a theatre, film & pop culture review
Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.
Missing: The Skin I Live In
A Separation may not win here. Let’s take a moment and let that sink in.
This is despite a tight and compelling screenplay; a superb cast headed by Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami and Sarina Farhadi (the director’s daughter); a bevy of awards including the Golden Globe; its status as the critical favorite and Asghar Farhardi’s discerning direction that paints pictures of separations physical, emotional, societal and visual (see the still above for one of many such literal splits between his subjects). It’s an alarmingly honest and visceral portrait of a family, and country, divided.
But when you throw a Holocaust film into the mix, all bets are off. In Oscar history, twenty feature length films — including docs and foreign language –have been nominated by telling the story of the Holocaust through the victims’ perspectives. How many have won in their respective categories? Eighteen. Those are not good odds for Farhardi’s film.
It also does’t help that the Academy tends to vote for the more blatantly sentimental/manipulative films à la El Secreto de Sus Ojos, rather than the critical contenders (not that that’s really any different than the Best Picture category — hello, The King’s Speech).
In Darkness, of course, beautifully fits both of these criteria with its true story: A not-exactly on the up-and-up Pole discovers a group of Jews desperately trying to escape a Lvov ghetto by way of its sewers. A shrewd businessman (re: thief), the conniving Leopold helps them hide for a hefty fee. Along the way, though, he develops a soft spot for his captives — lovingly declaring them, “My Jews!” with a big, genuinely joyful smile come film’s end. So Agnieszka Holland’s film is a conventional one, following the well-trodden path of the Holocaust narrative and too easily eliciting emotions from us — horror and hope and suspense and fear. But the performances are fine — especially the stocky and clever Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold — and the well-made film is ultimately gratifying in the way that Holocaust films usually are.
Still, A Separation is exceptional, and hopefully the voters recognize and reward it as the year’s standout that it is.
But I still want to talk about Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead, which is such an odd duck of a film (it’s the Dogtooth of this year). Unapologetically dark with its foreboding score (Raf Keunen), persistently overcast skies and discomfiting silences, it is an extraordinarily literal-minded Drama (yes, with a capital ‘D’) in which a meat mobster — who, as a boy, was castrated by a rock by a heartless little bastard — pumps steroids with alarmingly equal abandon into his cattle and himself. This is like the Godfather, but switch out the horse for the bull, and the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky is like a Flemish Tom Hardy, all muscly, moody and scary as hell. Super-uncomfortable at times, Bullhead is a tense, weird, unnerving film. And I kind of really liked it, so obviously it has no chance of winning.
As for the last two films, neither has been released in the U.S. yet. The Canadian Monsieur Lazhar promises to be the touching and tender teacher story we’ve seen so many times before, while the Israeli Footnote is a wry Jewish comedy about a scholarly competition between father and son. No one is talking seriously, if at all, about either of these two nominees winning.