As usual, the all-out-of-proportion global ballyhoo signaling the Academy Award nominees this week was an almost entirely emetic affair that, this year in particular, produced an amalgamated emotion of confusion, consternation and pure violent rage, at least in this humble critic.
Sometimes the Oscars get it half right, but 2019 feels like another instance of Forrest Gump crashing the Titanic into Shakespeare in Love, if you know what I mean. Cheap ideology, imitation and a desperate desire to feel good about something — anything — seems to have outweighed any artistic or cinematic considerations on the part of the well-heeled Academy, which imagines itself a beacon of progress and liberalism in these dark times.
So what we get is an absolute trash-heap like Vice getting propped up for Best Picture, along with its Best Actor nominee Christian Bale, who is rapidly becoming the Tom Brady of actors. His imitation of Dick Cheney is just that — a physical feat of mimetic absorption that has the Academy once again choosing sheer mimicry over imaginative revelation.
It’s not all bad. The Favourite, which doesn’t stand a Best Picture’s chance in hell, was a great movie, and please, can we finally give Spike Lee a Best Director award? I suspect, however, that Alfonso Cuaron will land that honor, for Roma — a gorgeous, sleight-of-hand retelling of Cinderella that plays like catnip on our romanticized pieties about poverty and class.
But, seriously, only a screenplay and costume nod for the Coen bother’s fantastic Ballad of Buster Scruggs? Nothing for director Debra Granik’s heartbreaking Leave No Trace? How about Ethan Hawke’s wrenching turn as an existentially conflicted pastor in Paul Schrader’s searing psychodrama First Reformed?
Most outrageous of all, perhaps, is the snubbing of Toni Collette, whose performance in Hereditary was the best gift an actress has given to the horror genre since Ruth Gordon turned devil worshipping into a pedestrian pursuit in Rosemary’s Baby. If there were any justice in this world — much less Hollywood — Collette would have been a shoo-in for Best Actress.
But, as William Gaddis once wrote: “Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” And you also have the Academy, whose taste in films tends to run somewhere between middle-brow mediocrity and Trump’s fast-food feast for Clemson.
Here, then, is a brief, albeit incomplete, wish list of my “shoulda-beens” in lieu of the actual Oscars, culled from this year’s reviews:
Toni Collette (shoulda-been Best Actress nominee)
At the center Hereditary is Toni Collette, who delivers a performance of such unhinged force that it upends everything we’ve come to expect from horror movies. As a woman coping with the recent death of her distant, authoritarian mother, Collette’s Annie is the portrait of confused grief; as an artist who creates miniature dioramas of her life, she is at once self-absorbed and controlling, with a martyr’s streak a mile wide. Watching distraught Annie react to the rising terror engulfing her, I kept thinking, That’s exactly what I would do. Collette’s performance, a livewire of astounded incomprehension, breaks down all resistance to disbelief. She is almost too real.
Debra Granik (shoulda-been Best Director) and Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie (shoulda-been Best Actors)
Nothing all that dramatic happens in Leave No Trace, and yet the film is completely mesmerizing and even suspenseful. The rich, anxious vibrations of its narrative reside less in particular incidents than in the almost telepathic interactions of Tom (Ben Foster) and Will (Thomasin McKenzie), whose bond is jeopardized by forces within and without.
Foster and McKenzie carry the film so gracefully, with such understated fragility and tenderness, that it’s impossible to see anyone else in the roles.
At the invisible center of it all is Debra Granik, a director who seems more interested in actually listening to her characters than she does in pinning them wriggling to the wall of her narrative. The looseness of her storytelling contains its own strange fatality, like the slow ebb and flow of tides. Rather than imposing some strict architecture on her story, she allows it to breathe, eking out dichotomies — freedom vs. security, nature vs. civilization, individual vs. society, rich vs. poor — that shuffle and blend in revealing ways.
Lynne Ramsay (shoulda-been Best Director) and Joaquin Phoenix (shoulda-been Best Actor)
The center cannot hold in director Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and that might be the point. The film’s kaleidoscopic nature works to destabilize any rational, sane attachment to the reality it depicts, until you begin to wonder what it is you’re seeing, and from whose point of view. It’s not that the movie is hard to follow; it isn’t. But it is hard to think about. On its surface, it unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner as a suspenseful, violent story of vigilante justice, with one very shocking plot twist. But boiling beneath that is a quagmire of chaos, trauma and fragmented identity.
At the core of this surreal, hellish enterprise, and indeed driving it like some infernal dynamo, is Joaquin Phoenix, and his performance is shattering (as was DeNiro’s in Taxi Driver). Phoenix has always been a strong physical actor, and here he embodies something raw and brutal, a kind of imperiled masculinity that implodes like a supernova in slow motion — self-loathing and self-righteous, violent and yearning, stillborn and strangled.
The Death of Stalin (shoulda-been Best Picture)
In a sense, The Death of Stalin does for political terror what Blazing Saddles did for racial intolerance, substituting for Mel Brooks’ Borsht Belt antics the kind of withering, wonky slapstick that Stanley Kubrick brought to Dr. Strangelove. These three films, in fact, are all equal in their ability to peel back the layers of power and reveal the brutish, infantile and all-too-human tendency to go to any lengths (including global annihilation) to preserve a lie so flimsy and weak it can only be laughed at.