Oscar Hopefuls

Forget Christmas and Chanukah! December is Oscar Season.

This is the time that Hollywood studios release their Oscar hopefuls. To officially qualify, a movie must come out before the end of the year. But anything that opened before November is likely to get lost in Academy members’ notoriously short attention spans. Thus, this is Oscar Season.

And what is an Oscar hopeful? A feature that combines slick Hollywood production values with some intentions of serious art. It has to feel “important.” With occasional exceptions like Titanic and Return of the King, expensive effects-heavy action movies don’t qualify. But neither does anything edgy, experimental, truly independent, or subtitled. (I’m talking here about the major awards like Best Picture, Actor, and Actress, not the so-called “technical” awards like Film Editing, Sound, and Foreign Language Film.)

Not every Oscar hopeful is good enough (or conventional enough) to be an actual Oscar contender, of course. Many don’t stand a Republican’s chance in Berkeley of winning anything.

Here’s what I think about those that I’ve seen, in order from the best to the worst:

Capote: I can’t think of a historical figure more challenging for an actor than Truman Capote–you can’t do that voice without it sounding like a broad comic impersonation. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman makes it work in a performance that’s sure to win him at least an Oscar nomination. You first meet Capote enthralling New York partygoers with his wit. He’s a self-centered jerk, but at least the wit makes him a likeable jerk. Likeable enough, anyway, to make you care when he becomes ensnared with an emotional involvement he can’t handle (the story sticks to the years that Capote researched and wrote his last and most-praised book, In Cold Blood). His emotional self-destruction is crushing to watch.

Pride and Prejudice: I haven’t read the book, and haven’t seen another film version in more than 30 years. That means I can judge this adaptation entirely on its own merits. And it has merits, although not overwhelming ones. This Pride and Prejudice is a nice, entertaining, lovely to look at, but not really exceptional story of lower-middle class desperation, upper-class snobbery, and love and courtship at a time when people didn’t usually love those they courted. It’s also, to my knowledge, the first movie to unequivocally star the wonderful Keira Knightley, not just as the hero’s girlfriend, but as the central character. The rest of the cast, including Yank Donald Sutherland doing a quite acceptable English accent, are all top notch.

Bee Season: An East Bay Jewish family goes through a lot in the course of this story, both good and bad. The daughter (Flora Cross) wins spelling bee after spelling bee, heading for the national championship. The mother (Juliette Binoche) appears to be going insane. The son (Max Minghella) is going through more than the usual teenage rebellion. And the domineering, Talmudic scholar father (Richard Gere) thinks there’s something spiritual going on. The movie basically works; you care deeply about these characters and wonder what’s going to happen next. But it gets the culture all wrong (and I’m saying this as an East Bay Jew). This family appears to live in isolation, without a congregation or even friends to share its trials and joy. For a film that’s allegedly about Jewish spirituality, that’s a very big mistake.

Syriana: : I discuss this one below.

There are plenty of other Oscar hopefuls, but that I haven’t seen them. They include Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Rent, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Squid and the Whale. Some of them may be good, and others probably stink.

And speaking gems and stinkers, here are my recommendations and other noteworthy films for the week.

Noteworthy: Syriana, Presidio, ongoing engagement. What a mess. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan utterly fails to do to the oil industry what he did for drugs in Traffic (which he wrote but didn’t direct). This time around, the convoluted, multiple story lines confuse rather than intrigue and enlighten; eventually, you just give up on them. And the father/son conflicts Gaghan keeps throwing at us in place of real character development don’t help, either. To make matters worse, the whole film appears to have been shot by a blind-folded cameraman pointed in the actors’ general direction. There are plenty of good ways to learn about corruption in the oil industry; this two-hour torture session isn’t one of them.

Recommended: It’s a Wonderful Life, Castro, Friday. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, Bailey needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because Bailey, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.

Recommended: Good Night and Good Luck, Parkway, extended run opens Friday. George Clooney broke the rules. He made a historical drama that (as near as I can tell) sticks rigorously close to well-documented historical facts, and the result is terrific. Good Night and Good Luck is about the battle between legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Senator Joseph McCarthy). And that’s all the movie is about. We don’t meet Murrow’s family; we never see his home. There’s little character development, but Clooney sticks to what matters. And at a time when elected officials are calling McCarthy a “hero for America,” it matters.

Noteworthy: Benefit to Save the 4Star, 4Star, Saturday, all afternoon and evening. The 4Star Theater is fighting for its life. The Canaan Lutheran Church, which owns the property, wants the theater out. To raise money for legal fees, the theater will screen Hong Kong movies from 1:00pm until midnight on Saturday, December 17. For more information, see this article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Recommended: Seven Samurai, Balboa, Saturday and Sunday. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but none of the remakes even come close. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. When the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. Quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made. As part of its Samurai series, the Balboa is presenting Seven Samurai without a second feature; this film is a double-bill all by itself.

Recommended: The Last Waltz, Lark, Monday, 7:00. On Thanksgiving night, 1976, The Band played their final concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. Among their performing guests were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Joni Mitchell. The filmmakers were just as talented, with great cinematographers like Michael Chapman and Vilmos Zsigmond handling the cameras and art director Boris Leven designing the set, all under the direction of Martin Scorsese. No wonder this was the greatest rock concert movie ever made. Scorsese and company ignored the audience and focused on the musicians, creating an intimate look at great artists who understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Recommended: Sanjuro, Balboa, Monday and Tuesday. Yojimbo was such a huge hit that Kurosawa made a sequel. This time, Mifune’s masterless swordsman reluctantly helps a group of naïve young samurai clean up their clan. Of course, they insist on doing everything properly and honorably; without him, they wouldn’t last a minute. The result is an action comedy and genre parody that ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. The climax involves one of the greatest, and most unique, swordfights in movie history.

Noteworthy: Down By Law, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. Roberto Benigni got his first American exposure in this strange, low-budget comedy from the then-unknown Jim Jarmusch. I haven’t seen it in about 20 years, but if it’s as good as I remember, it’s worth seeing.