Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Grab your pencils: Oscar voters receive ballots

Ballots went out today to the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the 2015 Oscar nominations. It is an occasion we here at Last Cinema Standing like to take to remind voters of less heralded work from throughout the year that deserves attention. Now, I have done this a couple times, and not once has anything I mentioned been nominated, so I won’t sit here and pretend like I have that kind of influence. However, you’re here, and you’re reading this, so consider this list a primer for films you should check out and work on those films that should be recognized and applauded.

Here are five Oscar-worthy feats the Academy should consider this year:

Best Supporting Actress: Günes Sensoy for Mustang

Gunes Sensoy in Mustang.
Writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang is a true ensemble piece about five rebellious sisters growing up in an oppressively traditional family. Sensoy plays Lale, the youngest of these sisters. Due to her age, she is somewhat shielded from the worst of the treatments doled out to her sisters, namely their forced arranged marriages. Much of what the audience sees is shown from Lale’s point of view as the sisters are degraded, punished, and abused in the service of an outdated cultural code.

Sensoy has the difficult task of communicating both the girls’ flagging will and their steadfast resolve. As her sisters are systematically broken down by circumstance, Lale remains on the front line, fighting the battle against a structure she does not support and had no say in building. A young actress in her first and only role to date, Sensoy carries much of the film and its thematic resonance on her shoulders, and rather than buckle under the weight, she soars.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Andrew Haigh for 45 Years

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years.
I have not written about it yet, but in the coming days, I will be writing a lot about Haigh’s brilliant marital drama 45 Years. It is a subtle, masterful bit of storytelling that takes the time to build its characters and their world brick by brick, laying a foundation so solid that when it is overturned, the audience is left in as desperate a state as the characters.

Haigh, who also directed the film, adapted the script from award-winning author David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country.” Turning a relatively brief story into a feature-length film is no easy feat, but Haigh adds layers of depth and detail to the writing and incorporates that work into the film in a way that would translate to no other medium. The performances in 45 Years are almost effortlessly breathtaking, but they are rooted in a screenplay that puts an emphasis on creating strong, nuanced characters.

Best Editing: Ramin Bahrani for 99 Homes

Andrew Garfield in 99 Homes.
Writer-director Bahrani has edited most of his own feature films, and he has always brought to the process the same distinct feel for the rhythms of daily life that is evident on the page and behind the camera. While none of his films would likely be considered a thriller, they all share with the genre a certain pacing and sense of ever-mounting tension. 99 Homes might be the closest to a traditional thriller Bahrani has yet come, and he absolutely nails the flow and energy of the film.

There is a relentlessness in the main character’s march toward self-destruction that Bahrani perfectly mirrors in his cutting. There are flashy moments throughout, and the climax is a white-knuckle spectacle that owes much of its success to the way it is constructed, but Bahrani is also subtle. For every montage or quick cut, there is a tender, quiet moment in which Bahrani the editor steps away to allow Bahrani the director to guide the emotion of a sequence.

Best Art Direction: Mark Digby, Katrina Mackay, and Denis Schnegg for Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.
There was a lot to love in writer-director Alex Garland’s creepy techno-thriller – from the clever writing to the cagey performances and the sleek editing – but one thing sticks in the mind long after the final credits roll. That is the alternately icy and sensual production design, as well as the sparse but pointed set decoration. Science-fiction films often do well in this category at the Oscars for creating worlds we have never seen before, but the work is rarely this restrained or this unsettling.

The compound where about 95 percent of the action takes place is more of a laboratory than a home, and as the story progresses, that vibe becomes more and more pronounced, to the point where anyone who steps inside may seem like part of the experiment. The low ceilings and narrow hallways contribute to an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, and as the noose tightens around the characters, it starts to feel as though they may never escape this place or its icy grip.

Best Original Score: Disasterpeace for It Follows

Maika Monroe in It Follows.
I am on the record as believing the hype surrounding writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s low-budget, high-concept horror picture outpaced its actual merit. It is a good but not great little movie that does a fine job inducing dread and paranoia in the audience. The one exceptional element, though, is the score by composer Rich Vreeland, working under his stage name, Disasterpeace.

The music draws on the best tropes horror music and repurposes them in a propulsive, synth-heavy set of near-electronica compositions. It is like an unholy lovechild birthed by the coupling of John Carpenter’s simple piano motifs from Halloween and Tangerine Dream’s bubbly yet sinister pop anthems for Risky Business. In other words, it is like nothing you have heard before.

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