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For your consideration: An early look at Oscar

POSTED: December 1, 2011 12:30 a.m.

This week we begin a series previewing the movies that will likely compete for Best Picture and for acting awards at the Oscars and other major ceremonies. (Let's hope some of them make it to our area!)

The race is interesting this year, because no one film is likely to emerge as the clear front-runner. Several strong contenders either have or will hit theaters during the final weeks of the year, and equally convincing arguments could be made for a handful of them.

Oscar prognosticators often base their predictions on the independent film awards and critics associations' top 10 lists, so let's start with the two films that shared the Gotham Independent Film Award for best feature, which also happen to be two of my personal favorites of 2011.

‘The Tree of Life'

Terence Malick's family drama is one of the more divisive awards picks of the year. It won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, yet half of the audience booed after its festival screening. The controversy isn't based on any graphic depictions of sex, violence or politics - the topics that usually set people afire - but rather the film's literally cosmic scope, slow and meditative tempo, and overt spirituality.

When middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) loses his younger brother, he looks back on his own life in search of answers to profound questions. He remembers the mean things he did to his brother, his first moral transgressions, and the pain inflicted on his family by his temperamental, sometimes abusive father (Brad Pitt).

All the while, Jack wonders where God was during the tragic moments of his life. The film uses sequences depicting the development of the physical universe (including a scene with dinosaurs!) to place Jack's struggles within the broad history of all life.

Those looking for an easily digestible family melodrama should stay away. In "The Tree of Life," story events are merely suggested. Malick focuses on the characters' reactions more than the actions themselves. The film deals with the lasting emotional and psychological effects that family life and trauma have on us.

Grief is the emotion that launches us into the film, but it becomes about the experiences that make each of us who we are, about the nature of God, and about the place of human beings within the universe.

Malick strives for no less than greatness here. I think he has achieved it.

‘Beginners'

Writer-director Mike Mills works with a smaller palette yet also chronicles a man's attempts to deal with loss, among other things.

Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) has recently lost his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), to cancer. Five years earlier, Oliver's mother (Mary Page Keller) passed away, after which Hal announced that he was gay. Oliver still hadn't completely come to terms with that fact when his dad died.

Now, the already morose Oliver is grieving for his father, caring for Hal's dog - who comes to replace and symbolize his dad in both comical and moving ways - and trying to reconcile the effects his parents' unusual relationship has had on him.

Then along comes Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress living temporarily in Los Angeles, where Oliver also lives. Oliver and Anna quickly fall for each other, but Oliver is not only afraid to commit after suffering such painful losses and knowing that Anna must leave in a few weeks, but his parents' marriage and Hal's coming out have made Oliver doubt the prospect of a long term relationship at all.

Mills incorporates his own graphic arts background into the film's style in original ways. "Beginners" moves us to profound sadness yet lifts us up, feeling genuine at all times. The movie came and went in theatres quietly but is simply too good to miss.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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