films as varied as W.E., Real Steal and actors as varied as Jonah Hill and Glenn Close were considered, the following films of 2011 received zero nominations:

Martha Marcy May Marlene- the best debut of the year about a young woman trying to re-assimilate  into normal society after being seduced by a cult.  Sean Durkin's debut as a writer and director is a nifty introduction of what hopefully will be a terrific career, as is Elizabeth Olsen's breakthrough performance.

Melancholia- Lars von Trier doesn't make Oscar-type films (in fact- the famously plane shy auteur will likely never step foot in America), but there's an almost accessible and absolutely romantic quality to his end-of-the-world melodrama that's rapturously operatic and thrillingly dramatized that I wish the Academy had a bit more of an open mind to.

Shame- yes this NC-17 tale of the depths of sex addiction may not appear to be prime Oscar bait, but with performances so tight and such style behind the camera, it really should.  It's a shame (!) that one relatively weaker years such as these that the Academy usually tends to go back to its tried and true formulaic mindsets rather than expanding its range and honoring something a bit more dangerous.

Take Shelter- a small, but astonishing portrait of a middle class American struggling to keep him family taken care whilst having end of days allusions.  Is it a mid-life crisis, a mental breakdown, or a damning reality.  What's wonderful about this feature, is that it offers no easy solution, but delivers a startling case study of recession-era Americans at odds, with a final scene of absolute power and control, one that's tight and scary and moving all at once.

Weekend- a surprise snub, hardly!  As this independent British mood piece was snubbed by it's own country.  But queer sexuality aside, this is one of the very best romantic pictures in years-- a startlingly frank, smart and bittersweet chamber piece of brief encounters and  soulful connection.  I hope the truest award this film earns is a small, but treasured slot in film history as one of the most romantic (gay or straight) movies of all time.

Further gripping to come...

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