MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

20 Weeks to Oscar: 2 Weeks To Go, Who Let The Dogs In?

Ladies & Gentlemen… children of all ages… seven Oscar nominees who really didn’t go into this season expecting to be attending the Academy Awards…

Viola Davis.
Courtney Hunt.
Richard Jenkins.
Scott Hamilton Kennedy.
Melissa Leo.
Martin McDonagh.
Michael Shannon.

All deserving.

All appreciating.

With nothing much to write about, no major upsets being seriously considered by anyone who knows much, and Michael Cieply at the NY Times apparently intent in reducing the paper of record to the Paper of Gossip before Nikki Finke can get her fangs into show night spoilers, this is where we really should be focusing.

I think we can say with 85% certainty that none of these Luck-Feeling (and Deserving) Seven are going to take home an Oscar of their own this year and 98% certainty that no more than one might score an upset. But that’s not the point.

Oscar is a celebration of the cinematic form. It is, in reality, a horse race. But like watching the Kentucky Derby each year, the beauty of that massive beast running at full speed, muscles flexing, rhythmically pushing forward… forward, it is more beautiful than all the odds-making, pre-game show, mint-julip-drinking, big hat-wearing, wealth-flaunting junk that makes it feel like a Calcutta whorehouse with the best landscaping ever.

Which performing monkeys will stop these seven on the red carpet on that Sunday night? And how quickly will their interview end if Angelina Jolie is willing to say, “Hello, I’m Angie,” for a second of shoulder-bearing airtime?

It’s not to say that Angie doesn’t matter. Or that these nominees are more deserving of love or attention than any other. But do you remember how exciting Ellen Page, Casey Affleck, Amy Ryan, and Tamara Jenkins, among others, were last year? Ryan Gosling, Penelope Cruz, Jackie Earle Haley, and Michael Arndt a couple of years ago? Terrence Howard, Rachel Weisz, Amy Adams, Bennett Miller, and Josh Olsen before that?

A couple of these folks are nominated again this year. Some are working towards their next big moments. One had a small role in one of last year’s big comic book movies while another is the central character in this year’s coming comic book sensation and another has written Toy Story 3, next year’s mega-Pixar film. A couple are moody and trying to figure out what they really want from this industry. And a few have found quiet opportunities involving television to keep paying their bills as they hold out for top notch work.

These people are the industry’s future.

Not every underdog is going to become a pillar of the industry. Of course. But these are the hungry people who, while getting the highest honor in the business, are still ready to bring themselves to the work with the best intentions and the hope of even higher highs.

I know… people want pretty pictures. And Michael Shannon is not as good an interview as George Clooney. But we should celebrate him and the others all the more for their lack of artifice… not because they are “above it,” but because they are artists reaching for more in this game.

Give Viola Davis that charming role.

Get Melissa Leo in that spaceship that’s going to save the world.

Talk Martin McDonagh into writing Ocean’s 14.

Figure out how the Coens will get Shannon into a leading role.

Let Courtney Hunt make a thriller for Sony.

Give Scott Hamilton Kennedy the money for his next doc, HBO.

And let Richard Jenkins just keep working… he was doing really well before this (and deserved a nom for North Country) and should keep doing the fine work he does. May all great character actors someday find their Tom McCarthy (who also brought us Peter Dinklage, who still works in unexpectedly complex and strongly written roles all the time).

Yeah… I am looking forward to Meryl and Downey being funny, to Danny Boyle being gracious, to the moment when Kate Winslet either gets her long-deserved Oscar or waits until next time (Paul Newman isn’t such a bad landmark to emulate, Kate), to seeing how they handle Heath’s win, and surely to a surprise or two.

But my heart will be with these underdogs… and some others who will lose… and some who will win… my heart will be with the passion of it all… even the passions of those behind the scenes of this year’s show.

It hasn’t been one of the great years at the cinema, but there is never a bad time to celebrate great work, whether it wins or loses a statue. The drama that matters most is the drama that will last with us for years and years to come.

– David Poland
February 5, 2009

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“We now have a situation where audiences very often prefer commercial trash to Bergman’s Persona or Bresson’s L’Argent. Professionals find themselves shrugging, and predicting that serious, significant works will have no success with the general public. What is the explanation? Decline of taste or impoverishment of repertoire? Neither and both. It is simply that cinema now exists, and is evolving, under new conditions. That total, enthralling impression which once overwhelmed the audiences of the 1930s was explained by the universal delight of those who were witnessing and rejoicing over the birth of a new art form, which furthermore had recently acquired sound. By the very fact of its existence this new art, which displayed a new kind of wholeness, a new kind of image, and revealed hitherto unexplored areas of reality, could not but astound its audiences and turn them into passionate enthusiasts.

Less than twenty years now separate us from the twenty-first century. In the course of its existence, through its peaks and troughs, cinema has travelled a long and tortuous path. The relationship that has grown up between artistic films and the commercial cinema is not an easy one, and the gulf between the two becomes wider every day. Nonetheless, films are being made all the time that are undoubtedly landmarks in the history of cinema. Audiences have become more discerning in their attitude to films. Cinema as such long ago ceased to amaze them as a new and original phenomenon; and at the same time it is expected to answer a far wider range of individual needs. Audiences have developed their likes and dislikes. That means that the filmmaker in turn has an audience that is constant, his own circle. Divergence of taste on the part of audiences can be extreme, and this is in no way regrettable or alarming; the fact that people have their own aesthetic criteria indicates a growth of self-awareness.

Directors are going deeper into the areas which concern them. There are faithful audiences and favorite directors, so that there is no question of thinking in terms of unqualified success with the public—that is, if one is talking about cinema not as commercial entertainment but as art. Indeed, mass popularity suggests what is known as mass culture, and not art.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky, “Sculpting In Time”

“People seem to be watching [fewer] movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. It’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. He’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.”
~ Homemakers‘ Colin Healey On Indie Distribution