Perceived reality has a habit of becoming actual reality when it comes to the Academy Awards. It was with that in mind that we decided to funnel whatever influence we may have into “We'd Like to Help the Academy,” an online column launched last month in order to highlight the outliers that should be nominated rather than wonder aloud about which front-runners will.
We first drew attention to a screenplay worthy of recognition — Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt's Oslo, August 31st. About a recovering drug addict named Anders on what may prove to be the last day of his life, the film's observational approach reveals an ear for naturalistic dialogue and deft use of voice-over. Oslo is seeped in memory and loss, but it's so sensitively written that its beauty resonates as much as (if not more than) its sadness.
On the acting front, 2012 was first notable for marking the long-awaited return of Matthew McConaughey to projects worthy of his talent: Bernie, Killer Joe and Magic Mike. The supporting role of a male stripper with delusions of grandeur seem custom-made for the often shirtless Texan, but McConaughey's subtle embodiment of his Magic Mike character is as worthy of an Oscar nod as any other performance this year.
The same is true of Besedka Johnson, an 85-year-old who made the most conspicuous acting debut of the year in Sean Baker's under-the-radar Starlet, about a 21-year-old porn star (Dree Hemingway) and her unlikely, intergenerational relationship with Johnson's character. Both Johnson and the film as a whole deserve more attention than they've received thus far (and likely will continue not to receive).
For Best Actor I went with Holy Motors' Denis Levant, whose character spends a day in a limo going to various “appointments,” embodying different personae at each one. An absolutely chameleonic disappearance into a character who has so many different facets in and of himself — Lavant is listed 11 times in the end credits, just to give you an idea — the actor's turn as the enigmatic Monsieur Oscar is both hilarious and disturbing, often within the same scene.
As good as these three were, however, it was The Deep Blue Sea's Rachel Weisz who most moved me in 2012. An Oscar winner in the Best Supporting Actress category for The Constant Gardener, she carries one of the best films of the year with her beautifully melancholy (and, when it calls for it, melodramatic) portrayal of the self-destructive Hester Collyer in Terence Davies' latest ode to postwar England. Hester's passion-fueled woe is so deeply felt that we end up feeling it almost as strongly as she does; it's the best performance of the year — male or female, lead or supporting.
The output of Abel Ferrara, a never-nominated New Yorker responsible for the likes of Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, may have been too superficially similar to that of Martin Scorsese for a certain stretch of his career to gain as much positive notice as his work deserved. But as he's gotten more lo-fi and austere, Ferrara also has foregrounded the qualities that always made him a singular auteur. 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Ferrara's mostly maligned take on a boho couple's last night of existence, was not only one of the best films of the year but also yet another showcase for its director's distinct skill behind the camera. The Academy's complete avoidance of him over the last few decades really is odd: He's a quintessentially American filmmaker whose violent, urban backdrops often serve as canvases on which to paint portraits of faith and redemption. But he's also been either too controversial or seemingly humble to ever land a Best Director nod — an oversight the Academy would do well to correct this year (but won't).
There were 10 or so films I enjoyed more than The Grey this year, of which three stand a reasonable chance of being nominated for Best Picture. (Were this purely devoted to wish fulfillment and flights of fancy, I'd be here writing about Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or The Turin Horse.) But I've made an effort to be at least semi-realistic in these choices. Considering some recent nominees who were only so honored after the Academy expanded the field from five to as many as 10 — I'm looking at you, The Blind Side and District 9 — Joe Carnahan's story of plane-crash survivors led by Liam Neeson fending off wolves and waxing existential in the Alaskan hinterlands is more than worthy. It's tremendously satisfying on a visceral level, even more so for moviegoers who have taken freshman-year philosophy. Considering how often the Academy prefers the CliffsNotes version of things (The King's Speech, The Artist) over the latest Great American Story (The Social Network, The Tree of Life), this puts The Grey — which, for the record, I'd take over the two most recent Best Picture winners any day of the week — in good company.