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Art/Indie 2015 Oscar Nominees

Art/Indie 2015 Oscar Nominees

Declining  viewing figures has been one of the banes of the Oscar telecast.  My cynical guess why this has happened is that potential viewers might not have heard of most of the Oscar nominees.   Nowadays, many of the Oscar nominees aren’t heavily advertised releases a la Guardians of the Galaxy.  Instead, they come from the world of  independent and foreign films, where prestige is higher but word of mouth is smaller.

To help readers get a little bit more out of this year’s Oscar telecast, here’s a cheat guide to the 2015 Oscar nominees that come from the art and indie film world.  The nominations listed are the major ones for each film.

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Birdman refers to the onscreen persona of former superhero actor Riggan Thompson.  Despite achieving fame playing the titular Birdman, the actor’s life and career has gone into the toilet.  Hoping to re-establish his artistic credibility, Thompson decides to finance, direct, write, and star in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  But as the pressures of having a successful Opening Night mount, the actor retreats more and more into the comfort of his Birdman fantasy.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, alternating between flights of fancy and hugely stressed behavior), Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton as the talented Broadway star who’s Riggan’s foil), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone as Riggan’s semi-estranged daughter), Best Director (Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu , for the clever visual style brought to the film)

Boyhood follows the childhood of young Mason over the course of 12 years.  Through his eyes, the viewer sees his parents deal with their divorce and his mother’s far less than ideal remarriage.  There are also touchstones in Mason’s life such as a memorable baseball game or his hitting puberty.  Through it all, the boy and his family slowly change with the passage of years.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke as Mason’s cool dad father), Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette, as Mason’s mother), Best Director (Richard Linklater, for creating this film over a 12-year period and keeping his cast together)

Citizenfour is the handle given to filmmaker Laura Poitras by someone who wanted to leak information on the NSA’s secret surveillance programs.  Poitras and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald eventually flew to Hong Kong to meet this mysterious correspondent.  His real name turned out to be Edward Snowden.  The filmmaker brought her camera to record this encounter and the ones that followed.  This real-life thriller offers an inside look at Snowden himself as well as how his revelations affected the journalists who reported his story.

Nomination: Best Documentary Feature

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary mystery directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.   In life, Vivian Maier was seen as a simple nanny with a private life that nobody knew much about.  The posthumous discovery of Maier’s cache of 100,000 photographs resulted in her being recognized as a great street photographer.  Yet who was the woman who took these pictures?

Nomination: Best Documentary Feature

Foxcatcher re-tells a true crime tale from the 1990s.  John du Pont, heir to the du Pont gunpowder dynasty, puts together a wrestling facility called Team Foxcatcher.  Among the wrestlers he brings to the facility are Olympic Gold medal wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, two competitive and quietly antagonistic siblings.  Tragedy eventually results from a combination of the relationship between du Pont and the Schultz brothers as well as the heir’s own paranoid schizophrenia.

Nominations: Best Actor (Steve Carrell as du Pont, courtesy of several prosthetics to alter his features), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo as older more confident brother Dave Schultz), Best Director (Bennett Miller)

Ida is a black and white film set in 1960s Poland directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love).   Anna, a young novitiate nun, was raised as an orphan in a Catholic convent.  Before she can take her vows, she learns from a cynical aunt that she’s actually Jewish and her real name is Ida.  The two women set out on a journey to find out what happened to Ida’s family.  But the real destination will be Anna’s deciding which world she will ultimately inhabit.

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film

The Imitation Game tells the magnificent and tragic tale of real-life mathematician Alan Turing.  His thorny genius leads to the development of a prototype computer that breaks the Nazis’ Enigma communications code.  But the revelation of his homosexuality at a time when that sexual orientation was criminalized leads to a punishment that ultimately destroys him.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley as the sole female codebreaker on Turing’s team and an eventual friend), Best Director (Morten Tyldum)

Last Days In Vietnam captures the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War.  The North Vietnamese Army is marching on Saigon to inevitable victory.  The South Vietnamese military resistance is crumbling, and the US prepares to finally withdraw from the country.  But among the very small number of US diplomats and military personnel left in Vietnam, several of them are aware that the South Vietnamese (and their friends and families) who aided the US face certain imprisonment and possible execution.  However, official aid for these US allies is gridlocked.  This is the story of the Americans who took unsanctioned actions to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible before Saigon’s final fall.

Nomination: Best Documentary Feature

Leviathan is set in a small fishing village near Northern Russia’s Barents Sea.  Kolya happily lives in this village with his family, his home, a thriving auto repair-business, and stunning natural landscapes.  The town’s corrupt mayor wants Kolya’s home and business.  But when Kolya “resists,” the family man gets firsthand lessons on what happens to people who get in the mayor’s way.

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film

The Salt Of The Earth provides a portrait of another photographer, Sebastiao Salgado.   He has spent the last 40 years hopping the continents and recording wars, starvation, and other instances of humanity’s self-inhumanity.  His newest project involves continent-hopping to photograph such examples of Earth’s physical beauty as  great landscapes and untouched flora and fauna.  The film is co-directed by German filmmaking legend Wim Wenders.

Nomination: Best Documentary Feature

Song Of The Sea draws from the Irish myths of the selkies.  A brother and his little sister, who’s the last Seal Child, need to return to their seaside home.  To do so, they must traverse a land where magic and legendary creatures are fading from it.

Nomination: Best Animated Feature

Still Alice refers to renowned linguistics professor Alice Howard.  Her happy home and career starts coming unglued when she develops early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  While the progression of the disease starts sorely testing the Howard clan’s bonds, Alice herself heroically and heartbreakingly struggles to hold on to who she is in the face of the disease’s encroachment.

Nomination: Best Actress (Julianne Moore as Alice, understandably)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya re-tells a famous Japanese folktale through beautiful hand-painted animation.  A poor bamboo cutter finds a baby in a stalk of bamboo.  The baby’s astonishing growth and a miraculous windfall of riches convinces the baby’s adoptive father that his L’il Bamboo (now named Kaguya) is destined to become a princess.  But is grooming for court life truly what Kaguya wants or needs?

Nomination: Best Animated Feature

Tangerines comes from Estonia, and is set during the 1992 Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.  In an Estonian village located in the middle of the fighting, two men stay and industriously harvest the season’s tangerine crop.    The war comes to these men courtesy of rival bands of Georgian and Abkhazian soldiers who arrive in the village.  In the resulting shootout, only one badly wounded soldier from each side survives.  The tangerine harvesters take the combatants in and nurse them back to health.  During their convalescence, the soldiers’ mutual hostility slowly fades.  But can their antagonism truly disappear?

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film

The Theory of Everything is another British biopic, this one about the relationship between gifted astrophysics student Stephen Hawking and literature student Jane Wilde.  Hawking’s promising academic career is threatened by his developing motor neuron disease.  Wilde’s decision to stick by Hawking and marry him gets tested over the years as the astrophysicist’s physical condition worsens and his fame increases.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne as Hawking, delivering a performance that captures the astrophysicist’s physical deterioration), Best Actress (Felicity Jones as Wilde)

Timbuktu comes from African filmmaking legend Abderrahmane Sissako.  Kidane, a shepherd, lives with his family in the dunes on the outskirts of Timbuktu.  That placement spares Kidane’s clan the oppression imposed on Timbuktu’s residents by the militant jihadists who’ve taken over the town.  But when Kidane accidentally kills a fisherman, he finds himself subject to the jihadists’ oppressive laws.

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film

Two Days, One Night is venerable French social realist directors’ Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s first film to star a major actor.  Sandra is a single Belgian mother who learns that her factory co-workers have voted to eliminate her job in exchange for receiving their end of the year bonuses.  When an untampered election is arranged for Monday, the young mother desperately visits her co-workers over the weekend to convince them to vote to let her have her job back.  But the economic desperation that motivates Sandra has also affected the co-workers she must persuade.

Nomination: Best Actress (Marion Cotillard, for her proud and desperate performance as Sandra)

Virunga is the name of the Congo-based national park that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The park is beloved as a refuge for the endangered mountain gorilla.  However, the rangers and conservationists determined to preserve the park and its animals for future generations frequently find themselves at war with greedy outside forces.  Poachers are par for the course.  But then there are anti-DRC rebel groups and the shady British oil company SOCO which also threaten Virunga.

Nomination: Best Documentary Feature

Whiplash  concerns Andrew, a young drummer who aspires to be at the top of his music conservatory.  Terence Fletcher, an incredibly talented teacher at the conservatory, leads the conservatory’s top jazz band.  When Fletcher discovers Andrew, the teacher takes the drummer into his band.  However, Andrew’s obsession with perfection meshes dangerously with Fletcher’s boundary- and  sanity-pushing methods.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (JK Simmons, in a memorable turn as Fletcher)

Wild adapts Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of how she walked 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail solo.  This hike is her way of healing from several traumatic events in her life including a divorce and her mother’s death.  The fact that Strayed never hiked before turns out to be just one of her problems.

Nominations: Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon as Strayed), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother)

Wild Tales is an Argentinian anthology film that asks the question “How far would you go to get revenge?”  In these six tales, the answers lead to comic and catastrophic consequences in venues ranging from the open highway to a big wedding.

Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film

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Whatever film you choose to cheer on at the Oscars, try checking out a nominee that you might not have thought of watching.  Several of them are in the theaters, on Netflix (Virunga), or even on DVD/Blu-Ray (Ida).  Who knows?  Perhaps you might see that the world of cinema is far wider than just the latest Hollywood product.

About the Author

I'm a film reviewer for the Beyond Chron blog. Agnes Varda and Hirokazu Kore-eda are among my favorite filmmakers. I occasionally break down and watch a good action film...but don't tell anyone.

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