The Academy Awards approach, and on February 22, we will see who walks away with the Oscars. It is true that these awards do not always honor the best films or performances of any year, but I believe the nominations have improved over the past five years. Now independent films and performances from around the world are more likely to be given at least a nomination, if not an award.
Nevertheless, as with every year, there are wonderful films and acting that the Academy overlooks. Below are my selections of work from the previous year that I believe is worth your while to look at. If there is something you feel is missing from the list, please comment in the blog. Chances are I haven’t seen it yet.
“Synecdoche, New York”: Perhaps the year’s most unusual film, and one of the hardest to describe because, well, no synopsis will do. It can only be experienced. The film is written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. “Synecdoche” is like that film, but taken to a further extreme, becoming a puzzle of storylines and motifs.
I use the word “puzzle” intentionally, as it has confused many viewers and critics. In some films like this, you sense that the seemingly intriguing sights are arbitrary, and that you are watching a random mess. In others, you understand some (if not all) of the sights at first glance, and the other symbols come to light as you think about it afterward. “Synecdoche” is the latter. Perhaps it will help if I say it is about living, dying and about how we all try to understand our place in the world, sometimes using other people to do so. Many films come and go, but of the ones I’ve seen this year, I suspect this is the one that will be watched and discussed for years to come. (Film critic Roger Ebert goes further. He guesses “decades”).
“The Dark Knight”: Yes, Heath Ledger was given a Best Supporting Actor nomination which he will certainly win, but the film was curiously shut out from the Best Picture category. That is a shame, because the film uses the Batman superhero world to create both a crime thriller and a human tragedy. It is fast-paced and intelligent in legal matters, yes, but it also creates characters that grab our attention as well as ethical dilemmas that are not easily resolved.
Given the box office records, this is not an overlooked film by any stretch of the imagination. But the next time you watch it, sit down and make note of how many quiet moments there are in the film, and how even in the discussion of legal matters the script gives us insight into the way the characters think and function. Also note how the Joker somehow seems more powerful, not weaker, as we realize his fear of being thought of as “a freak” or “a monster”.
“Rachel Getting Married”: Jonathan Demme’s film does not create a plot so much as a world where we watch characters as they enter and exit. The setup is simple: Kym (Anne Hathaway), a woman who has struggled with drug addictions for several years, gets a pass out of rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. The film then follows the family members throughout the course of the day. The camera becomes our eyes, moving as if it was on top of our head, sometimes inclining at an angle and then straightening itself, as if we had tilted our head to the side and then raised it back up.
Every character is fully formed, but the heart of the movie is the relationship between Kym and Rachel. Kym genuinely wants to atone for the sins she’s committed, but the only way she knows how to is to dramatically paint herself as a sinner in front of the people in the wedding party. This angers Rachel, who feels as if her sister is trying to divert the attention away from her. Little does she know that Kym feels the same way. There are tensions throughout the day, and yet there are also redemptive moments. We enjoy being at the wedding, and it means more to us because it feels real, not contrived or artificial.
Josh Brolin as President George W. Bush in “W”: Josh Brolin was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dan White in “Milk”, but his leading performance as George W. Bush in “W” is also very strong. Particularly admirable is that Brolin never exaggerates his mannerisms or makes his character seem like a caricature. As familiar as I am with President Bush, there were moments were I was so engrossed in Brolin’s performance that his portrayal seemed to me to be the real thing.
Brolin’s take on Bush is the key to “W”, which is not a true biopic, but Oliver Stone’s interpretation of Bush’s feelings towards the people around him as well as his emotional development. The flashbacks are not arbitrary, but explain aspects of Bush’s personality seen in the present-day scenes. It is telling that Brolin doesn’t take us through Bush running for President because at that point, we understand that he will win. I don’t know how accurate Brolin’s portrayal is, but it illustrated something I have often heard: Even if you disagree with him, you’d like him if you met him.
Sally Hawkins as Poppy in “Happy Go Lucky”: It takes great talent to play a merry character without the hint of faking it, but that is what Sally Hawkins does. She seems like the kind of person who was born happy, instead of the kind who chooses to be happy.
Also impressive is that she creates a plausible human being, who has personal flaws and yet always convinces us that she’s the kindest person in the room. At times, she is naive to how her silliness and bubbly jokes grate on the people around her. Yet she is also much more observant and kind to the people around her than most. In one scene, she interacts with a mentally challenged homeless man, and even though she cannot do anything for him, she treats him in a way that, perhaps for one moment, allows that man to feel as if he is being treated like a human being. Poppy doesn’t fix the problems of the people she meets, but in interacting with them, she does what she can to help them instead of moving on with her life.
“The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen: Sometimes a song fits a movie so perfectly that you cannot imagine the film without it. The Springsteen song that closes the film “The Wrestler” is not only a good song in its own lyrical sense, but it evokes the spirit of its main character. Listening to it again, those same conflicted feelings of admiration and sadness that I felt at the end of the film rushed back.