Among the dwindling population of Americans who make a point of watching the Academy Awards, slamming the annual telecasts is practically a national sport. This year, numerous outlets reported that the audience shrank to an “all time low,” which seems like a curious claim since the Oscars weren’t even televised until 1953. (Of course, as a share of all TV viewers, it’s entirely possible, but I couldn’t find statistics to firmly back that up.)
Those who did tune in saw a very different ceremony than those in the recent past, which of course provided a rash of new things to be peeved about. The lack of film clips during the announcement of the nominees was one justified complaint. And, perhaps most egregiously, the unexpected announcement of the Best Picture winner, Nomadland, prior to the Best Actress and Actor winners, was clearly predicated on the cynical gamble that the late Chadwick Boseman would win and provide a memorable, emotional capstone to a movie year “like no other.” When Anthony Hopkins, whose masterful, magisterial performance in The Father was completely deserving, won instead of Boseman, the move backfired in a big way.
Those unforced errors aside, I heard very few complaints about other aspects of the slimmed-down event. Nobody seems to have regretted the relegation of the Best Song performances to the preshow hour. And the lack of a smarmy host trying to be a sassier version of Billy Crystal didn’t seem to bother folks. (Personally, I like seeing Ricky Gervais piss off the front-row elites, but clearly that vibe would not have worked this year.) Pushing those elements to the side allowed for honorees to actually finish their speeches without getting unceremoniously played off by the (non-existent) orchestra. (The “in memoriam” segment, which should have had a special poignancy this year, was the only aspect that felt rushed.)
Most refreshingly, as I’ve mentioned before, the fact that so many major studio releases were pushed back to this summer and fall allowed greater recognition for films that didn’t conform to Hollywood “Oscar-bait” formulas. As a result, the Academy took a few more halting, belated steps towards racial, gender, and aesthetic diversity.
Another notable difference this year was the widespread availability of nominees for home viewing. While surely another unwelcome barb for the struggling owners of independent and art house cinemas, this made it possible, for example, to watch all five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film from the couch, assuming one was a Hulu subscriber. In the spirit of this accessibility, here are a few titles that didn’t take home any gold on Sunday, but are more than worth dialing up:
The Man Who Sold His Skin (Hulu, also playing at the Kiggins Theatre Virtual Cinema): This Tunisian film didn’t knock off the expected favorite (Another Round) in the Foreign Film competition, but it would have gotten my vote. Loosely based on a real-world occurrence in the art world, it follows a Syrian refugee who agrees to let a pompous European art star tattoo a European visa on his back and then display “the work” (i.e. him) in museums. A potent allegory of immigration injustice and an interesting exploration of the limits of intellectual property rights, it’s well-acted and incisive.
Pieces of a Woman (Netflix): This searing drama had the misfortune to see the light of day just as the horrific details of co-star Shia LaBeouf’s abusive personal behavior emerged. Those reports make it uncomfortable to watch him play one half of a couple dealing with a crushing personal loss. It would be a shame, though, if LaBeouf’s villainy caused Vanessa Kirby’s Oscar-nominated performance to be disregarded. She is never less than convincing in a raw, vulnerable, messy role, a far cry (or maybe not?) from her work as Princess Margaret in the first seasons of The Crown.
Crip Camp (Netflix): You can’t ask for a better combination of inspirational human stories and fiercely fought political struggles than this amazing look at a summer camp for disabled youth (and adults) that had its heyday in the early 1970s. Combining priceless archival footage with present-day interviews, Crip Camp chronicles how the empowering environment of the camp forged bonds and personalities that played crucial roles in the disability rights movement over the following decades.
The announcement of new COVID restrictions in Oregon this week means that, among other things, movie theaters in Multnomah and Clackamas Counties are restricted to no more than six audience members per auditorium. This has led Portland’s Cinema 21, which only reopened to the public last Friday, to announce a reclosure as of Friday, April 30. Portland’s Living Room Theaters, the only other independent cinema to have been selling tickets, has opted to remain open for the time being, albeit without concession sales. Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre continues to operate at 25% capacity. All of these venues (with the exception of Living Room), in addition to the Hollywood Theatre and the Clinton Street Theater, continue to offer virtual cinema titles, many of them the same films that would be playing to the public if it were feasible. These new rollbacks are yet another roadblock for these theaters, so I’m sure they would all appreciate the business of Portland’s justly acclaimed population of cinephiles.
PICS TO CLICK:
Beast Beast: The feature debut of writer-director Danny Madden follows three seemingly disparate teenagers in a small Southern town as their lives slowly and tragically converge. One is a firearms enthusiast whose quest for online notoriety sends him down a dark path. One is a soft-spoken skateboarder who falls in with a hard-partying crowd. One is a promising theater student with a seemingly bright future. The cast of unknowns give authentic but well-shaped performances, and if the social ills being explored are overly familiar, that’s more an indictment of our culture than of this promising effort. (Hollywood Theatre Virtual Cinema)
Limbo: A small but random assortment of refugees from the Middle East and Africa find themselves stuck on a small, remote Scottish island while they await word on their applications for asylum. Omar, a Syrian musician who carries both the literal and symbolic burden of his grandfather’s oud around with him, ends up rooming with Farhad, an eccentric Afghani who’s a huge fan of both Freddie Mercury and chickens. There’s also a pair of Nigerian brothers, one of whom quixotically dreams of playing football for Chelsea. They all interact with one another, the locals, and the hapless bureaucrats who try to give them lessons in Western living. Instead of serving up a bleak morality play, though, director Ben Sharrock crafts an endearing, deadpan tale that captures both the Beckettian absurdity of the situation and the bonds of friendship that can unexpectedly form in it. (Living Room Theaters, Regal Bridgeport Village).
About Endlessness: The Swedish director Roy Andersson is one of a kind. Working almost entirely within his own studio, he has made four features in the last twenty years, all of them episodic, deadpan examinations of humanity’s efforts to retain a sense of hope in the absence of a belief in God. If that sounds extremely abstract, it is: About Endlessness consists of a series of painterly, brief tableaux, each introduced by an offscreen narrator who says things like “I saw a woman who had no shame” or “I saw a man and his daughter on their way to a birthday party.” The most striking visual image is that of an elderly couple floating about a meticulously reconstructed miniature of a prewar Cologne, and one of the few recurring characters is a priest who loses his faith following a dream in which he carried the cross down the Via Dolorosa. In other words, if you’re looking for a coherent narrative or a sunny disposition, look elsewhere. But for the philosophically inclined, this is golden stuff. (Living Room Theaters, also available On Demand)