Wednesday, January 5, 2011

If I Ran the Oscars...

...I'd do things a little differently. This year, I whipped up an awards-season article for ICON magazine, outlining those films and performances that should be nominated for statuettes, not necessarily those that will. It's a strictly qualitative, politics-free approach to the six major categories. Refreshing, I should hope. The full piece is right here:

Which films and performances deserve to be nominated come Jan. 25? Hint: many of them aren’t the ones you keep hearing about.

By R. Kurt Osenlund

It happens nearly every year: the Academy hands out trophies and nominations to films and folks who shouldn’t have made it past the Golden Globes. Right now, Mila Kunis is dangerously close to adding the permanent label of “Academy Award nominee” to her name for basically showing up on the set of Black Swan. In 2006, Little Miss Sunshine star Alan Arkin rode his industry cred and his stoned-grandpa schtick all the way to a Supporting Actor win. And I adore Sandra Bullock just as much as the next moviegoer (okay, maybe not quite as much), but an Oscar for The Blind Side? Preposcarous.

The Oscars are notorious for throwing bones to flicks that are simply popular, people and things that get carried along by the coattails of their movie’s sweep, and actors whose chief accomplishments aren’t so much great performances, but great career longevity. Too often, the actual quality of the work is an afterthought. Well, not on this ballot. If I ran the Oscars, every nominated performance would have a knock-your-socks-off requirement, and every nominated film would demand a spot in every cineaste’s library, regardless of whether or not the masses sent it to the top of the box office charts. Having had my fill of bogus, undeserved Oscar nominations, I went ahead and compiled my own. You’ll find some selections that will indeed make it to the Kodak next month, but you won’t find any Mila Kunises or Alan Arkins.

(* indicates desired winner)

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Attention is being heaped on the grotesquely over-the-top Fighter performances from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, but it’s Adams who finds the perfect middle ground between humanity and working-class caricature. As a foul-mouthed barmaid and Mark Wahlberg’s love interest, she at long last plays against type, and does so beautifully.

Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone
In a backwoods cast populated by local extras, character actress Dale Dickey, who plays the fearsome villainess of this Ozark Mountains tale, is as unrecognizable as her unprofessional co-stars. Her scenes with lead star Jennifer Lawrence are some of the movie’s most intense, and she all but spits venom while illustrating why you shouldn’t go knocking on strangers’ doors.

Kimberly Elise, For Colored Girls
In truth, I could have filled this category with the work of the ladies from For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry’s superbly acted, if grossly melodramatic, ensemble drama. Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton and Phylicia Rashad all turn in searing performances, but it’s Kimberly Elise who shatters your heart, throwing herself into the bruised skin of a mother whose whole life is stolen by domestic violence.

Dakota Fanning, The Runaways
Anyone who’s followed the career of Dakota Fanning—and that would be all of us—can’t help but delight in her turn as rocker Cherie Currie in The Runaways, a routine, but wrongfully underrated, band biopic. Leaving the little girl aside but retaining a necessary naïveté, she wows as a typical downward-spiral star who’s anything but typical when she takes the stage.

*Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
There’s a moment near the climax of Animal Kingdom—a movie already defined by shocking turns—when the whole dynamic of the story changes. It’s the moment Jacki Weaver takes over. Playing the Lady Macbeth-matriarch of an unraveling Australian crime family, Weaver embodies hidden domestic terror, showing a capacity for evil that goes frighteningly deep.

*Niels Arestrup, A Prophet
Unless you’re Marlon Brando, the role of a mob boss practically requires you to overact just to assert your superiority. But French actor Niels Arestrup doesn’t even seem to try as the prison-bound ringleader in A Prophet, which uses his brilliant work to create enough tension for ten movies. Like lead star Tahar Rahim, Arestrup molds a character that sees a full—and fully plausible—arc of change, going from a solid rock to a pathetic shell in just over two hours.

Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
The heart of a movie that’s very much defined by a palpable, ceaseless pulse, rising star Andrew Garfield comes within inches of being the MVP of The Social Network, playing co-creator Eduardo Saverin as a young man ever-struggling to put his backbone in front of his crushed friendship and battered ego. His climactic outburst is one of the year’s most unforgettable emotional moments.

John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Like Dale Dickey, John Hawkes both vanishes and stands out in the cast of Winter’s Bone, bringing fierce authenticity to the role of the protagonist’s volatile, mysterious uncle. Deftly walking the precarious line between friend and foe, Hawkes is utterly essential to the movie’s mounting suspense, and his eventual valor comes without the slightest hint of force or sentimentality.

Ewan McGregor, I Love You Phillip Morris
Pop-culture history has certainly shown that if there’s one way to play a gay stereotype, it’s to pull the flamboyance card and never look back. But as the ignorant loverboy in this campy crime comedy, Ewan McGregor is an adorable puppy dog of starryeyed sincerity, both capital-G gay and capital-B believable. He steals the movie right out of Jim Carrey’s rubbery fingers.

Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole
A no-name first-timer with the instincts of a veteran, Miles Teller is heartbreaking in the play-based drama Rabbit Hole, very honestly portraying the remorseful teen who accidentally kills Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt’s young son with his car. Teller’s scenes with Kidman are testaments to the healing power of forgiveness, and his contribution serves as the crux of the movie’s considerable emotional impact.

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
A breakthrough performance if ever there was one, Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone is a paradigm of natural, skillful transformation, showing a pretty young starlet morphed into a rough-edged, iron-willed crusader. On the hunt for the father who’ll make or break her family’s salvation, Ree is an indelible modern heroine, and Lawrence shocks you with how uncompromising a human portrait she creates.

Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Vincere
A remarkable film that far too few people even heard of, let alone saw, Vincere tells the story of Mussolini’s scorned ex-wife, and at its center, showcases a powerhouse performance from Italian siren Giovanna Mezzogiorno. As the jilted, institutionalized, and historically erased lead character, Mezzogiorno delivers the year’s finest feat of scenery-chewing, turning Lifetime theatrics into high art.

*Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Beyond her striking physical transformation (months of training turned her into nothing but muscle, bone and sinew), Natalie Portman, as psychotic prima ballerina Nina Sayers, has more dreams, horrors and insecurities flowing across her face than any other actress in 2010. It’s incredible how effectively she brings out every inner fiber of her tortured character, and even more incredible when she finally brings out her
inner demon.

Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
For one of the year’s definitive heroes of fiction, we can thank late author Stieg Larsson. But for one of the year’s definitive screen characters, the praise belongs to Swedish-Icelandic actress Noomi Rapace, who’s all focused ferocity as everyone’s favorite goth hacker, Lisbeth Salander. A born camera subject, Rapace has complete control over the entire Millenium film trilogy—it’s never stronger than when she’s on screen.

Tilda Swinton, I Am Love
If ever there were a question as to the limits of Tilda Swinton’s gifts, it’s firmly silenced with I Am Love, a sweeping feast that sees the near-peerless chameleon portray a lovestruck Milanese trophy wife, spouting potent lines in Italian, but with a slight Russian accent. There are few actors on the planet who can go as bone-deep into a character as Swinton can, and, here, she makes it look as effortless as ever.

*Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Faced with the challenge of wrapping his head and tongue around the ingenious, lightning-quick dialogue by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t even blink, playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with the defects of a mad scientist, the dogged arrogance of a pimp and the verbal dexterity of a talking machine gun. Love him, hate him, respect him, detest him, the Zuckerberg on screen will go down as
one of the great enterprising antiheroes of the cinema, with no small amount of credit due to the actor who plays him.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
Leonardo DiCaprio’s work in the twisty thriller Shutter Island is the best he’s done under masterly mentor Martin Scorsese, which is to say, of course, that it’s the best work he’s done, period. DiCaprio is never better than when he’s writhing in mental and emotional anguish, and no one is more capable of bringing that out than Scorsese. Here, their partnership yields smashing results, with DiCaprio virtually falling to pieces
on screen.

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
A profoundly sympathetic actor, Colin Firth tops his career-topping work in last year’s A Single Man by very humanly and heroically embodying a stuttering monarch in this otherwise over-primped British biography. Using the nuances of frailty and disability to create extraordinary depth of character, Firth does justice not to a person, but to a whole kind of person.

James Franco, 127 Hours
How do you make a feature-length film about one man stuck in one place into a gripping entertainment? First, hire visionary director Danny Boyle. Then, hire endlessly charismatic actor James Franco, who as ill-fated climber Aron Ralston flexes his dramatic and comedic muscles with equal expertise. Ralston is no cry-for-me charity case; he’s a funny and reckless assemblage of flaws coming to terms with what it means to be
alive. The way Franco makes you feel that is a triumph in itself.

Zohar Strauss, Eyes Wide Open
A beauty of understated anguish, Zohar Strauss’s lead performance in the little-seen Israeli drama Eyes Wide Open joins Gabourey Sidibe’s Precious and Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in the annals of great portrayals of characters whose fears and identity issues gnaw at them from the inside. As a married Jew who falls hard for another man in his highly orthodox community, Strauss often says everything without saying anything at all, conveying desperation that’s impossible not to pity.

Ben Affleck, The Town
Who would have ever dreamed in a million years that Ben Affleck had a movie like The Town inside of him? Forget Gone Baby Gone, the former heartthrob’s uneven directorial debut. With The Town, a superior piece of popular pulp filmmaking, Affleck scores a major coups as director, co-writer and star. The extent of the project’s overall success is astonishing considering who made it. It nears the quality of urban crime sagas by Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese.

*David Fincher, The Social Network
The thought of a movie about Facebook has BORING written all over it. But in the increasingly masterful hands of David Fincher, it’s an exhilarating, topical, wryly funny, dizzingly intelligent and instantly classic dramatic adventure, more wholly fulfilling than any other movie this year. A boundlessly cool 20-something in a 48-year-old’s body, Fincher is as a much hip stylist as he is a wise inventor. His vision is awesome.

Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone
Sometimes all you need is an air-tight, bare bones story and an unwavering, inflexible guide to tell it. Already noteworthy for her gritty debut, Down to the Bone, Debra Granik works small miracles in Winter’s Bone, her spellbinding sophomore effort that features a vivid sense of place and a tremendous sense of dread that defy accurate description. She drives her affecting themes home without ever stirring up mush, and
there’s never a moment when she doesn’t have you hooked.

Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love
The sensory stimulation Luca Guadagnino creates in his luscious, intoxicating melodrama, I Am Love, is sometimes so strong you’d swear you can smell and taste the movie. He is an amazing filmmaker fueled by beauty and earth-rumbling emotion, and the swells of feeling he incites in the viewer establish a highly unique, almost unconscious, connection to the story and characters. You feel what they feel (and smell what they smell, and taste what they taste).

Christopher Nolan, Inception
Christopher Nolan turned to the work of Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott and The Wachowski Brothers when crafting his heady, ridiculously entertaining dreamscape-thriller Inception. Without question, legions of future filmmakers will reference Nolan's creations when concocting their own mind-bending movies. He is a true mastermind. With Inception, he shows grand-scale ambition and the savvy to incorporate his very style of craftsmanship into the fabric of his film. He’s almost singlehandedly improving mainstream, big-budget cinema.

Black Swan
For allowing high and low art to dance together beautifully, and for succeeding in every way.

Blue Valentine
For being the love story of the year, naked and honest and immensely devastating.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
For being not only the year’s best documentary, but its funniest and most indefinable skewering of consumer culture.

The Kids Are All Right
For being a funny and touching depiction of modern family that’s entirely comfortable with itself and at once fresh and vintage.

I Am Love
For delivering a two-hour gush of pure cinema, and for being, in terms of its ability to stimulate the senses, one of the most accomplished films of all time.

For being the year’s single best blockbuster, and for proving popular films can have big brains, too.

A Prophet
For bringing compelling novelty to a constantly recycled genre, and for offering the year’s most careful and fruitful character development.

*The Social Network
For expanding upon its instant relevance to become an instant, entirely lag-free classic, and for being so overwhelmingly good the ending’s arrival is both a letdown and a shock.

The Town
For being the year’s most pleasant surprise, and for never letting you down, no matter how much you expect it to.

Winter’s Bone
For being far and away the year’s best American independent, and for doing so much with so very little.

*This article was previously published in the January 2011 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I won't waste time saying which picks I don't agree with. That'd e ridiculous (and egotistical). I will say, that I especially love the blurbs following each pick - it shows a great yardstick how well your like and understand your favouites.

A few that stick out: Fanning, I'm surprised you have her as supporting - but her work is impressive there, a shame it seems to have been completely forgotten; Elise is not my favourite in Colored Girls but it is the strongest I've seen her. Kudos for mentioning Teller, who along with that entire film I'm especially fond of.

This is a good read.

Kurtis O said...

Thank you sir.