Last year’s Bafta and Oscar awards (and the various others which run up to the Oscars, such as the Golden Globes) were dominated by the special-effects extravaganza Avatar and the supposedly more “indie” Hurt Locker (a contest given extra frisson by the fact the rival directors used to be married).
This year, sadly, there is no such obvious head-to-head that I can see, and no background gossip to liven things up. The big-hitters — Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, for instance — have underperformed.
Of course, awards go to various categories — best film, best director, best original screenplay, best actor and actress, and so on — but on the whole the nominees in these categories tend to be drawn from a small group of films; so in this series I’ll concentrate on the films, not the categories. (In the Baftas there are three rounds of voting: in the first, members can choose the top 12 in every category from every film released in the last year. The overall top 12 becomes the short list for the next round, which reduces it to the five announced nominees). This week, the ones, for me, to watch:
The Kids Are All Right (dir: Lisa Cholodenko; written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg). Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo star in a surprisingly edgy film about the children of a lesbian couple who manage to find their sperm-donor father. It features tremendous performances. Hollywood’s lighter lesbian and gay fare (think The Object of My Affection with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd) tends to play either with stereotypes or with sexual identities as entirely fixed. Here, there’s something more complex going on, where things aren’t tidily resolved, though it still manages to be charming and enjoyable.
Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et des dieux) (dir: Xavier Beauvois; written by Etienne Comar). A group of French monks in Algeria are caught up in the civil war in the mid-1990s. As Islamist violence increases in the area around the village where the monastery has lived peacefully for years, the monks must decide whether to stay or go. This is a marvellously understated drama about commitment, with some riveting performances and a great sense of time and place. It’s a plea for harmony and tolerance, but made subtly and without any tub-thumping
Winter’s Bone (dir: Debra Granik; written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell). In the bleak-as-hell Ozark mountains, a 17-year old girl, Ree, (a surely award-winning performance by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence), has to take care of her younger siblings and her mentally-ill mother. Then she’s told that her father has put up their rickety shack as a surety against his bail: if he doesn’t turn up to court, they’ll lose it. But nobody knows where Daddy is, so she has to try to find him. Her journey takes her into deep and nasty local secrets. This, again, is an understated, well-observed, small-scale drama. It’s beautifully shot, though the subject matter hardly makes it an advertisement for the remote American wilderness it takes place in. This is a place at the edge of civilisation, that part of American society which feels, I think, most alien to Europeans. Powerful stuff.
The Town (dir: Ben Affleck; written by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard from the novel by Chuck Hogan). Ben Affleck’s acting career had been pretty decisively overshadowed by his friend and co-Oscar winner Matt Damon, but in the last couple of years he’s reinvented himself as a director. Apparently he wasn’t the original choice for The Town, but he’s done a sterling job.
On one level, this is a mainstream movie with shootouts and car chases about a bank robber (played by Affleck) who seeks out the deputy manager of a bank he’s robbed (played by British actress Rebecca Hall), who was terrorised during the robbery, because he needs to know if she can identify them, although they were all in masks. In other words, she doesn’t realise who he is. And of course, they fall in love — until she realises he was one of the men in masks. But it’s tense, gripping stuff, with some strong writing and good performances, including what was nearly his last by Pete Postlethwaite. If you expect The Wire in Boston you’ll be disappointed, but if you think of it as a more-interesting-than-usual heist movie, it’s not bad at all.
The First Movie (dir: Mark Cousins). This is a little documentary which I hope doesn’t slip under the radar. Mark Cousins, who has presented quite a few TV programmes about film and is a documentarist by trade, took some cameras to Iraqi Kurdistan and gave them to some kids, asking them to film their own lives. The result is fascinating, lyrical, and very touching. It’s a side of Iraq we rarely see; an experience often lost in the bigger stories of conflict and violence.