The Oscars return with an eye towards the past

8 mins read

Nate Blum puts forth his Academy Award predictions, discusses categories

The 84th Academy Awards will be held this Sunday, marking the end of one cinematic year and the beginning of another. A common theme for this year’s nominees is bittersweet nostalgia. Whether straight period pieces like “The Help” (four nominations) or “The Artist” (10 nominations), or time-traversing genre-benders like “The Tree of Life” (three nominations) or “Midnight in Paris” (four nominations), the majority of this year’s nominees are films that put critical yet reverent spins on material from the past. Of course, complicating this are several films that take hard looks at very contemporary issues like “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (five nominations), “The Descendants” (five nominations) and “A Separation” (two nominations), the latter both tackling, in part, the complex emotional issues surrounding contemporary health care. This will be by no means a comprehensive overview, but instead will enumerate the nominations that I found interesting and worth watching.

The supporting actor and actress categories will both inevitably prove to be surprising. The line-up is full of worthy, though incredibly disparate, candidates. Kenneth Branagh, Jonah Hill, Nick Nolte, Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow, ranging from young to old, all have recognizable and established careers and their performances really do all merit recognition. I choose either of the extremes of this group. Jonah Hill proves that he is still on the up and up with the nomination, and it would be great to see him win. On the other hand, Max von Sydow, famous for his roles in multiple Ingmar Bergman films including his much-parodied chess game with death, gets a serendipitous opportunity for Academy recognition for his cameo in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” (He did not win for his only other Oscar nomination in 1980 for “Pelle the Conqueror.”) The supporting actress category pits Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, both nominated for their roles in “The Help,” against each other. Bérénice Bejo was superb in “The Artist,” but I foresee Spencer taking it, which is probably the best chance “The Help” has at picking up a win.

The category for Best Actor in a Leading Role in many ways is the most predictable list of nominees, but also in many ways the most exciting. Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt and George Clooney are all very heavy hitters. Oldman certainly gave a great performance in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” but the part was not challenging enough to warrant an Oscar win. Plus, Oldman is much better as a villain (see “The Fifth Element” for definitive proof). Ultimately, this category will come down to George Clooney and Jean Dujardin for “The Descendants” and “The Artist,” respectively. Clooney’s performance was one of the only things that kept me from hating “The Descendants” and it showed really nuanced humanity. But, Dejardin did carry an entire silent film in the 21st Century. This category comes down to a choice between nuanced and flashy.

The Best Actress in a Leading Role category, on the other hand, pits old against new. Rooney Mara gets recognition for her unbelievably tight performance as Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Not only was this part extremely challenging, requiring her to lose weight, get her nipple pierced and learn a Swedish accent, but Mara also had to carry the second adaptation of one of the most successful book franchises of the past decade with the fan-favorite character. The direct challenger to this up-and-comer is the much-celebrated Meryl Streep for her role as Margret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Overall, reviews of “The Iron Lady” were tepid, but all praised Streep’s uncanny performance as this controversial figure. Streep seemed to naturally step into the role, especially in the moments focusing on Thatcher’s rise to power (critics wanted the film to focus on this rather than the aging, weak Thatcher). Again, this category is a toss-up, but I really want to see Mara get some recognition. Meryl Streep has enough Oscars.

Finally, we come to the most anticipated category: Best Picture. Ever since the Academy allowed more than five nominations in this category, I have found that it gets a bit muddied. However, this year there are some really solid choices. I will start with two nominees that I do not want to see win. First, “The Tree of Life” better not win this category. The film was an overblown, pretentious bore. Though it won the arguably more prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, the American response to “The Tree of Life” was more divided. Films with 15-minute montages of nature rarely go far at the Oscars. Second, “The Help” somehow got a Best Picture nomination. I feel no need to reiterate the problems with the movie. Just try to watch the movie without cringing at the racial condescension, despite its supposed message.

So who’s going to win, you ask? “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “Midnight in Paris” are my favorite three. Neither “The Descendants” nor “Midnight in Paris” were perfect films, but both have quite charming elements that leave lasting impressions. The depiction of Hawaii in “The Descendants” is one of the best representations of that state ever. However, “The Artist” has too much going for it to lose. Its celebration of classic Hollywood and classic Hollywood film-making will be sure to seduce many in the Academy, as will the incredible costumes and art direction that brought that era to life (hopefully the film will win in these categories, as well). Simply put, if you have mostly silent, black and white, classically inflected film set in a place called “Hollywoodland,” then you are pretty much guaranteed an Oscar.

Finally, two things to consider. “A Separation” definitely deserves to win the Best Foreign Language film. Its fresh US release will help with that. Also, “Drive,” one of my personal favorite films of the year, was snubbed, getting only one nomination for Sound Editing. It definitely deserved Best Art Direction, Director or even Best Picture. The Academy Awards are this Sunday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.

Nate is a junior. You can reach him at nblum1@swarthmore.edu.

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