Faculty Members Gather to Discuss Some of This Year’s Academy Award Nominees

February 20, 2015
professors in Collins

On Sunday night, millions of Americans will watch the Academy Awards and debate the nominees’ merits. We asked several Wellesley faculty members to share their thoughts about the movies or performances that intrigued them last year, whether nominated for an award or not.

Maurizio S. Viano, professor of cinema and media studies: Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater) 

I believe in film as an art form—film as an expression from the soul, film as medicine for the soul. This kind of film can of course come out of Hollywood, but soul and box-office success don't usually go well together.

My favorite film among this year’s contenders is Richard Linklater's Boyhood, one of those rare films that has its heart in the right place. As a coming of age story, Boyhood is nothing special, but how this story is told makes the film impressive. Boyhood is the first film in the medium’s history to have its characters age 12 years on screen in 165 minutes. This simple yet brilliant idea allows Linklater to show the vicissitudes of both the physical and social body, with their technologies, in something that redefines what cinematic real time is. This “marriage” of temporality and physiognomy is, in my view, the one bright star in this year’s Oscars panorama.

Boyhood also engages time in the sense of our time, the present; as such, it looks unflinchingly at what it means to be growing up in the United States right now. The 12 years we see passing on the characters’ faces were among the 12 darkest years of U.S. history, with the ever more sophisticated cyber-frauds of Wall Street, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the unforgettable “freedom fries.” One of the film’s closing lines states that in the future the best online dating system will be run by the NSA. That alone deserves an award.

Elena Tajima Creef, professor of women’s and gender studies: Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée) 

I was intrigued by the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about hiking solo along the Pacific Crest Trail minus her hiking boots (thank God for duct tape), and I raced to the theater to see what Reese Witherspoon would do with this hefty role.

Witherspoon commands our attention in a solo performance that is refreshingly not dependent on rom-com couplings or cuteness or standard versions of on-screen beauty. In fact, the perkiness that has been Witherspoon’s comedic signature style is replaced here by sheer dirtiness. (She has already shown us in Walk the Line, 2005, what she can do when liberated from that tiresome trope.) With grit on her face, grease in her hair, and burdened by a towering backpack that must weigh more than she does, Witherspoon channels Strayed, a damaged, angry, hollow vessel in need of a little bit of wilderness therapy.

I recommend watching Witherspoon’s transformation in Wild rather than reading Strayed’s version of the same. The film is more engaging than the book. On a side note: Oscar-nominated Laura Dern is a revelation as Strayed’s single mother, battling cancer while raising her children. She plays every scene like an old-school veteran who knows how to take command of a role, no matter how small, and burrows deep down into her character and our hearts.

Vernon L. Shetley, professor of English: Leviathan (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev) 

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is an indelible film, a compelling portrait of life in a corrupt world, and at the same time an acute character study of a man who can’t help but assist in his own destruction. The film is a contemporary retelling of the Book of Job; the protagonist, Kolya, gradually loses everything as the story unfolds. His persecutor, however, is not God, but the crooked mayor of his town in northern Russia, whose abuses of power are urged on by the local bishop. The characters themselves often seem not quite able to decide whether grim laughter or bitter tears would be the more appropriate response to the devastating events they witness and experience. A fierce protest against the manifold injustices of Putin’s Russia, the film stands more generally as a warning against the alliance of church and state to which so many in the contemporary world are attracted.

I could name many films that deserved more attention than they received this past year, but I’ll limit myself to one. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is definitely not for all tastes—just under half the 2,796 reviews currently on Amazon give the film the lowest possible rating—but for me it was easily the most powerful and haunting film of 2014, the one that touched the most profound and troubling elements of contemporary experience. The film deploys its art-horror premise, a femme fatale alien wrapped in the body of Scarlett Johansson, to ask what it means to be human in a world of exploitation, and whether any escape from that world is conceivable.

Gurminder Kaur Bhogal, associate professor of music: The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson) 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the lightest, fluffiest piece of pink dessert ever. Like the treasured little boxes of Mendel cakes that drive the plot—yes, the courtesan au chocolat is a character in its own right—this film is serious eye candy with its vibrant brush of pastels and blood-red motifs that saturate the chapters of the novel/film. This is not to detract from the substance of Wes Anderson’s perfectly stylized miniature: The film is 1 hour 40 minutes of a briskly paced wild-goose chase based in a pristine, but rapidly decaying, alpine village on the brink of war.

The drama unfolds swiftly to suit the almost manic tempo of the indefatigable central character, Monsieur Gustave, the hotel concierge who is a virtuoso in every sense of the word. In fact, he reminds me a lot of Rossini’s Figaro from The Barber of Seville in that he remains central to everyone’s life without anyone knowing much about his. Ralph Fiennes is perfect in this role—a bon vivant who is witty and disparaging, but without causing too much humiliation—as is his sidekick, Zero Moustafa, played by the relatively unknown Tony Revolori, whose constant look of wide-eyed bewilderment and penciled-in moustache are just charming. (Why wasn’t he nominated for best supporting actor?) Anderson is as subtle as ever, celebrating the generous passion and finesse with which a rare individual like M. Gustave can choose to live his life while making a more serious point about the feelings of inadequacy that bring out a crude brutality in human behavior.