By Tim Posada, 2/07/2013
With less than three weeks until the big night, it’s time to get caught up on all those Oscar films, particularly the nine nominated for Best Picture. With such a large list, it’s easy to miss some, especially “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Amour”, since they received minimal love at the box office, both in gross and mass distribution. But what are the Oscars if not a time to remind us that there’s more to a film than, say, Channing Tatum’s six-pack, or Batman’s sultry baritone.
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
There’s always one indie film in the Best Pic category … enter “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, a post-Katrina fantasy drama. Did you squint in confusion yet? Quick, go rent or stream this one (a far easier attempt than locating it at a theatre during its run).
Say hi to Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), our six-year-old narrator living in a Louisiana bayou community — affectionately referred to as the “Bathtub”. While most would fear flooding, the members of this urban tribe, led by Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), prepare for the coming storm with drinking and ensuing belligerence. Unfortunately, this particular storm hits Bathtub pretty hard; plus Wink’s deteriorating health leaves even more destruction in Hushpuppy’s life. More importantly (or less, depending on how random you might find this aspect of the film), the storm (coincidentally or actually, not sure) loosens something frozen in the Arctic, and it’s making its way to America.
Aesthetically, director, writer and composer Benh Zeitlin has created something marvelous. As for its storyline, “Beasts” is a disjointed mess. The goal is far too simple, and the fantasy elements are both out of place and too sparse. Few films end with such a glaring “that’s it?” or “did you get it?” looming in the mind. Abstraction can be cinematic gold when done right; Zeitlin still has much to learn.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was quickly accepted by critics, but many cinephiles consider this film far too amateur and scattered to deserve top honors. And on a thematic level, I must agree with literary theorist bell hooks (sic) when she accuses the film of tapping into various racial stereotypes and encouraging negative mythmaking through the construction of a utopia that just doesn’t ring true.
“Beasts” functions like nostalgia that makes us desire something that never was –– in this case, a world “above” race or gender, something clear by the film’s nonchalance regarding race issues and the ambiguous gender framing of Hushpuppy. In the end, “Beasts” is the perfect Best Pic nom — much like “The Help”, “The Blindside” and “Crash” — because it (rather literally) waters down a potentially poignant discussion of complicated issues, promoting a naive sentimentality that aligns well with mainstream Hollywood and film critics who often know very little of critical race theory or feminism. If that doesn’t interest you, then just know that “Beasts” is pretty and well acted, but little else.
Only nine foreign-language films have been nominated for Best Picture, including the French film, “Amour”, that problematizes the entire concept of love. Few films feel this real — especially considering the gruelingly slow pace and lack of musical score — or tap into such undesirable and all-too personal themes. More than any other film nominated, this one deserves the “W”, but don’t count on it –– nothing this sad stands a chance.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) live a modest life as retired music teachers (ironic since very little music graces our ears in this film) until complications from a blocked carotid artery surgery leave Anne half paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair. From there, we spend the rest of the film in their apartment, watching this couple redefine their love for each other.
Few films make me as uncomfortable as this. “Amour” belongs next to “Requiem for a Dream” and “Dancer in the Dark” for constructing such an emotionally complex narrative best described as incredibly done, and may I never watch it again. Don’t expect escapism, mindless fun or even a tantalizing sex scene (a shame since “amour” is French for “love”). Instead, this is perhaps the most honest representation of love. Like Octavio Paz’s classic short story, “My Life with the Wave”, love is not a homogenous passion but something as varied as the morning tide. “Amour” is uncomfortable and depressing because all love ends in loss or heartbreak. We’ve got plenty of stories featuring Hollywood’s immature love. This is real love –– raw, complicated and often not what you expect. Yet love lost is still love.
I never want to see this film again. This could happen, and that’s horrifying. Further, Anne’s downward spiral is too similar to something I’ve experienced firsthand. Director Michael Haneke has created something so visceral –– so maddening –– so beautiful. For this reason alone, “Amour” doesn’t stand a chance of winning Best Picture, even though it shames the competition.