E: That’s right. This is the time of year when I glut on movies. Mostly, these are movies still in the theater; Silver Linings Playbook currently plays to large and appreciative crowds. I lucked out, because best as we can tell The Master was only playing last week in two theaters in the East Coast, and one was within driving distance. (This might be a tough get if you don’t live near a major city; it won’t be released on dvd until the Tuesday after the Oscars, February 26th.) Alternately, others are on video; you can pick up a dvd of indie favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild at your local Redbox. And you know what? You should.
Word of warning: I won’t be merely recapping these movies. There will be spoilers.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Made on a tiny budget on location in the bayou, this strange and enchanting fable has taken the awards world by surprise. It tells the story of a young girl, Hushpuppy, who lives near her sick unstable father Wink in a loving, impoverished, joyously drunken community called The Bathtub outside of New Orleans. Hushpuppy lives in her own trailer atopt an enormous metal drum; she cooks herself cat food fried in bacon grease, and argues with her father, who seems to stumble in and out of hospitals. She searches for her lost mother, and looks to stave off an apocalypse caused by harsh words and sickness in the land. What I truly love about this movie is its sense of place, its world creation. None of it makes sense, not really, not in the cold light of day, but like a dream, it feels authentic and true and completely immersive while you’re watching it. Hushpuppy’s narration gives the story an even more fanciful turn, and images of flood and fire and mystical beasts have their own ethereal power.
Beasts received nominations in the highly prestigious and competitive categories of Picture, Direction, Actress and Adapted screenplay. I honestly can’t say which is more impressive; to be one among 9 best picture nominees is achievement enough, but for first timer Benh Zeitlin (with no studio to support or market him) to beat out Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck and Quentin Tarantino for his microbudget direction? Amazing. 9 year old Quvenzhanne Wallis beat out Oscar winners like Marion Cotillard for her slot; she’s the youngest best actress contender ever, a fact made even more stunning by the fact that she won the part when she was five, and performed it at the age of six. (If you know anything about six year olds, you’ll appreciate how astounding that is; how do you get a child too young to read with ease to memorize lines?) And believe it or not, adapted screenplay really is one of the hardest categories to gain purchase because almost every movie is adapted from something (Memento, for example, was adapted from an unpublished short story by the story’s writer). I don’t think it’s likely that Beasts will actually win any of these awards – in fact, it would be even more shocking than the nominations themselves – but this is one time when the oft touted honor of just being nominated is true and overwhelming.
If I had to sum up this movie in a headline it would be this: Cult fails to improve mental state of psychopath. Freddie Quell, so brilliantly embodied by Joachim Phoenix, rages and quivers through the movie, as profound a portrait of disturbance as I’ve perhaps ever seen. Heaven knows the brain cells he’s lost to the home distilleries he makes first as a sailor in the US army and later in varying sheds and offices – in the ending days of world war 2 we see him empty a still he’s created in a missile, drinking directly from the stream as if imbibing motor oil or the blood of a dying animal. Hunched, his arms curving up from his waist like a model in a Vogue editorial, he’s foolish, even sniveling, mercurial, brutish. Has he been broken by war? Childhood physical or sexual abuse? We know only that he is deeply, profoundly broken.
And that’s why the film’s truly magnetic guru pulls you in. When he backs subjects through their lives and even past lives, they emerge with radiant smiles. What’s interesting, really, is that the audience is so strongly convinced that Freddie Quell desperately needs saving that as silly as cult founder Lancaster Dodd’s methods are, we’re willing to forgive them as long as they actually work. The rational part of your mind knows his techniques ultimately make no sense (touching the wall and the window? what is he even supposed to be feeling?) but you want them to succeed anyway. Could is really be so different from psychotherapy or confession? But it doesn’t work, and you see that method does matter, as much as we – and some of Dodd’s followers – might wish otherwise.
Perhaps surprisingly, this movie’s only nominations come in the acting categories. Did the slight against Scientology matter? Or is it the movie’s oddness? I have to tell you, I am not generally a fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson, or of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I don’t get Anderson’s movies, his fascination with abrupt and brutal violence, his love of brutal characters. There Will Be Blood escaped me. I don’t understand his narrative structures or his endings, something particularly true of this film. What was his point? What did we gain, what did we learn, where did we go? If it was to learn that a cult (or this cult) really won’t help the broken, then what was the point of the movie’s final act? Are we supposed to have learned something about what might truly heal Quell (the right romantic relationship), or fear his violence in the future?
Maybe it’s a person flaw that I need to answer those questions, but I doubt needing those things makes me unique. All that said, the acting is superlative. Too often PSH is rewarded for being himself – or I should say being a stock PSH character, since I obviously don’t know him – onscreen; that wasn’t true of his marvelous Truman Capote, however, and it’s not true of Lancaster Dodd. He captivates our attention. You can see why he gives his followers hope despite the complete malarkey of his methodology and views. Best Supporting Actor is the most contested category in this year’s Oscars; there’s no consensus whatsoever, so PSH could easily pick up his second Oscar. Or he could just as easily not.
Amy Adams, on the other hand, will continue her streak of winless nominations; Anne Hathaway owns Best Supporting Actress. For all that Adams’ 4th nomination is well deserved; her performance as Dodd’s steely, manipulative, Machiavellian wife brings a new dimension to the cheery and likable actress’s body of work. (She’s also developing a weird tell; after Junebug, this is her second nomination for a role which features a lengthy and very specific type of sexual activity. ) I have yet to see Lincoln, for which Daniel Day Lewis is favored to pick up his third Best Actor Oscar, so I can’t yet compare it to what Phoenix has achieved here. I don’t like Freddie Quells. He doesn’t inspire me. But I will say that Phoenix’s lined face haunts me, terrifies me. It’s hard to imagine better work than this.
Silver Linings Playbook
Yes, Bradley Cooper is nearly twice Jennifer Lawrence’s age. Yes, that’s Hollywood for you, and it’s gross. I wasn’t at all sure that I could stomach a romance between them, but I must admit that I loved this movie almost in spite of myself. Cooper plays Pat Solitano, freshly sprung from the mental hospital after a break down and longing to reunite with the wife whose cheating prompted his incarceration. He establishes a complicated plan to get his old life back; he’ll stay fit, he’ll read the syllabus of his wife’s high school English class, and he’ll help the widowed sister of his wife’s best friend enter a dance contest, on the theory that this act of selflessness will charm his wife back to his arms. Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan; Pat’s demons are triggered by the reading and by some dreadful 70s music. His father has his own idiosyncratic ideas about luck, a bookie business, and the Philadelphia Eagles games, and the brash young widow, Tiffany, has a complicated pattern of sexual misbehavior of her own. Throw in Pat’s best friend, his therapist, and the rest of his extended family, including a neighborhood teen who wants to interview the family for a school project on mental illness? Yeah, they’re all odd. But you like them. You wish them well. And man, do you laugh.
As you may know, this movie was produced by Oscar juggernaut Harvey Weinstein. No knows how to conduct an Oscar campaign quite like him. The movie received 8 nominations, some of them surprises like that for director David O. Russell, and supporting actress Jacki Weaver, who plays Pat’s mom. Her inclusion (along with Cooper, Lawrence and DeNiro) make this the first movie since 1981′s Reds to grab nominations in all 4 acting categories. (That film won one acting race and the directing Oscar, but lost Best Picture to underdog Chariots of Fire – could the director/picture split be predictive of this year?) Weaver was nominated before for her feral, fearsome performance in 2010′s Animal Kingdom: when compared to her terrifying mob grandmother, this role is far more naturalistic and far less showy. Even if she weren’t up against Anne Hathaway, this kind of “average person” role rarely gets rewarded. Like everyone in the supporting actor category, two time winner Robert DeNiro has a shot for his first nominated role since 1991′s Cape Fear; DeNiro has been prolific in this decade, but often wastes his talent on shallow comic roles, and so fans might want to reward him for this return to more challenging territory.
Handsome Bradley Cooper – a family favorite for his work on Alias – has his achievement in just being nominated in this company. He’s deserving (deftly blending mental illness with comedy is no small feat) but unlikely to best Day-Lewis or fellow first time nominee Hugh Jackman. So it’s Jennifer Lawrence on whom the film’s best high profile Oscar hopes rest. Actually, that’s not entirely true; nominations for director and editing put it firmly in the fight for the highly disputed and coveted title of Best Picture, but the race is so unclear that it’s harder to say whether the film has a true shot there or not. (And yes, editing is that important.) Lawrence, however, is definitely in the hunt. At 22 she’s the youngest woman to receive a second best actress nomination, and her roles as Mystique in the X-Men franchise and as Katniss Everdeen in the smash Hunger Games franchise put her star in the ascendant. Add to that, she’s funny and outspoken, endearingly real. It will be no small feat to better fellow It Girl Jessica Chastain; this weekend’s upcoming SAG award will give us an indication of whether Lawrence will play Gwyneth Paltrow to Chastain’s Cate Blanchett or not. BAFTA too should give us a better idea of who might will the battle of the ingenues, or whether Amour‘s octogenarian Emmanuelle Riva could sneak in and beat them both.