Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You've Got To Accentuate The Positive: What's Good About The 2012 Oscar Nominations?

The Oscar nominations were announced today - not that anyone would notice since it's not like everybody is talking about it all the damn time - and they confirmed once again that the Oscars are worthless. And I don't mean that in the sense that all human endeavour is worthless because one day we'll all die and no one will care about anything we did in life, and besides which the sun will one day implode and destroy the Earth, eradicating all trace of all humanity, making our irritation at Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close getting an Oscar nomination seem pretty trivial.

No, I mean that the Oscars are worthless because they fail to do the thing that they are meant to, which is recognise the exceptional films released in any given year. Sure, they sometimes get it right - the nomination for The Tree of Life, in particular, strikes me as unusually spot on for once - but for the most part they celebrate the merely okay, rather than the excellent.

Considering that last year saw some truly great films released, ones that were bold, daring and strange, it would be easy to write about the many, many great films that were snubbed in favour of mediocrity. However, since everyone is going to be doing that, I've decided to set cynicism aside and focus on the positive, looking at the little delights sprinkled amongst the dullness.

Delight no. 1: Bret McKenzie is now an Oscar nominee

In the years since they ended their cult HBO sitcom on account of how exhausting it was starring in, writing, producing and composing all the original music for it (I'm getting tired just writing all their credits), the fortunes of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, a.k.a. The Flight of the Conchords, seemed to be following the typical path of many a comedy duo who decide to set their partnership aside, however temporarily or amicably. One of them went off and appeared in a bunch of (almost uniformly terrible) Hollywood films whilst the other kind of didn't seem to do anything, and instead faded from view. The Lesser Spotted Conchord has made a hell of comeback, though, since he has managed to land a nomination for his work on The Muppets.

Everything's coming up Figwit!
It's easy to see why "Man or Muppet" has been chosen as representative of the soundtrack, too, since it has that perfect combination of funny, vaguely ironic detachment and genuinely beautiful songwriting that marked the best work McKenzie did with Clement. It also has a pretty solid chance of winning since the Academy has decided, bizarrely, to only have two nominations for Best Original Song this year (the other being "Real In Rio" from Rio). This puts tremendous pressure on Jemaine, though, who is really going to have to deliver something special in Men In Black III to get his own golden statue.

Here's the video for "Man Or Muppet," which gives away a cameo in the film that is best left unspoiled, so you have been warned.

And here's the one for "Real In Rio," so you know what to hate if it beats "Man Or Muppet":

Delight no. 2: The Dean from Community is now an Oscar nominee

Yes, it's a lot to take in.
As soon as The Descendants, the new film by Alexander Payne, started gathering some serious awards steam, I got excited. Not just because I think that Payne is a terrific director who has been away for too long, but because I saw that the screenplay was co-written by Jim Rash, currently best known as the pansexual Dean Pelton on NBC's Community. If the film kept going at the pace that it was, it seemed obvious to me that Jim Rash would soon be a nominee, and so it has come to pass. This delights me because a) I think that Rash is a tremendously funny guy who is great on Community, and b) because it means that this guy is now an Oscar nominee:

We can laugh, but at least he had the sense to dress up as Catwoman before he won, unlike other Oscar winners I could mention.
At least we know that his costumes on the night will be simply di-vine.

Delight no. 3: The nomination for Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in Best Documentary Feature

It feels wrong to use the word "delight" in regards to Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third and likely final film in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's series of documentaries about The West Memphis Three, who were wrongly accused and convicted of ritually murdering three young boys in 1993. The story is a heartbreaking one of injustice and small-town arrogance that Berlinger and Sinofsky have followed doggedly since the mid-90s, but more than that, they have actively changed the nature of that story through their films. Their continued insistence on going over the case kept it in the public consciousness, no doubt fueling the campaign to have the case re-opened and the men's conviction overturned which, in a turn that would be ridiculed as unrealistic in a fictional film, happened last year, just as Purgatory was doing the rounds at film festivals. This nomination not only feels like worthy recognition of the great work that Berlinger and Sinofsky have done as documentarians for the past 15 years, but also of the fact that their work made a difference in the lives of three men who could easily have been lost completely.

Delight no. 4: A Separation getting a nod for Best Original Screenplay

It's rare for a foreign language film to break out of the ghetto created by the very existence of a Foreign Language category, and even rarer for such a film to be nominated for its screenplay because, well, it's all foreign, isn't it? You can't very well expect Academy members to recognise good writing if it isn't in English! (Odd tangent: This relates in some way to Pedro Almodovar, who won his only Oscar to date for writing Talk to Her in 2002. The lack of recognition for his similarly great The Skin I Live In is one of the few great bugbears I have about these nominations.) So for Asghar Farhadi's devastating story of what happens when an Iranian couple separates to be recognised for the great piece of work it is, and not merely for being great but foreign, is really wonderful. It probably won't win, but baby steps.

Delight no. 5: Chico & Rita getting an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature

It's no great secret that Pixar dropped the ball, creatively speaking, with Cars 2 (even if the film wound up doing fine commercially) and that failing has been confirmed with the Oscar nominations, since it has become the first Pixar feature not to be nominated for an Oscar in one form or another. That left one space open on the Animated Feature category, and I get the feeling that Chico & Rita, an animated film about the relationship between a pianist and a singer told over many years with jazz and the Cuban revolution forming a backdrop, was the film that snuck in to fill the gap. And a fine one it is, too. This is exactly the sort of film that the Academy should be recognising all the time; small, personal and beautiful.

Delight no. 6: Nick Nolte and Christopher Plummer getting Supporting Actor nominations

Plummer, pictured, informs Arthur that he has scandalously been snubbed for Best Supporting Dog
Warrior and Beginners are two very different films that have shared an unusually similar life cycle. Both were released to considerable acclaim (even their Rotten Tomatoes scores are eerily close, with Warrior being 83% Fresh on the review aggregator site and Beginners 84%) but failed to find particularly big audiences, which was particularly strange in the case of Warrior since it was intended to be a big crowd pleasing movie.

Nick Nolte: was he acting in Warrior or did he just happen to be around when the cameras started? We may never know.
Both have continued to live on through word of mouth and renewed and redoubled critical support over the subsequent months, and that has culminated in nominations for both Christopher Plummer and Nick Nolte for their roles as an 75 year old man who comes out to his son following the death of his wife and as a gruff, grizzled trainer, respectively. Both were great in their respective roles and it would be great to see Plummer being rewarded for his subtle, moving performance.

Delight no. 7: Gary Oldman getting his first ever Oscar nomination, a mere 30 years into his career

Cheer the fuck up already! You've got a nomination, what more do you want? A parade? Not very spy-like behaviour, wanting a parade, is it?
It's strange that Gary Oldman, a man whose every performance is so keenly associated with his tremendous physicality, should finally be recognised for a performance in which he is largely static, but there's such a strong sense of, "Well it's about fucking time!" about his nomination for his performance as George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that it just feels right. I wasn't as fond of the film as I hoped I would be, but Oldman's performance was easily the best thing about it, and whilst it's no Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, it'll have to do.

Delight no. 8: Rooney Mara's nomination for Best Actress
She'll catch her death walking around like that in Sweden. Mental.
Whilst I thought that the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a bit clumsy and suffered from all the problems of the original novels and film adaptations, I can't faulty Rooney Mara, who is fearless and brave in her willingness to go to the extreme depths that the role requires. I can't say for certain if it was the best performance of the films nominated since I haven't seen all of them, but I have to assume that The Iron Lady doesn't feature a scene in which Margaret Thatcher is brutally beaten then anally raped. Rooney Mara's performance is the sort of strong, unflinching work that the Academy rarely rewards, or even recognises, so this is a step in the right direction.

Delight no. 9: The love for Moneyball

A mathematician if ever there was one.
The danger with being first out of the gate come awards season is that when a film is released in September or October, it might have been forgotten by January. Such was the fate I felt awaited Moneyball, a great sports drama that somehow made math and baseball - the two most interminably dull things ever invented - into compelling cinema. It seemed likely to get attention for the script by Aaron Sorkin (who they just can't give enough Oscars to these days, it seems), Steve Zaillian (whose surname infuriates me because it's soooo close to being a palindrome but falls just short) and Stan Chervin but little else. So for it to walk away with a nomination for Brad Pitt in the lead role (doing much finer work than in his supporting turn in The Tree of Life), Jonah Hill for his supporting performance (which suffers from a lack of crass cunnilingus jokes, unlike his role in The Sitter) and Best Picture as well as one for Screenplay is a genuinely pleasant surprise. Of those nominations, I'd like to see the film win for Best Supporting Actor the most since Jonah Hill has lost so much weight at this point that seeing him get up on stage would be like watching him collect it on behalf of the version of himself that no longer exists. Farewell, Fat Jonah Hill, we hardly knew ye.

I wish I knew enough about the sport to end this segment on a baseball metaphor, but I'm afraid I don't, so here we are.

Delight no. 10: The love for The Artist

Yeah, I know I've used this image before but it's taken me two hours to put this whole thing together and I just want it done with now. Also, they so charming.
This particular outcome was completely unsurprising, since The Artist has had so much praise heaped on it for such a long time that anything less than 9 Oscar nominations would have been just cause for a declaration of war between the Academy and the whole of France. Hell, I've already talked twice about how much I bloody love it. Still, it's just nice to see something that you're really, really passionate about getting the attention it deserves. Whether or not having 10 Oscar nominations will finally convince people that it's worth taking a punt on that black-and-white silent film that everyone is raving about remains to be seen, but if just one person decides to check out The Artist based on what a bunch of strangers in Los Angeles tell them is good, then maybe the Oscars have some value after all. Though the producers are probably hoping that more than one person decides to check it out, because Oscar campaigns don't pay for themselves.