If you’re like me, when the ten nominees for Best Picture were announced, you went “what the hell are those two?” The pair of movies in question would be independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild and French film Amour, neither of which saw very wide release throughout the year.
In an effort to discover just what made these films, their actors and directors worthy of a slew of nominations, I spent the last week hunting down and watching both movies.
Below you’ll find my thoughts on each. They are both very non-traditional films that might be a bit hard to appreciate given their structure and subject matter. Read on to see what I mean.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild may sound like a documentary about wildlife in Africa, but rather it’s a look at an improvised group of Americans content to live in squalor in southern Louisiana. The area they occupy they deem “The Bathtub,” due to its proximity to sea level, and the story follows young Hushpuppy who lives with her dad after her mom “floated away” in the sea.
Residents of the ramshackle houses in the Bathtub have to deal with rising waters, caused by melting ice caps which have also unearthed prehistoric, giant pig beasts known as Aurochs, who begin stampeding across the countryside toward them. The beasts are largely symbolic, but of what, I still can’t be sure.
It’s unclear what exactly the point being made about poverty is here. The idea is that the residents of the Bathtub (both black and white, mind you) love their community, and refuse to leave even as a hurricane rolls in (it’s not named, but you can guess which one). Even after they’re all living on floating piles of garbage, they refuse help from rescue crews and are content to get drunk and eat shellfish alive.
If the film is meant to romanticize poverty, it doesn’t do a very good job, and the poor depicted simply seem like insane, backwoods idiots who refuse free medical care and food. Hushpuppy’s father routinely emotionally and physically abuses her, yet we’re still supposed to believe their relationship to be touching.
Much ado has been made about the performance of young Quvenzhane Wallis, who I believe was only five or six when the film was shot, and she’s been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. She does a phenomenal job, far better than probably any other child her age could have, but part of me wonders if this isn’t a bit like putting a six year old quarterback up for the Heisman because he’s the best in his age group. Can a five year old truly be that aware of even the concept of “acting”? I’m not so sure. It seems like at that age, it just means you’re very good at following directions.
It is a really well shot film and the director, Benh Zeitlin, clearly has big things ahead for him. He’s made almost a post-apocalyptic film set in present day, if that makes sense, though I’m not sure the prehistoric pigs were a necessity. I’m confused about what exactly he’s trying to say about the poor, other than children who grow up in impoverished environments must do what they can to survive and thrive in those circumstances, despite their community holding them back.
Amour has almost nothing in common with Beasts, other than the fact that few enough people have seen it in order for this post to be written.
It’s from Michael Haneke, best known around these parts for directing both the original Funny Games and its American remake. Here he moves on from horror and films a heart wrenching drama entirely within the confines of a singular apartment.
In it resides Georges and Anne, an elderly couple who are torn apart by medical misfortune. Anne has a stroke, then another, and for the duration of the film her condition devolves to the point where she can’t speak or do anything for herself.
It’s an emotionally exhausting experience, and one some might deem “slow” given the subject matter and the nearly eventless script of the movie. Nearly the most exciting thing that happens is that a pigeon that accidentally wanders into the flat.
But the powerful performances given can’t be overlooked. Jean-Louis Trintignant is excellent as Georges, and as the movie is called “Love,” he personifies the feeling as he cares for his ever disintegrating wife. Emmanuelle Riva is the one with the Oscar nomination for the Best Actress, but I would classify her as a supporting role with Trintignant clearly the lead. But that’s how these things work, I suppose.
The film gives off mixed messages sometimes. In one scene Georges fires a home care nurse for brushing his wife’s hair too aggressively, then three minutes later is shown slapping Anne across the face when she refuses to drink. It’s a complex issue to be sure, but the film tends to contradict itself at times.
Eventually, the themes of the film start to become clear, namely death and so-called “right to life” issues. Georges has to watch his wife suffer, and when she’s able to speak, expresses she doesn’t want to continue on. The obvious moral question that our society likes to flee from is raised. Does someone have the right to dictate when their life ends?
It’s a heavy film, and one I wouldn’t recommend for most except avid film buffs. It reminded me in a way of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a harrowing film that tackled abortion. It’s not quite as dark, but its subject matter is equally weighty, and it may leave you quite depressed by the end.
I’m unclear as to why director Haneke got an Oscar nod here however. I don’t quite understand how the Academy judges the execution and complexity of a film taking place inside one apartment with a film like Argo, where Ben Affleck had to perfectly recreate 1970s Iran while starring and directing.
Both of these films are good, but I don’t know if I’d consider them some of the best of the year. Perhaps this plays into the “enjoyment vs. quality” debate that always rages during Oscar season, and I’m not often able to look past which films I was most entertained by during the year. I would argue that slow moving dramas can be just as entertaining as say, an action film, but neither of these sparked anything in me that went, “Wow, that’s a spectacular movie.” Perhaps you’ll disagree.