This Sunday, Feb. 26, marks the broadcast of the 84th annual Academy Awards on ABC, with Master of Ceremonies Billy Crystal in his first hosting duty since 2004.
This year's nominated films mostly suggest a sense of nostalgia and old-fashioned moviemaking (as well as movie-going experiences). Films still playing in theaters (and four of this year's nominees for Best Picture) include the silent feature The Artist (10 nominations), the bittersweet family dramedy The Descendants (five nominations), the 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the WWI epic War Horse (six nominations).
The other Best Picture nominees include the civil rights drama The Help (four nominations total), the breathtaking and adventurous Hugo (eleven total), the nostalgic and romantic Midnight in Paris (four total), the sports drama Moneyball (six total), and the ambitious and astounding The Tree of Life (three total). (I wonder, however, why the Academy decided to vote for only nine Best Picture nominees instead of ten from the previous two years.)
The Artist is, again (and literally), a silent feature about Hollywood's transition from silent films to "talkies" (think Singin' in the Rain crossed with Sunset Boulevard), and has been considered a front-runner for Best Picture since its premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival (where Jean Dujardin took home the prize for Best Actor, for his role as a fading movie star). It is currently playing at Sundance Cinemas and Marcus Point Cinemas in Madison.
The Descendants and Extremely Loud, on the other hand, deal with family tragedies and emotional heartaches-the former, concerning a real estate lawyer's wife; the other, 9/11. Yet, both suggest promises of hope, unity, and determination for the future. (George Clooney is another front-runner for Best Actor, for his empathetic and conflicted portrayal in the former, while Max von Sydow has garnered praise for playing a mute tenant in the latter.) The same could be said for War Horse, which tells the story of the experiences of World War I from a horse's perspective. The Descendants and Extremely Loud are currently playing at Avalon Cinema in town, while War Horse is playing at Star Cinema 4 in Menominee. The Descendants is also playing at Mindframe Theaters in Dubuque.
Mindframe is also screening special showings of this year's nominated shorts films this week. Animated, live action, and documentary shorts will be screened Feb. 22, at 6 p.m., 7:35 p.m., and 9:35 p.m., respectfully; and Feb. 23, at 11:25 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m., respectfully. These short films are also playing at Sundance Cinemas in Madison, along with The Artist and The Descendants. (Check local listings for showtimes.)
The other films nominated are currently for sale and rental on DVD and Blu-ray. The list ranges from the raunchy-funny to the ultra-violent, from character-driven to ensemble-driven, from visual wonderment to visual exaggeration.
Ladies first. 2011 has been an extraordinary year for women in film. The raunchy, female comedy Bridesmaids, first of all, became a surprise hit last May. It also set something of a staple for female comedians, and made a star-making turn for SNL favorite Kristen Wiig as an out-of-work pastry chef who becomes the maid of honor for her best friend's wedding, only to find herself competing with a fellow bridesmaid. Wiig is nominated for the film's screenplay, which she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, while Melissa McCarthy became one of the Academy's surprising nominees for her supporting role as the obnoxious but hilarious Megan. (Another surprise acting nomination this year is Jonah Hill. Often known for crude silly comedies, he is recognized for his dramatic turn in the sports drama Moneyball.)
The Help, on the other hand, is a powerful and moving adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel that emphasizes the roles of African-American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, and the hardships they face during the civil rights movement. It also illustrates those who became their voice while others were too quick to judge. Other than a Best Picture nomination, The Help received mostly acting nominations for three of its main or supporting actresses (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain). Other extraordinary female performances last year came from Meryl Streep, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thather (The Iron Lady); Rooney Mara as computer hacker Lisbeth Slander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo); Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, as women posing as male servants in 19th century Ireland (Albert Nobbs); Berenice Bejo as an up-and-coming 1920s star (The Artist); and Michelle Williams as the iconic and tragic Marilyn Monroe (My Week With Marilyn).
The latter's co-star, Kenneth Branagh, was recognized for his performance as the late great Sir Laurence Olivier in said film. Four other actors (three of them, veterans of the screen) were recognized as sole representatives of the films they starred in. Christopher Plummer is nominated for his performance as an elderly man who comes out of the closet before his death in Beginners; Demian Bichir, for his role as an immigrant father who tries to encourage his son to pursue opportunities away from the violent lifestyle of L.A.'s gangs in A Better Life; and Nick Nolte, for his role as a recovering alcoholic father who trains his MAA son in Warrior. (Max von Sydow was already mentioned, for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.) Two other screen veterans recognized were Gary Oldman (as espionage veteran George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Brad Pitt (as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane in Moneyball).
As this list suggests, there have been many diverse performances recognized and congratulated. To be honest, it's almost too close to call for some of them.
On the technical side, almost one-third of these films received only one category recognition. For instance, all of the Animated Features nominated were the only recognition said films received. A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita are two foreign films playing in select cities, and will likely be unfamiliar to audiences. The trailers, however, suggest lush, engaging animation and style. The DreamWorks features Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots, as well as Paramount's feature Rango, were successful hits with respectable praise last year.
For costume design, the Academy recognized the historical Shakespeare drama, Anonymous; the Charlotte Bonte-adapted Jane Eyre; and Madonna's historical-contemporary drama W.E.
For Best Screenplay, the economic-thriller Margin Call and the political-thriller The Ides of March were recognized. The latter marks George Clooney's other Oscar recognition this year. The last time he received both acting and technical nominations was in 2005, for his supporting role in Syriana (which he won) and for directing Good Night, and Good Luck. Another fact worth noting is that four out of five of this year's nominated (original) screenplays were written by each respected film's director: Michel Hazanavicius, for The Artist; J.C., Chandor, for Margin Call; Woody Allen, for Midnight in Paris; and Asghar Farhadi, for A Separation. (The latter will be playing at Sundance Cinemas in Madison this weekend.)
For Best Original Song, the animated Rio and the ever-popular The Muppets were recognized. (The other question I have is why the Academy decided to recognize only two songs this year instead of the usual five.) For Best Original Score, legendary composer John Williams earned recognition for his work on Steven Spielberg's motion-capture adaptation of Herge's classic comic-book, The Adventures of Tintin. Along with his nominated work on another Spielberg project, War Horse, Williams is currently the recipient of a total of forty-seven Oscar nominations!
The ultraviolent crime-thriller Drive, starring Ryan Gosling as a 21st century man-with-no-name, was recognized for Sound Editing.
For Best Visual Effects, the sci-fi reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the futuristic-boxing story Real Steel were recognized.
Films with collective technical nominations include the climactic and record-breaking installments Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (nominated for makeup, art direction, and visual effects) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (nominated for sound mixing and editing, and visual effects)
The significance and meaning of this list of films altogether signifies that 2011 was quite simply another extraordinary year for movies. It will, once again, be arguably remembered as an exceptional year for nostalgia and women in film. And because most of these films have consisted of nostalgia of a certain kind, they have, therefore, allowed moviegoers and viewers to experience the time period each film is set in, as well as themes and aspects of that time. Through meticulous storytelling and attention to detail, these films have also allowed us to see how relevant some or many of said themes and aspects remain today. Hugo and The Artist, for instance, have the potential to introduce younger audiences to the era of early twentieth-century film. Midnight in Paris, on the other hand, has the potential to introduce audiences (or remind them) what the 1920s were like. The Tree of Life represents the boundless possibilities of visual and visceral filmmaking and storytelling (not seen since, perhaps, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968). The Help has the potential to inspire social and personal change and action, as does Moneyball (but with sports ethics). Moneyball is also an exceptional example of the present day, as well as inspiring themes against conventional wisdom and embracing change and action for the greater good. Lastly, The Descendants offers the promise of family and unity in the wake of tragedy.
For information on the nominated films playing in select cities (e.g., Albert Nobbs, A Cat in Paris, Chico & Rita, and W.E.), and for more information on any of the other films, visit www.oscar.com. The 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony will be telecast on ABC this Sunday, February 26, at 5:30 p.m., PT/ 8:30 p.m., ET.
• For your consideration, coming soon to DVD and Blu-ray:
Feb. 24: Puss in Boots
Feb. 28: Hugo
March 13: The Adventures of Tintin, My Week with Marilyn
March 20: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Muppets, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
April 10: The Iron Lady