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For your consideration part 2: An early look at Oscar

POSTED: December 8, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Films

Actress Carey Mulligan stands at a microphone as Sissy in a scene from "Shame."

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This week we continue our look at the movies in the running for Best Picture and the actresses vying for Best Supporting honors. My list is long, because there have been numerous great performances this year. All of the acting categories are going to be incredibly competitive, but these ladies should all at least be in the conversation.

‘Shame'
"Shame" is a remarkable film for a number of reasons. It's an NC-17 picture about a sex addict — not the sort of movie the Academy Awards usually celebrate. Yet it's such a powerful, expertly made drama that it's getting the Best Picture buzz it deserves.

"Shame" never titillates or exploits its content to attract attention. In an age when pornography earns around $100 billion worldwide, this is a relevant story, and there is only one way to tell it: raw and honestly.

The film features two amazing performances. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, who seems like a rather typical white collar New Yorker. Like all functioning addicts, though, Brandon has created a secret world in which he can indulge his compulsions.

Brandon's carefully constructed, enabling little world is upset when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), moves into his apartment unexpectedly.

Sissy's presence makes it impossible for Brandon to deny his own perversity, and Sissy engages in her own self-destructive sexual habits.

By the end of the film, we understand that Sissy's and Brandon's nihilistic behavior grows out of a painful shared past. The question is whether their being together will destroy both of them or help them heal.

Director Steve McQueen combines technical mastery with keen artistic instincts and a stunning grasp of visual storytelling. He pulls off some stylistic pyrotechnics at times, but he also knows exactly when to just plant the camera and let the actors do the work.

And do they ever. Fassbender and Mulligan are utterly believable as a brother and sister with a lifetime of baggage. This movie left me emotionally exhausted yet exhilarated. "Shame" isn't an easy movie, but it is one of the year's best.

‘Melancholia'
Just as difficult yet rewarding is Lars von Trier's "Melancholia."

The film begins with a stunning, minutes-long series of super-slow motion shots, all embellished to some degree by CGI. Afterward, von Trier returns to the no-effects, handheld camera, natural lighting aesthetic for which he is known.

The story centers on two sisters with a strained relationship. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from depression, and her big sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has been her rescuer and enabler their whole lives.

The movie begins with Justine's marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), who loves her and wants to replace Claire as Justine's rescuer.

Von Trier uses an extended wedding reception sequence, shot in his trademark cinéma vérité style, to reveal the staggering dysfunction of Justine's family. No wonder that Justine and Claire each wage their own mental health battles.

The film shifts in story and tone when everyone discovers that a rogue planet called Melancholia is approaching Earth and might hit it.

Bringing all of their baggage with them, Justine and Claire now face the probable end of the world.

"Melancholia" explores its two female characters in great personal depth, and Dunst and Gainsbourg are each outstanding. But von Trier's scenario begs us all to ask how we would face the same situation.

The ending is heart-wrenching yet transformative, as the characters pass through denial into acceptance. The movie reminds us that human beings possess an inexplicable capacity to elevate themselves when circumstances call for it. Amidst all the foreboding and, well, melancholia, von Trier shows us something lovely and profound.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

 



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