THE LONG SHOT: Consider this

Posted by · 2:34 pm · November 18th, 2009

John Malkovich and Jessica Haines in DisgraceThere’s nothing like an Oscar season to prove what a small number five (or even ten) is.

We may only be in November, but already, months of conversation, covering a broad canvas of Oscar sure-shots and long-shots alike, have devolved into a ruthless mathematical elimination process, as previously five-wide categories fill up with safe bets. Before you know it, scores of previously fancied contenders are jostling for a mere one or two supposedly “free” slots on the ballot, and with each week that passes, the pool of possibles is culled further.

This is, of course, hardest on independent or leftfield contenders. Having fought mightily even to enter the discussion in the first place, they must then rely on a flaky combination of precursors, DVD screeners and prayer to stay afloat.

Miracles do happen, of course, thanks largely to the Academy’s weighted ballot system, where a number-one vote is all. (Nobody was talking about Tommy Lee Jones to take the last Best Actor slot in 2007, but there he was nonetheless. Ditto the recent likes of Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton and “City of God.”)

With that in mind, I’d like to spotlight one contender in each major category that deserves a similarly happy outcome. Many of them are names I’ve championed before. Most of them are sitting on the furthest reaches of the sidelines. All of them deserve better.

For Best Actor, I’d like to single out a long-serving, long-overdue American great, a previous nominee on more than one occasion, who has excelled himself this year. No, I’m not talking about frontrunner Jeff Bridges, but a certain John Malkovich, whose stunning portrayal of a socially and sexually dissolute South African academic in “Disgrace” remains the finest male performance I’ve seen all year.

Meshing his trademark arch eccentricity as a performer with a far less familiar emotional directness, and nailing a tricky accent in the process, Malkovich’s performance is the kind of achievement (from the kind of actor) that awards season would lap up – if only anybody had taken the time to see this tiny, tough little film back in September.

Meanwhile, Malkovich’s “Disgrace” co-star is also my Best Supporting Actress selection: in her film debut, 30 year-old South African Jessica Haines offers a startling calling-card to casting agents everywhere. Under her very delicate touch, a seemingly passive character gradually unlocks seething depths of guilt, pride and post-traumatic fear – hers is as concise a study of the post-apartheid white condition in South Africa as J.M. Coetzee gave in his lauded source novel.

Rupert Friend in The Young VictoriaSadly, Haines’s vehicle is as prickly and underseen as that of my Best Actress pick, Tilda Swinton, whose career-best turn in “Julia” should, by rights, have the Oscar locked up by now. I’ve written before of the eviscerating power of Swinton’s performance as an alcoholic Los Angeleno involved in a botched kidnapping, which takes Gena Rowlands’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Gloria” as its starting point and riffs monumentally upon it, but it bears repeating. I’m not the only voice on the web hollering for her inclusion — but BAFTA ignored the work last year, and Oscar will most likely follow suit.

Meanwhile, a very different British talent, in a far lesser film, merits discussion in the Best Supporting Actor category. “The Young Victoria” was designed to be Emily Blunt’s breakthrough vehicle — but while it did her career no real harm, the real discovery of an otherwise tepid film was 28 year-old Rupert Friend.

By turn dashing, vulnerable and wryly funny as the young Prince Albert, Friend, previously best known as Keira Knightley’s real-life arm candy, emerged as the year’s most unexpected breakthrough actor – and sealed the deal with a sly turn opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in “Chéri.”

If all the above names are unsung in some capacity, the same can’t be said for my proposed Best Director candidate. Still, the amount of chatter and column inches devoted to the world’s self-annointed greatest filmmaker, Lars von Trier, doesn’t make him any less of an Oscar longshot for “Antichrist.”

Many, of course, won’t mourn his absence from the nominee list in the slightest. But von Trier brings a fierce statement of intent, a healthy sense of humor and a jaw-dropping technical mastery of the medium to his art-horror exercise, and in the process, has generated more discussion about his approach than any filmmaker this year.

The supposedly thin Best Original Screenplay category has become something of a pundits’ free-for-all lately, with some wild suggestions being thrown into the pot, but none more deserving (and, sadly, more unlikely) than the artful character ballet Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau composed for “35 Shots of Rum,” whose year-topping Metacritic score of 96 still isn’t enough to get it any attention.

Algenis Perez Soto in SugarAs for Best Adapted Screenplay, if Pixar manages to enter the writing race on an annual basis these days, I see no reason why Henry Selick’s spry, intricate adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” shouldn’t be afforded the same courtesy.

And Best Picture? Here I had to pause awhile, as several titles contending for my best-of-2009 position, including “Fish Tank” and “A Prophet,” aren’t even eligible for the Oscar, while others, like “The Hurt Locker,” hardly need the help.

But then I cast my mind back over a year to the joyous inspiration I felt walking out of Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden’s “Sugar,” which constructs a searing, searching essay on the latter-day American Dream from the simple story of a shy baseball player from the Dominican Republic.

Many have said that the pairing of sport-movie and social studies in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” makes it Oscar natnip; “Sugar” has all that, plus the most crystalline craft and ensemble playing Amerindie cinema has to offer. If that doesn’t merit an FYC banner or two, what does?

→ 19 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

19 responses so far

  • 1 11-18-2009 at 2:40 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I seriously don’t understand why Disgrace has failed to sparkle serious Oscar buzz? What’s the deal with that film? It was truly amazing. Such brilliant acting.

  • 2 11-18-2009 at 2:48 pm

    Patryk said...

    Glad to read I am not alone in admiring Tilda Swinton’s peerless work in “Julia.” Each time I watch this performance it gets better. I hope people take a look at the screener. If they do, there is no question that she will be nominated.

  • 3 11-18-2009 at 2:50 pm

    geha714 said...

    A demonstration of how the powers that be decide to shove us another shallow, useless musical down through our throats (you know what film I’m talking about) while more challenging, unique films are left out, unrecognized.

  • 4 11-18-2009 at 2:55 pm

    Mickche said...

    I agree, Disgrace is amazing, and i loved Haines

  • 5 11-18-2009 at 3:12 pm

    JAB said...

    Swinton blew me away.

  • 6 11-18-2009 at 3:14 pm

    Michael W. said...

    As a Dane I would love to see von Trier nominated (got Antichrist on DVD today :D ) but I can not see it happen. If he couldn’t get nominated for Breaking the Waves even though he had won director awards from the National Film Critics and the New York Film Critics, there’s no way he can get it for this one. But hey, we got another Dane in Lone Scherfig for An Education. She must be a much stronger contender, but I don’t think she will make it.

  • 7 11-18-2009 at 3:39 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    BTW hadn’t Rupert Friend already broken through with The Illusionist?

  • 8 11-18-2009 at 3:51 pm

    Sieben said...

    I don’t think Friend was IN The Illusionist…

    Swinton’s at her very best in Julia, and totally deserves a nom and – at this point – a win. I’d also agree with a (thoroughly unlikely) nomination for Lars Von Trier; I thought Antichrist was something of a masterpiece.

  • 9 11-18-2009 at 4:06 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Indeed, Friend wasn’t in The Illusionist. You must be confusing him with someone else, Jonathan. Not sure who.

  • 10 11-18-2009 at 4:09 pm

    Mickche said...

    i first saw Friend in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

  • 11 11-18-2009 at 4:42 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Did Nick Davis ever elaborate on Disgrace? His “D” grade sort of surprised me.

  • 12 11-18-2009 at 4:59 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    No, he didn’t. But Nick’s grades never really surprise me — he’s particular within any genre, which is what makes his writing such an unpredictable pleasure. We disagree often.

  • 13 11-18-2009 at 5:49 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’ll throw in that Nick Davis DID elaborate on his “Disgrace” grade, but only through email with me (since I’m apparently his antipodean of note).

    It’s a shame that Malkovich won’t be in the hunt this year since I really think he ought to. Haines, I never thought she had a hope. I figured the movie would be small and for a complete unknown that’s tough. Yet, I still thought Malkovich could get by on his name. Apparently not.

    I’m seeing “Julia” on Saturday and can’t wait! It’s not getting a proper release, but a special three-night engagement at this specialty cinema here in Melbourne that screens classics and special festivals and seasons.

  • 14 11-18-2009 at 7:55 pm

    Kevin said...

    I do love Sugar. It’s probably my favorite film of the year, which isn’t saying particularly a lot, because I catch most movies when they come out on DVD. Anyway, I thought the lead actor did really well in that film.

    I also liked the two leads in Goodbye Solo as well.

  • 15 11-18-2009 at 8:10 pm

    Patryk said...

    Can we get Oprah to do something about “Julia” or “Sugar?”

    Kidding, of course.

  • 16 11-18-2009 at 11:39 pm

    Silencio said...

    I did finally see Antichrist, and I do think von Trier would be deserving of a nod. But if he doesn’t, I won’t complain too much, because of one moment in the film: “Chaos reigns…” That was just too much. But the closing image mostly makes up for that.

  • 17 11-19-2009 at 3:02 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Sorry, confused him with Rufus Sewell. My bad.

  • 18 11-19-2009 at 6:30 am

    Liz said...

    geha714, you’ve already seen “Nine,” right? Because I hope you wouldn’t give your opinion of a film without seeing it first. That would be silly.

  • 19 11-19-2009 at 2:57 pm

    FrankieJ said...

    God, you are so ON about Tilda!!! I’ve been shouting the same thing! It’s a brilliant performance!