Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jump Cuts: Unsung 2012 Oscar Nominees

With the Oscars just a week away, the awards narrative is focused squarely on the expertly-crafted big-budget Hollywood fare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to applaud exclusively  (give or take a Beasts of the Southern Wild).  For most smaller films, though, the nomination is the award.  Each of the three films below has a slim chance of going home with a statuette next Sunday:  one's technically a shoe-in for at least one award, but faces stiff competition in some high-profile categories.

However, simply being in the conversation can raise a film's overall profile - one of the few bright spots in a seemingly interminable entertainment awards cycle often dominated by repetition and foregone conclusions.  Want to be pleasantly surprised?  Skip the ceremony, and watch one of the these movies instead.

Yes, prickly Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s Amour is a fiercely unsentimental film, depicting an elderly couple in declining health and reminding us of the crushing certainty of death in its opening scene.  Yes, it is often cruel, stealing the dignity of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as a series of complications paralyzes half her body, forcing her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to become an around-the-clock caretaker despite his own physical limitations.  Yes, it is upsetting - particularly to anyone who has served as an impotent witness to a loved one’s final corporeal moments.  (It feels bitterly ironic to note that many consider Amour to be Haneke's most "accessible" film to date - including the Academy, which handed it a staggering total of five Oscar nominations.)

However, Amour is also unfailingly romantic in a way that most films rarely consider.  For Anne and Georges, love really does mean never having to say you’re sorry: Georges knows to expect nothing but pain while seeing his lover slowly slip away, but he dutifully accepts Anne's ultimatum that she receive all of her care at home rather than a hospital or nursing facility.  Amour also succeeds in showing how building a strong foundation of trust and understanding means the most at the end, when the choices truly are a matter of life and death.  One of Anne’s former piano students sums up the typical cinematic attitude toward this topic when he refers to his visit as “a beautiful and sad moment,” providing him a wistful snapshot of a sick - but still lucid - mentor.  Amour’s triumph is that it goes far, far beyond that pleasant-sounding moment, with Haneke yanking the curtain of privacy away to peer past affinity and into raw, unfiltered intimacy.

Australian writer-director Ben Lewin's The Sessions resides on a completely different wavelength: a sweet and surprisingly humorous tale of poet and social activist Mark O’Brien (a superb John Hawkes) and his quest to lose his virginity at the age of 38.  Complicating matters is the fact that O’Brien is paralyzed from the waist down and spends the majority of his days in an iron lung.  An exploration of his options leads him to “sex surrogate” Cheryl Cohen-Greene (a very naked, Oscar-nominated Helen Hunt), a type of therapist who helps clients with unique physical or psychological barriers to intimacy to discover their sexuality.  

The Sessions tries to take a variety of stances towards sex, ranging from frank to raunchy, but ultimately it is O’Brien's innocence that defines the film's texture.  The innate goodness of Hawkes’ character keeps the racy subject matter grounded in goofy one-liners and tender poetic sentiments - culled from the writings of the real-life O’Brien, whose article on his sexual awakening also inspired Lewin’s script.  Despite bouts of middlebrow fluffiness and a tendency to cocoon itself in the touchy-feely, hyper-considerate trappings of its Berkeley setting, The Sessions proves that even a gentle, nearly conflict-free experience can still get a little frisky.

In 1973, a U.S.-backed military coup installed General Augusto Pinochet as the ruler of Chile, launching a dictatorship that endured for almost two decades through the intimidation, torture, and murder of thousands of political dissidents.  By 1988, Pinochet was facing a second referendum to extend his rule (the first, in 1980, was marred by electoral fraud and corruption), with no easy end in sight.  Best Foreign Language Film nominee No masterfully dramatizes the circumstances of the effort to force Pinochet's ouster, starring a magnificent Gael García Bernal as a hip ad executive tapped to create a series of political TV ads convincing Chileans to vote against another 8 years of the military junta.  

Director Pablo Larrín's decision to shoot with grainy videotape stock adds an extra layer of you-are-there immediacy (particularly during the film's harrowing riot scene) but in many cases the low-fi docu-drama look is probably more of a distraction than he intended.  That doesn't matter much when No's drama is so clear and compelling, and when the strategy of the "No" campaign - eschewing academic seriousness with populist emotional appeal and wry humor - dovetails nicely with the film's unexpectedly friendly and inviting tone.  Bernal's struggle to protect his family and keep his activities secret from his boss, a high-level Pinochet supporter, adds a serviceable thriller element; however, at its core No is a classic David-and-Goliath story that filters historical events through the commercial language of advertising - new replacing old, hope and optimism overcoming fear and retrenchment - to inspiring effect.

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