Moonrise Kingdom: an alternative Oscar pick for Best Picture
Every year, the Oscar season comes and goes, and every year, film nerds the world over gnash their teeth and wail over the snubs and poor decision making of Academy members. Once you make peace with the Oscars as a ceremony that leans toward the safest, most milquetoast offering available and lavishes it with awards, you can learn to enjoy the ceremony for what it is – a whole mess of pomp and circumstance all in the name of our great modern art form. That said, I’m never fully able to shake the feeling that while we can all agree that Daniel Day-Lewis was a phenomenal Abraham Lincoln, wouldn’t we be better served by us pointing out the forgotten films and performances of the year instead of reminding everyone that popular great movies remain popular and great? Hence my Alternative Oscars, where I take a handful of the “main” categories and offer alternatives (an antidote?) to the Academy’s decision-making. One more thing before I delve into the selections: As is the case every single year, I missed out on a handful of films that I’m sure would’ve made their way to this list in some form or another (Cloud Atlas, Holy Motors, Step Up: Revolution) so exclusion doesn’t equate to a snub.
Cabin in the Woods
Operating simultaneously as a celebration and deconstruction of the horror genre, Cabin in the Woods was probably the most fun I had a in a theater in 2012. If you aren’t already familiar with this Joss Whedon-penned, Drew Goddard-directed thrill ride I’d ask that you go in cold. No trailers or synopses, just go for the ride that the film is taking you on. Subsequent viewings will showcase a film with some pretty brilliant subtext as to how we (and this genre of film) always seem to be eating our young these days. This was the rare film experience that left me wanting to immediately buy a ticket to the next showing afterward.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Lost in the shuffle of 2012 releases, Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own novel perfectly encapsulates the teenage experience in all of its awkwardly heartfelt glory. So emotionally evocative you feel like throwing on a hoodie and barricading yourself from the outside world afterward or drowning yourself in old Pavement CDs. A series of perfect performances that go beyond the stereotypes teen movies of this ilk often offer us complement Chbosky’s empathetic direction and create what might be the most underrated film of the year.
Wes Anderson’s masterpiece, for now. The Fantastic Mr. Fox proved that Anderson wasn’t done honing his craft and was coming even closer to the perfect balance of pathos and quirk, and Moonrise Kingdom shows those abilities to be evolving even further. Finding the story of two young lovers on the lam a perfect complement to his ornate visual palette, Anderson has his ensemble break your heart and make it sing often in the same scene. And the use of DIY ear piercing as sexual metaphor suggests Anderson’s skills will continue to evolve in new and exciting ways.
An amalgamation of nearly every teen movie trope that has ever existed (Scream, Breakfast Club, Freaky Friday, you name it) tossed in a lidless blender and allowed to splatter everywhere, Detention is easily the most divisive film I’ve selected for this category. You’ll find yourself either entirely on board with what Kahn is trying to accomplish here after the first five minutes or you’ll have tuned out completely. It has to be said that Kahn is interacting with the ways youth approach their media in a way that points toward the future. As the film cycles through a series of origins and conclusions by its end, you’ll either be enraptured or enraged that someone would suggest this as one of the year’s finest efforts. I’m firmly in the camp that this film sees farther than the rest of us, as evidenced by its next-level usage of a time-traveling bear.
Joseph Kahn (Detention)
Rian Johnson (Looper)
Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom)
Joe Wright (Anna Karenina)
Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel is nothing if not audacious – taking the “all the world’s a stage” notion quite literally by showcasing the majority of the film’s action in a playhouse setting. And while the artificiality might prove slightly tough sledding in the early going, it pays off in spades during numerous sequences of immense beauty. And by providing romantic, naturalistically set scenes as a counterpoint to Anna’s storyline (the stage representing her being boxed in by societal expectations), he manages to pull off a rare coup – something not just stylistic for style’s sake (something previous films of his could certainly be accused of) but a stylistic structure actually supported by the film textually. A rare feat indeed.
Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
Tim Heidecker (The Comedy)
A truly great performance from a truly surprising source, Heidecker (best known for his Adult Swim television series Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job) crafts an entirely unique cinematic presence out of Swanson, an aging hipster hiding in a cocoon of ironic detachment that allows him to walk through life abhorrently, with numerous scenes stretching the audience’s endurance to its breaking point, looking for a reaction from those around him by any means necessary. The Comedy is a film that could very likely prove to be a defining portrait of a subset of this generation with a performance that lives up to those high standards. The film plays this weekend at UWM’s Union Theatre.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper)
Jack Black (Bernie)
Another surprising turn from an actor normally known for their comedic abilities, Jack Black provides the sturdy backbone for Richard Linklater’s darkly comedic biopic. Using his natural charisma to make an absurd situation feel completely understandable, Black doesn’t wilt in the face of the dramatic challenges the role offers either and crafts a fully realized character instead of a caricature, an extremely important distinction.
Sean William Scott (Goon)
Finally finding a role perfectly suited to his manic energy and kindly disposition, Sean William Scott (Stifler from American Pie, yes) absolutely crushes it in the hockey comedy Goon. Finding his niche in life as a bruising enforcer for his hockey team, Scott’s performance anchors one of the most delightful surprises of 2012 by presenting a character who embraces life completely and openly. Scott has never had such a magnificently calibrated outlet for his boyish charms as this, and he handles the openness and quiet dignity of the character deftly. A movie and performance well worth seeking out.
Paul Rudd (Wanderlust)
If for no other reason that the spectacular scene in which his character tries to psych himself up for an extramarital encounter by giving himself an increasingly nonsensical and surreal pep talk in front of a mirror does Paul Rudd merit inclusion on this list. His performance is great throughout the film, but that sequence alone is some of the best comedic work in ages. And while the Academy most often refuses to recognize great comedic turns in its nomination process, I am powerless in the face of this perfect minute and change:
Emily Blunt (Looper)
Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina)
Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress)
As the suicide prevention counselor suffering from a self-diagnosed “tailspin” (the term depression is too harsh), Greta Gerwig is the heart and soul of the delightfully daffy Damels in Distress. Equal turns deluded and lucid, but always willing to enunciate exactly why she feels a certain way about any number of banal topics, Gerwig manages to bring great feeling and emotion to what is a deeply silly riff on the college-set comedies of the ’80s. In a career quickly accumulating memorable performances, Gerwig is effervescent.
Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going)
Despite being relegated to mostly supporting roles since her breakout performance in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, Melanie Lynskey’s beautifully assured performance as a woman looking to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of her divorce and finding comfort in the embrace of a man considerably younger proves her up to the task of a leading role beyond a shadow of a doubt. Bringing Amy’s rut to life with a refreshingly unguarded performance, highlighted by some emotionally raw scenes with Blythe Danner as her mother Ruth, Lynskey is endlessly sympathetic and a consistently riveting screen presence. Hopefully we won’t be left waiting long for another performance of such substance for such a talented actress.
Shanley Caswell (Detention)
Best Supporting Actor:
Richard Jenkins & Bradley Whitford (Cabin in the Woods)
Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe)
In a year chockfull of McConaughey goodness (Bernie or Magic Mike would’ve also sufficed as films that McConaughey deserves recognition for), it’s his amazing turn as the titular Killer Joe that takes the cake. As an amoral police detective who moonlights as a contract killer, McConaughey lays on the sleazy charm as he seduces the family’s young daughter and looks to collect her as collateral for a failed payment for services rendered. It reaches its apex in the certain-to-be-classic family dinner sequence that ends the film as McConaughey fully commits himself to some of the most salacious and uncomfortable scenery chewing in recent memory.
Yayan Ruhian (The Raid: Redemption)
As the aptly named Mad Dog, Yayan provides the most indelible character to come out of The Raid: Redemption, and quite possibly the most indelible character I saw in a film all year. Basically a fighting machine designed only for killing, Mad Dog pummels his way through the picture before he’s finally linked with our main character in an unforgettable fight sequence near the film’s end. He isn’t saddled with any unnecessary exposition, you know just enough to know that our hero’s in deep trouble when he crosses paths with Mad Dog. And Mad Dog is the Michael Jordan of snapping necks, he doesn’t need any fancy accoutrement for his fight, he fully believes he can take everyone on (one-on-one, two-on-one, he doesn’t give a crap) and come out on top. And Yayan’s performance is so fantastically assured that you begin to believe it too.
Pierce Gagnon (Looper)
Michael Stuhlbarg (Men In Black III)
A forgotten performance in a film that was tailor-made to be forgotten, Stuhlbarg performs the near miracle of bringing a huge helping of heart to the summer blockbuster season. Playing a character who sees all possible futures branching out from each and every moment (like some sort of sentient DVD copy of The Butterfly Effect), his gentle awed approach to the character and his circumstances helps elevate the film above mediocrity during every scene he’s in. A delightful performance stowed away in the doldrums of the summer blockbuster season.
Best Supporting Actress:
Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
Brit Marling (The Sound of My Voice)
Marling has one of the toughest job assignments out of any of the actors in any of the categories listed. If you don’t buy into her performance as the future-sent leader of a basement-dwelling cult then the entire stack of dominos that is The Sound of My Voice will fall apart completely. Luckily, her performance is absolutely dazzling – conveying equal parts menace and warmth and never letting you for a moment get a clear read on whether she’s conning our main characters or not, leaving you questioning the film’s reality up until her final brilliant moments on screen.
Juno Temple (Killer Joe)
Mae Whitman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
Sarah Gadon (Cosmopolis)
Gadon’s slot could’ve easily gone to Samantha Morton for her work in the same film, as they both manage to make difficult DeLillo dialgoue (alliteration achievement: UNLOCKED) sing in different forms. However, Gadon strikes such an ethereal presence during her short time in the film that I decided to go with her performance instead. The way she interacts with Robert Pattinson is completely unique to any other character pairing in the film, generating legitimate chemistry in but a scant few scenes.
Best Foreign Film:
The Raid: Redemption
Juan of the Dead
The theme in this category, and it’s one that has been pretty consistent in recent years, is that the rest of the world is kicking our butts in the field of genre cinema. Headhunters is a fantastic thriller with a morbid sense of humor whereas The Raid and Sleepless Night are both prime examples of amazing action-thrillers being produced outside of this country, both primarily set in single locations that provide 10 times the thrills of movies with 20 times their budget. Juan of the Dead returns the zombie film to its political roots by making a movie that succeeds both as a sly satire of the state of affairs in Cuba while at the same time providing the gore and splatter that horror fans have come to expect. And one can’t forget the tremendous filmmaking duo of Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel and their newest effort, The Fairy. Featuring their trademark slapstick style (the films would work quite as well in the silent era as they do today, I imagine), the film glides effortlessly along from set piece to set piece another charming delicacy in their ever-growing filmography of absolute charmers.
Joss Whedon, Zak Penn (The Avengers)
It may seem odd to reward a film with such severe first act flaws as The Avengers, but once the film has gotten past the sticky wicket of gathering all of our superheroic principals together in one place, Joss Whedon delivers moment after moment of full-panel comic book glory while maintaining a keen sense of humor throughout: make no mistake, The Avengers is easily one of the funniest movies of the year as well as one of the most exciting.
Rian Johnson (Looper)
Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress)
Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods)
Andrew Dominik, George V. Higgins (Killing Them Softly)
Dominik’s re-teaming with his Jesse James star Brad Pitt came and left without much fanfare, which is a shame, as Dominik crafted a uniquely American grotesquerie that deserved better than what it got from audiences. Accused of heavy-handedness in setting the film during the waning days of the 2008 election, I found the film’s setting no more on-the-nose than its numerous ironically detached music cues and explosions of beautifully staged and gorgeously shot violence. And Dominik has a way with words throughout the picture, with particular notice being given to the hysterical conversations between Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt providing the film with its thematic backbone throughout, leading to a one of the most rousing conclusions any film had to offer this year.
And that about does it for my 2012 alternate Oscar selections. Hopefully this turned you on to some films you might have missed during the calendar year. Everything listed above is available for either rental or purchase, and even a handful are streaming for those Netflix subscribers amongst our readership (click the links provided throughout to find out more)! Happy Oscar season, everyone!