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It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we thought of the Best Actor category:

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Well the nominations have been announced and those looking for surprises are happy this morning. The Grouches did get at least one nasty surprise.

Dark Knight Debacle

I was expecting the Academy to screw up and skip over Dark Knight for Best Picture. I thought Christopher Nolan had a better shot at Director. But the huge surprise was no Adapted Screenplay nomination. Four of the five Best Picture nominees were nominated in that category with the fifth slot going to Doubt. That’s a pretty shoddy film to be passed over for.

On the other hand, it got nominated in every technical category it was eligible for besides Score and Costume for a total of 8 nominations (including Supporting Actor Heath Ledger).

The Winslet Conundrum

Kate Winslet was aiming for Lead Actress in Revolutionary Road and Supporting in The Reader despite both roles probably being lead. She won these categories at the Globes. But the Academy puts her in the Lead role for The Reader and nothing for Road.

So we can play the what if game. Rules in the acting categories state an actor cannot: a) be nominated more than once in the same category, nor b) be nominated twice for the same role. If those rules were removed I would not be surprised if Winslet qualified for Lead for both roles AND Supporting for The Reader. When something like this happens the Academy goes with the role that got the most support and that apparently was Lead for The Reader.

Hooray for Little Movies!

My happiest moment came with the announcement of Richard Jenkins for Actor in The Visitor. Melissa Leo also managed an Actress nod for Frozen River when it seemed like her chances were fading. The biggest out of nowhere surprise may be that film’s Original Screenplay nomination.

Leo’s inclusion may have meant Sally Hawkins’s exclusion for Happy-Go-Lucky but that film still managed an Original Screenplay nod. And that interesting category ALSO includes the wonderful In Bruges. Plus WALL-E, which no one would call a little movie. Those interesting nominations pushed out films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Burn After Reading, however.

Long shots Darren Aronofsky and the film itself for Best Picture didn’t pan out, but at least Marisa Tomei was able to join co-star Mickey Rourke as an acting nominee for The Wrestler. That’s great, though the film really should have gotten a screenplay nod. And Bruce Springsteen’s exclusion for Song is downright confounding.

Other Surprises

I’m not complaining, but it was widely expected Dev Patel to get a Supporting Actor nomination for Slumdog Millionaire and he did not. Instead Michael Shannon from Revolutionary Road snuck in from way back in the pack to give the film its only major nomination.

Another puzzling exclusion was Waltz with Bashir in the Animated Feature category. The animated, foreign-language documentary was nominated for Foreign Language Film and ineligible for Documentary Feature. Kung Fu Panda and Bolt join WALL-E as Animated Feature nominees. After the near unanimous love for the film its absence is quite surprising.

So Jared got his wish for some surprises but managed to be nearly completely wrong in his predictions.

Some other prediction notes after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. The final topic: What is your biggest hope for the nominations?

John: Give Jenkins the Recognition He Deserves

I loved me some Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. He did so much with a fairly restrained character without ever seeming one-note or bland. The film loses a bit when it meanders to other topics and characters, but when Jenkins is on the screen it shines. His journey from detached and solitary to a man reengaging with society is entirely engrossing. He’s never showy and he nails his character’s awkwardness and slow gain in confidence. I said last year that I loved Casey Affleck in Assassination of Jesse James for making his character absolutely perfect. It’s a sentiment I extend to Richard Jenkins. Of course that’s partly a writing triumph, but a great performance is what makes it transcend into something very special. I hope voters dig far into their screener pile to find this film released months ago. At this point Jenkins is very much on the bubble and it could go either way. If his name is announced tomorrow I will be very happy.

Brian: Don’t Forget Sarah Marshall

Any love for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. A screenplay is all I really ask for, but a best song nomination wouldn’t be out of the question. Goofy, charming, and sentimental — I’m consistently surprised by the staying power of that film on my Top 5 list.

Adam: Living and Dying With Dark Knight and In Bruges

If anyone is reading this blog at all they would have recognized my love for The Dark Knight and In Bruges (in fact, I saw In Bruges for the second time the other day and it definitely held up). I would love to see TDK sweep the nomination categories as well as the awards. And, it would be nice to see In Bruges get credit for its screenplay, art direction, cinematography, and supporting acting. The art direction & cinematography nods were added to my wish list after the second viewing. The choice of locations, camera angles, and shots are actually very well done. They enhance the story and feel of the movie so subtly that you might not even notice it the first time around, but their effects can not be overstated. I also (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) agree with Brian. A nod to Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be a nice addition to screenplay and song – but I won’t hold out hope.

Jared: Just a Genuine Surprise Would be Nice

Sure, I’m rooting for some long shots to receive nominations (some of which are probably obvious, none of which I’ll be so foolish as to jinx). Most years I’d be hoping not to see certain people get nominated, but I think the only film even sniffing the Oscars that I actively disliked this go round was Synecdoche, NY (with the caveat I’ve maybe three or four movies left to see). But my biggest wish for the Oscar nominations is for my picks to be pretty wrong and to see a good amount of surprises. Part of that desire, to be sure, is the selfish wish for some added excitement to this relatively mundane Oscar season. But I also think there are many nominees who seem to be in the mix just because everyone is resigned to the fact that they should be nominees. I’d love to see some wild cards in there, some picks which really excited people. Sure, preferably they’d be nominees I’d be excited about as well, but if Synecdoche sneaks into the screenplay category and I can bash it for a few weeks, that’d be OK.

That’s it from us. Here’s hoping for some happy Grouches tomorrow morning!

The Visitor succeeds on the back of Richard Jenkins. The film soars when he’s on the screen and falters when he’s not. It’s his character and his performance that carry it even as some of the other elements come up short.

I’m a sucker for understated performances that display a lot without really emoting much. Think Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others or Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men or even In the Valley of Elah. Jenkins falls into this category even though his character, Walter, is a bit more than a complete blank slate. But he’s the ultimate bland guy, an economics professor no less, who finds himself widowed, alone, and bored but doesn’t even care enough to be restless. I loved watching Walter loosen and open up.

The white guy rediscovering life via exotic ethnic character plot is a bit cliched at this point and The Visitor does not really break any new ground on that front. In fact, the plot plays out fairly formulaically, complete with a drum circle where the white guy busts loose. But again the success of the film can be traced right back to Jenkins and the character of Walter. Everything about Walter simply works. His actions, from the smallest reaction to the grandest gesture, are believable and not overplayed. I found myself enthralled and smiling whenever Walter was around.

The non-Jenkins, non-Walter parts of the film are a mixed bag, however. I wasn’t a fan of the other actors, including Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira as the immigrant couple Tarek and Zainab who have taken up residence in Walter’s apartment. Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother also didn’t do much for me, though I could accept that what I thought was stilted line delivery may have been an authentic Syrian accent and way of speaking. The characters, especially the mom, are not as well-developed to make us understand them.

There’s a good film to be made about our country’s absurd immigration policy, but this isn’t it. The movie is infinitely more interesting when it’s about Walter’s emergence and the immigration plot provides conventional conflict that may not be necessary. It also tries to be socially important without totally succeeding. From my understanding it gets the facts right, which helps it become a much better indictment of the system and bureaucracy than of policy. This is after all a dysfunctional, incompetently-administered system that treats illegal immigrants – civil detainees – worse than common criminals that throws any semblance of justice or humanity out the window. This is a topic that deserves full-blown cinematic treatment to really explore it instead of the sort of half-try it gets here.

I’ll be rooting whole-heartedly for Jenkins to pick up a Best Actor nomination. It worries me that he might get lost in the shuffle in a year with a lot of big names in the category. Not only would it be nice for a veteran character actor like him to snag some recognition for himself but it really is one of the finest performances of the year. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy picked up a Writers Guild nod for Original Screenplay, which could well translate into Oscar success. That would be fine, even if only for the writing of all parts of the Walter character.

And you know what? It was nice to see an economist on film, even if his occupation is one of the reasons Walter finds his life in a rut. Three of the four of us met while working at an economic consulting firm and let me tell you, the life of a professional economist is as soul-crushing as portrayed. But so many occupations repeatedly get the on-screen treatment it’s nice that it’s our turn.

And it comes with all the traps of film versions of a profession! Cops and lawyers complain that the movies always get it wrong and The Visitor presents us with a pretty lame example of an economics conference. If an economist showed up to a conference, as Walter did, and someone said in their presentation said, “We find under these circumstances financial globalization can be beneficial. Impreically, it’s good institutions and quality of government that will allow third world countries to benefit and harbor the fruits of globalization,” they’d wonder if they accidentally ended up in an introductory course. Thanks for dragging me to a conference to tell me something completely elementary, poindexter.

(For extra reading, here’s a really great article about a prison in a Rhode Island town and the immigrants living inside and outside its walls.)

I’d been looking forward to The Visitor, a combination of my appreciation of The Station Agent, my experience with DHS, and that I’d had the DVD for over a month before I watched it (not that I want to place blame, it could have been the fault of any single one of my roommates).  One of the few potential Oscar nominees released in the first half of the year, The Visitor tells the story of a New England professor going through the motions of life who finds a couple of illegal immigrants living in his rarely-used New York apartment.

The Visitor, frankly, is a middling movie.  While it shares some themes of loneliness found in The Station Agent, the latter movie more deeply probes loneliness as well as ensuing relationships.  This film doesn’t really build compelling relationships, leading to a story which didn’t particularly draw me in.  The connection formed between the white bread Richard Jenkins and the free spirit drummer of free spirit drummer Haaz Sleiman is pretty standard stuff, as is the budding romance between Jenkins and Hiam Abbass.

Even the commentary on DHS and our immigration policies was disappointing.  I have no problems with McCarthy telling only one side of the story, especially because nothing he shows is particularly inaccurate.  But to me it failed to add any real emotion or insight to the matter.  People who find our policies on immigration and our methods of detention to be any combination of naive, wrong, silly, or poorly handled will likely cheer the relevant scenes.  And those who agree with our current policies, or want to see them become even more strict, will likely dismiss the movie for unfounded bias.  But most of all, the situation wasn’t nearly as moving as I think it should have been.

The Visitor has been getting Oscar buzz because of Richard Jenkins’s performance in the lead role.  Granting that no one knows anything when it comes to the Academy, it would seem that he’s right on the bubble for a nomination.  It is would be great story since Jenkins is a veteran character actor, the type who are always around, but never to star or receive accolades.  But to me, that’s the only reason he’s in the conversation.  His character in the film isn’t particularly interesting, and as far as I can tell, doesn’t have any discernible emotions.  I’m happy for Jenkins and always thrilled to have less conventional nominations, but I just couldn’t support one here.

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