Upon further reflection about this year’s nominees, and after seeing a few more of the nominated films, I thought another post in this vein would be appropriate. It wasn’t a great year for movies, but it’s the Oscars, and the bitching can’t stop with just one round. Here, I will look not so much at individual categories, but more at standout achievements that should have found a home.You can find my first “Oscar snubbery” article HERE.
Rosemarie DeWitt and Bill Irwin in Rachel Getting Married
This movie got a lot of critical juice and scored a nomination (deservingly) for Anne Hathaway’s great lead performance, but there were others performances, just as praise-worthy, who weren’t so lucky. The movie centers around Kym, Hathaway’s character, a recovering drug addict who has been given a pass from her rehab facility to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (DeWitt). This family, of which Irwin is the patriarch, has seen more than their fair share of tragedy. Kym’s drug addiction has ravaged their lives and left each family member at odds with her. In several heated scenes, we find out the depths that her sickness brought the family to, and how much of a rift the characters have to conquer.
Rachel, who DeWitt plays as a sharp realist, holds things together in the face of Kym’s erratic narcissism, but her histrionics as a member of the wedding party force confrontation after confrontation between the sisters. Irwin’s father, having long ago assumed the role of peacekeeper, looks helplessly on.
The film isn’t perfect (at times it is downright melodramatic) and seems to be begging for Oscar consideration. Many critics hailed it as if it were the second coming; A.O. Scott of the New York Times lamented the Academy’s failure to include it among the Best Picture nominees. It is better than Button or Frost/Nixon, but they made the right decision in leaving it off.
But DeWitt is absolutely spot-on as Rachel. She plays a character that so many of us probably have in our lives–the golden girl who holds things together though you know her bright exterior houses deep wounds. She portrays the character with such realism and grace that, even when she says terrible things, you always understand the place of suffering they come from. It feels wrong to acknowledge Hathaway (who is equally superb) without doing the same for DeWitt; one performance would not be the same without the other.
The same is true for Irwin, an actor with which I am not familiar, but hope to see a great deal more from after this film. He is simply outstanding as the father, making the realistic choice to play his pain close to the vest, only letting his emotions come out in the most heartbreaking of moments. My heart bled for him through the entire film. I felt like I knew his character through and through. He could have been my dad. He could have been yours.
The Best Supporting Actress and Actor categories are extremely strong this year, but there are still some places where Irwin and DeWitt could have found their way in. Amy Adams isn’t doing much in Doubt other than essaying her usual role of absolute goody-two-shoes; while she does a convincing job, she doesn’t seem to be stretching much. A nomination for her seems insanely generous. The same can be said for Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road, who seems to have the words “nominate me” written on his entire performance. Again, good work, but he was absolutely begging for it. Irwin was much more deserving.
Misty Upham in Frozen River
I’m not a fan of this film. I thought its Best Screenplay nomination would have been better suited for any number of others. Much has been made about Melissa Leo (nominated for Best Actress) and her brilliance as Ray Eddy, a working class woman in upstate New York who makes extra money sneaking illegals across the Canadian border, but there is little about her work that seems praise-worthy. It felt like the same woman-against-the-world Oscar pandering that we saw from Charlize Theron in North Country.
The absolute opposite is true for Misty Upham, who costars in the film as Lila, the Mohawk Indian woman who recruits Leo’s character as a smuggler. Much of the film’s focus lands on Ray, but Lila has the more interesting story: forced to work menial jobs on a Mohawk reservation, she lives in a tiny trailer in the middle of a snowy forest. Her one-year-old was taken from her by his grandmother just after birth. Lila stands in the woods outside their house at night looking at him through the windows, maybe trying to assure herself that he even exists at all.
Upham’s character has lived a hard life, but she makes the interesting choice to almost stand outside of her own pain. Lila is forthcoming with Ray about the details of her hardships, and in discussing them, she affects a detached, almost disinterested tone, like she is an observer of her own story. Ray couldn’t be more attached to her own problems, but Lila seems to have withdrawn from hers, resigned to the pain of a nowhere existence.
Frozen River has accumulated a lot of undeserved praise, but Upham is the one aspect of it that I would have liked to see get more attention. It really is great work.
The screenplay of Burn After Reading
There were few films that I enjoyed more this year than Burn After Reading. I know that the Coens had a nice award season run last year with No Country for Old Men, but give credit where credit is due, please. This movie was just fantastic, packed with the odd humor that the Brothers have made their staple on great comedies like The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy.
The story revolves around a disc misplaced in a gym by ex-C.I.A. man John Malkovich and the two bumbling gym employees, played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, who first try to ransom the disc and then try to sell it to the Russians (Russians?). Meanwhile, equally inept U.S. Marshall George Clooney is having an affair with Malkovich’s wife, played by Tilda Swinton, and seems to be having a constant paranoid episode as he engages in hilarious practices in his basement workshop. All of this transpires as Richard Jenkins, the gym manager, looks forlornly after McDormand, who develops eyes for Clooney through an online dating service.
The movie is a complete throwaway by the Coens, and winds up being one of their most enjoyable movies to date, a side-grabber that makes you laugh while indicting the American idiocy that the Brothers see crowding the multiplexes each weekend. Few movies could make you laugh while pointing out how stupid you are. Burn After Reading does, and anything that can do that well, in my book, deserves some recognition. Best Screenplay would have done nicely, but apparently Frozen River does more for the Academy.
At the risk of making this post obscenely long, I will adjourn for now. A part three is in the works for tomorrow. Stay tuned, faithful readers.