Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.

Review: Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan make an unlikely pair in the remarkable true story of “Philomena.”

Editor’s Note: The triumphant return of Apprentice Critic Elaine Teng!

In pitching the story of Philomena Lee to his editor, journalist Martin Sixsmith sells it as “a human interest story,” a journalistic form he initially finds somewhat beneath him. But he, like us, quickly learns that this old Irishwoman’s poignant quest to find her long-lost son is a story of family, friendship, guilt, change, and above all, faith. “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears and based on true events, is not ostentatious or innovative, but its simplicity and clarity allow the power and the emotion of the story to shine through.

Abandoned by her family as a child, Philomena (Dame Judi Dench) lived and worked as a young laundry hand at a convent, where she and the other single mothers who sought refuge there work to earn their keep and are only permitted to see their children for an hour a day. Unbeknownst to them, these illegitimate children were actually put up for adoption, with the convent pocketing the profit—a fate that befalls Philomena and her son. Having kept this to herself for 50 years, she enlists Martin (Steve Coogan) to help find her child. The investigation takes them to the Irish convent and even to America, during which time a touching relationship develops between the unlikely friends: the cynical, Oxford-educated journalist who quotes T.S. Eliot and the devout, scatterbrained old woman with a purse full of paperback romance novels.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Dame Judi Dench, who, with a quiver of her lower lip or a momentary aversion of those ice-blue eyes, can convey half a century of silent suffering. She commands the screen, bringing a gravitas that adds an air of martyrdom to Philomena’s suffering. And yet the film’s greatest success is its balanced depiction of faith and religion. While such a story can easily be written off as a one-sided takedown of the church—and indeed the convent in question has vehemently denied the film’s accusations—the film refuses to condemn or condone, depicting both the folly and the power of faith, along with its many divergences and permutations. The nuns of the convent may have committed acts too inhuman to comprehend, but Philomena understands that this behavior was not due to spite or cruelty, but to the same ardent faith that leads her to forgive, to trust God and to continue to pray for her son. Philomena even objects to Martin’s use of the word “evil,” rebuffing its icy finality and sweeping judgement.

As brilliant as Dench and sidekick Coogan are, however, they are but servants to the story, the vehicle through which the real Philomena Lee and her son tell their incredible tale, one that spans two continents and five decades. Director Stephen Frears even managed to incorporate home movie footage from the real son’s life, adding a layer of authenticity to the film and reminding us of the very real stakes of Philomena’s search. Such simple, down-to-earth story telling—utterly devoid of flashes and bangs, but focused on real people, their feelings, mistakes, and joys—grows increasingly rare in the U.S.

A film such as “Philomena” is sometimes disdainfully deemed “middlebrow” and overlooked, other than by a handful of enthusiasts. Yet such a dismissive term, which unfairly paints both the work and its audience as mediocre, seems to imply that such films are somehow less worthy. Less worthy than what? “Small” movies, without large budgets or big themes, can still be well made and worthwhile, no matter how timeworn or everyday their tales might seem. Not only is the anatomically-confused term undefined—is something “middlebrow” due to its content or its approach?—but it also suggests that stories about normal people and their little problems, told in a way less than experimental or artsy, are somehow second-rate. But when arthouse films are screened in tiny backrooms to only a handful of critics, and the explosions from the endless superhero movies blur together, what could be more accessible? What could be more important?

Now in theaters.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars