Perceived reality has a habit of becoming actual reality when it comes to the Academy Awards. Once enough people started talking about how much Oscar momentum Silver Linings Playbook gained after winning the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival two months ago, for instance, their prognosticating had the effect of creating said momentum. In attempting to keep up with the echo chamber, a lot of pundits end up becoming part of it. Rather than play into that, we've decided to funnel whatever influence we may have into our new column We'd Like to Help the Academy, highlighting the outliers that should be nominated rather than wonder aloud about which frontrunners will.
And why not? The Oscars are, after all, a meritocracy whose goal (at least in theory) is to reward the most worthwhile films of the year. In practice, they're more often like the SAT — they don't really measure anything other than how well a given movie conforms to their own established standards — but they do come through every once in a while. We want to believe in you, old white men of the Academy; give us reason to.
As it's true enough that every film begins with words on a page, it seems pertinent to start the proceedings with a screenplay worthy of recognition: Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt's Oslo, August 31st. Adapted from a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and directed by Trier, the film follows a recovering drug addict named Anders on what may prove to be the last day of his life.
To be sure, much of the legwork here is done by Anders Danielsen Lie (who's a doctor in his native Norway when he isn't acting) and the lush visuals of late-summer Oslo. But Trier's observational approach reveals an ear for naturalistic dialogue and deft use of voiceover, with narrated ruminations of the city's many denizens providing some of Oslo's most poignant moments. This is a story seeped in memory and loss, but it's so beautiful throughout that it never goes anywhere near miserablism.
That these words are more than an afterthought in such a moodily pretty film is the ultimate case for them: Trier and his team could almost have gotten by on the strength of their visuals alone. There's as much substance here as there is understated style, though, and it isn't just Lie's performance that makes Anders such a sympathetic character. At one point sabotaging his own job interview with a spontaneous bout of brutal honesty, he's a self-defeating (and -destructive) lost soul whose struggle to reconcile who he is with who he wants to be is by turns heartbreaking and inspiring.
Anders is as well-written as he is well-acted, with Trier and Vogt seamlessly condensing the troubles of a lifetime into a daylong narrative. They could have taken any number of shortcuts to make the narrative more clear-cut or easy to digest — overemphasizing Anders's psychological issues, wagging their finger at the audience and society at large for not doing more to help people like him — but avoid every single one. They manage to say a surprising amount by working within a deceptively small frame, and their thoughtful, intelligent work is of the sort that's easy to overlook at the end of the year. Here's hoping that doesn't happen.