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Nina Hoss in Barbara. Photo courtesy of Schramm Film.
Every year, from October to February, the Academy Awards dominate media coverage of the movies. And yet, like soda pop, it’s mostly fizz and sugar — a frivolous rush of razzle-dazzle and celebrity.
Great movies, on the other hand, reward those who watch them closely, reflect on them, discuss them, and revisit them. Occasionally, those movies are acknowledged with awards during Hollywood’s main event. But in glamor-happy Hollywood, important films are as likely to be overlooked as they are to be celebrated.
Of the hundreds of movies that played on America’s big screens in 2012, only nine were nominated as Best Picture-worthy. The two films that meant most to this moviegoer — Moonrise Kingdom and The Master — had to settle for acting and screenplay honors.
Here are five films that the Academy completely overlooked, even though they were celebrated around the world and exalted by critics and film enthusiasts. They may not be suitable for everyone, but each one of these titles is inspiring deep discussion, and will probably have a lasting influence on audiences for many years to come.
Director: Christian Petzold
Dr. Barbara Wolff is being watched — and she knows it. So, as an East German doctor sent from Berlin to work in the country, she strives to please her superiors. But every day is a new challenge. She reports to a doctor controlled by the Stasi, and she lives in fear of surveillance.
Barbara’s lover, a man from West Berlin, wants to sneak her away into West Berlin. It’s a risky prospect. As she waits for him to set up the escape, she seems to need her cigarettes in order to breathe.
But the spirit moves in mysterious ways. As Barbara tends to her patients, she is moved by compassionate and, perhaps, maternal impulses. The intrusive examinations of her body and her apartment heighten her sympathy for the people she serves.
Nina Hoss, in my favorite performance by an actress in 2012, plays an incredibly complex woman. While she tries to suppress her feelings and fears, sudden surges of courage and conscience sometimes crack the mask of her face, revealing tenderness and passion.
Director Christian Petzold begins the film in the middle of things, leaving us to put together the pieces as the story progresses. The more we lean forward, investigating each scene to understand the characters’ motivations, the more fully he draws us in. In a way, the viewer’s journey reflects the character’s journey from confusion into clarity.
Moviegoers may be reminded of another recent German film — The Lives of Others — that became a surprise hit in America with its inspiring story of tyranny, surveillance, conscience, and redemption. But Barbara is even more skillfully crafted, rewarding close attention. Film enthusiasts will be glad they sought it out.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles shows us how great wealth can cloud our vision, making it difficult to see the world, or ourselves, clearly.
We’re drawn into the private world of David and Jackie Siegel, who are building America’s largest private residence, a house modeled after the palace of Versailles. David, influenced by parents who viewed Las Vegas as an ideal world, became a billionaire by developing the world’s most successful chain of timeshares. In short, he became a king of Las Vegas. His third wife, Jackie, also had humble beginnings. But after winning the Miss Florida beauty pageant in 1993, she caught David’s eye and became yet another flashy object for his pleasure. (Even though they have eight children, David still confesses an alarming lack of concern or love for his wife.)
So, while the Siegels may look like the American ideal, there is a great void at the center of this flashy, expensive exterior. And it’s even more alarming when we begin to see the power and influence that David has in the political realm. (He claims to have been responsible for getting George W. Bush elected president, and admits that his endeavors there “may not have been legal.”)
The Queen of Versailles is an unsettling portrait of how money changes perception, relationships, and worldview. Even though Greenfield shows admirable restraint, refusing to lampoon the family’s reckless indulgence and addiction to wealth, her camera catches terrifying glimpses of the lives of “the 1 percent.”
This film prompted film critic Kenneth R. Morefield to say, “One of the great spiritual dangers of money is that it allows us a great amount of freedom, and few of us, rich or poor, have developed the requisite maturity, intelligence, and self-discipline to exercise near absolute freedom without doing ourselves great harm.” The Queen of Versailles demonstrates this so boldly that you may find yourself, after watching it, with a strong desire to live with less.
Of writing, Rainer Maria Rilke said, "Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”
By that logic, Jafar Panahi was born to be a filmmaker.
The world-renowned Iranian filmmaker, who has profoundly illustrated the oppressive character of Iran’s ruling regime, has been forbidden by his government to direct any movies for the next 20 years, and he must also serve a six-year prison sentence. This documentary gives us direct access to his day-to-day life in the midst of a stifling sentence. To see him move restlessly about his apartment — and talk about the movies he wants to direct — is to see a man dying from artistic deprivation.
This Is Not a Film was courageously and defiantly made by Jafar Panahi and his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb — not only to document oppression but also to demonstrate a triumph of the imagination. While some of what we see is incidental, some of it was carefully designed, which invites us to consider the implications of everything that happens onscreen.
This footage of Panahi “not directing” was smuggled out of Iran on a USB thumb drive hidden inside a cake, and has played to critical acclaim around the world. At first glance, it may not be the most exciting movie. But if you know the circumstances surrounding it, you might find it to be a uniquely inspiring experience, as I did.
Then again, this is also a true-life horror movie. We know that this creative expression of their ordeal may bring down further consequences on these artists. In fact, it already has. The cameraman spent three months in jail.
Director: Richard Linklater
With Bernie, director Richard Linklater has created a dry comedy about East Texas that might be criticized as an exaggeration or a cruel satire. It portrays a community full of idiosyncrasy, extreme accents, unique social manners, and what may seem to be bizarre opinions about justice.
But no, this is no exaggeration.
We’re introduced to Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an excessively polite do-gooder who becomes the live-in companion of Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Mrs. Nugent, a wealthy widow famous for her mean-spiritedness, warms to Bernie along with the whole community, but that does not improve her reputation in the neighborhood. So when Bernie confesses to a terrible crime, the community rallies to support him even though the evidence against him is undeniable.
Can a criminal be let off the hook because he’s “a nice guy”? In this neighborhood, it certainly looks that way.
The film is no satire. It’s based on news-making events that took place in 1996, and many of Linklater’s cast members are locals who actually experienced them. Moreover, Linklater’s warmth, affection, and respect for this community, their traditions, their churchgoing rituals, and even their response to the crime, are hard to miss.
In winning performances, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey fit right in with their surroundings. And Jack Black does his best big-screen work yet, refraining from the sort of clowning around that would turn the film’s subtle smirk into a sneer. He even contributes impressive performances (inspired, in part, by the gospel stylings of Jim Nabors) for the movie’s gospel-music soundtrack.
It’s very difficult to strike such a perfect balance of comedy, drama, historical accuracy, respect, and sharp-edged social commentary. Linklater — who also directed Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, and Me and Orson Welles — has proven adept at a wide variety of genres and styles. But this may endure as one of his finest works.
Director: Julia Loktev
Caution: This is an intimate portrait of two young world-travelers who are engaged to be married, and as moviegoers follow them on a journey into the former Soviet republic of Georgia, filmmaker Julia Loktev finds poetic significance in everything: their environment, their conversations, their silences, their crises, their jokes, their exchanges with foreigners, and their sexual intimacy.
As Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) move away from civilization’s structure and comforts, they become more and more vulnerable. Loktev draws us into that sense of vulnerability by the way she composes her images of a vast, forbidding environment, and the way she explores spatial relationships between the travelers and their mysterious guide. The journey gives us a sense that something will happen to them out there in the wilderness.
And when it does, we learn a lot about our travelers. There are, in fact, three scenes of sudden crisis in the film, and each one reveals weaknesses in Alex and Nica’s relationship, as well as in their understanding of the world around them. Most of us, when traveling, are tourists in one fashion or another, and when we are confronted with the messier realities of foreign territories, or with sudden reminders of our fragility, we find that we are not as independent or as loving as we might have thought.
Response is a magazine for thoughtful Christians worldwide, rooted in the people, life, and mission of Seattle Pacific University. The magazine explores the encounter between education, faith, and culture, and is an informed voice for Christian engagement in the world. Read features from our latest issue, sign up for a free subscription, and visit our archive of movie-related articles.
Posted May 20, 2013, at 3:42 p.m.
"The Intouchables"— a French film based on a true story, wonderfully acted and screened — was only in theaters a short time but stays with you forever. Shows caring interaction between 2 men from vastly different lifestyles and backgrounds. Tears and Laughs, and great to know that in real life they're still friends at this time.
Posted March 27, 2013, at 1:56 p.m.
I think the Oscars definitely overlooked Rise of the Guardians and Trouble With the Curve, two of my favorite movies from last year. And even though I'm glad Brave was nominated and ultimately won Best Animated Feature, I think it definitely should have been up for Best Picture as well since no other film from last year was as brilliantly done as Brave.
Posted March 14, 2013, at 9:47 p.m.
Mine would be Thomas Becket, as portrayed by Richard Burton in “Becket” from 1964.
Posted March 15, 2013, at 4:42 p.m.
Robert Duvall's films: The Apostle's and Get Low's fallen, “saintly” people.