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Roger L. Simon
The Oscars Go Arty
In a marketplace crowded with spectacles, ambitious small films stand out.
20 November 2013

When the studios first started sending Motion Picture Academy members free copies of movies to view at home for Oscar-voting purposes, we became instant heroes to our friends and families. In the halcyon days of the videocassette, we could favor our nearest and dearest with such coveted items as a VHS of Forrest Gump before the public had seen it—after we had viewed it ourselves, of course. What great bragging rights. No more. Now, in the Internet age, our DVDs are accompanied by more piracy warnings than you might get off the coast of Somalia. We have to sign for everything, and the discs have our names stamped on them with permanent individualized digital watermarks.

The studios mean business, as well they might, because millions of dollars of losses are potentially involved if someone uploads one of these babies and it ends up on the Hong Kong streets selling for pennies. An academy member who tried a few years ago—an actor who had left the industry and was evidently a bit stretched—got caught and ended up with a fine north of $60,000. So we’re all a bit more cautious about passing around our DVDs. But it always makes me smile, because many, if not most, of the movies we receive might not be worth all that much on the market anyway—whether in China or elsewhere. They’re too narrow in their approach to be popular. Few would want them, even gratis.

Truth is, the Academy Awards have become in recent years a lottery for art films. For the most part, the era of the big commercial film that was also artistic (The Godfather, Chinatown, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.) is long gone. Studios hardly attempt them anymore. So the Oscars have devolved into a venue for highlighting low-budget so-called “specialty films” made by independents and studio subsidiaries, to help a small number of them break out (Sideways, The King’s Speech, and so forth).

Nothing against those films—I’ve even perpetrated a few that got nominations myself. But the passing of the more ambitious works is regrettable, because they are the reason that movies became so important to our culture. As a personal reminder, I had reason recently to watch Cabaret again. The 1972 film had so much more artistic ambition, scope, complexity, and flat-out talent than anything of recent vintage, it’s almost unfair to make a comparison. (For the record, as a member of the Writers Branch, I don’t nominate in the acting divisions, only for screenwriting. For the final awards, I vote in all categories.)

Good, low-budget art films get made every year and deserve Oscar nominations. Two arrived at my door this week: Dallas Buyers Club and The Spectacular Now. Both are worthy films and, mercifully, neither is laced with the liberal pap that seems to pervade the art genre these days—at least not too much of it.

Dallas is the more ambitious and powerful of the two films. A fictionalization of the true story of Texas cowboy Ron Woodruff, whose life got upended when he was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985, it is almost too grim and graphic to watch. Matthew McConaughey, who portrays Woodruff, is said to have lost 50 pounds to play the AIDS victim—but it looked as if he had lost maybe twice as much, he appeared so emaciated and his performance was so convincing. Much as Mickey Rourke does in The Wrestler (2008), another hyper-realistic demimonde movie, McConaughey inhabits this role. You almost aren’t aware of him acting. Rourke was nominated for his performance and odds are that McConaughey will be, too. Jared Leto does a fine job portraying a transvestite ravaged and destroyed by the disease. Leto also evidently lost a ton of weight and may get a supporting-actor nomination. The academy loves it when actors do something physically challenging for their roles. Robert De Niro won an Oscar when he gained 60 pounds for Raging Bull.

Dallas does an extremely accurate job of reproducing the eighties AIDS epidemic. Part of the reason for this is superb production design by John Paino. Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction is also first-rate, but it’s hard to say whether it is worth a nomination until more of the year’s films surface. On the negative side, Dallas Buyers Club takes a few predictable shots at Big Pharma. Yawn.

The Spectacular Now is another slice-of-life film dominated by a strong lead acting performance, this one by 26-year old Miles Teller. Based on a young adult novel by Tim Tharp, you could call Spectacular a high school version of The Lost Weekend, with Teller in the Ray Milland role. Like the Billy Wilder film of old, the theme is alcoholism, this time the teenage variety. Superficially depressing, the film is also refreshing in a way, depicting a high school kid addicted to alcohol and not drugs. And Teller is a charming actor, making the film almost jaunty, despite its subject matter. When the inevitable drunk-driving auto accident occurs, no one really suffers badly. The film even has a happy ending. (Come to think of it, so does The Lost Weekend—sort of.) All this makes for a diverting two hours, but I suspect it won’t make a huge impact on the academy, whose membership is well beyond high school age, to put it mildly.

And speaking of academy membership, I’ll break it down for you next time by age, gender, location, and ethnicity. (Uh-oh! Hollywood may need some diversity training.)

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