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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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

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Michael Almereyda Steps It Up