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For Your Consideration, Part II: ‘Beasts,’ ‘Master’ on Oscar bubble

POSTED: January 10, 2013 12:30 a.m.

And the hits just keep on coming.

For part two of this year’s awards series, we look at two films on the fence. Both have earned high praise from some critics circles but have been ignored by others. Both are as flawed as they are brilliant, so it’s hard to predict how Academy members will vote.

Nomination or not, though, both are essential viewing.

By the way, you can start checking my accuracy in this series when the Oscar nominations are announced this Thursday morning. I’m really crossing my fingers for “Piranha 3DD.”

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Director and co-writer Behn Zeitlin’s low budget, magical realist feature debut is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Set in a fictional, untamed bayou community dubbed The Bathtub, it is a place of tenuous survival, found objects and fiercely independent people. They are people of extremes who mingle mistrust with mutual reliance, alcoholism with tenderness, and isolation with love.

Only in such a setting could a character like Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) exist. Only 6 years old, Hushpuppy lives by instinct, forging spiritual connections with animals by listening to their hearts and stomping through The Bathtub in her oversized white rain boots as if she is one of the beasts of the title.

Meanwhile, Hushpuppy battles many beasts, both internal and external. She longs to know more of her mother beyond the mythological stories told by her father, whose fading health threatens to leave Hushpuppy all alone in the treacherous Bathtub — which is on the brink of flood thanks to melting ice caps, and which have also unleashed ancient, boar-like aurochs who steadily stalk her.

The flood is real but serves as a metaphor for Hushpuppy’s collapsing emotional and psychological world. Zeitlin’s movie is so elusively placed in the margins between reality and fantasy, we must decide whether those aurochs are real or spring from Hushpuppy’s imagination.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is staggeringly unique and a deeply moving experience. Such originality deserves recognition.

‘The Master’

Paul Thomas Anderson makes films that demand to be discussed. At some point in each of his films, usually in the third act, he makes a choice that turns off half of his viewers. I’m convinced this is by design.

In other words, Anderson has consciously limited his audience. Although he was born in Studio City, Calif., and grew up in The Valley in L.A., these decisions, his international style and his insistence on working independently have made him somewhat of an outsider.

His lead characters are outsiders, too. That is especially so in “The Master,” the story of World War II veteran and drifter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) briefly entering the inner circle of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author and cult leader based on real Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship is made fascinating by astounding performances from Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, whom many have compared to Lady MacBeth.

The film is made enthralling, too, by some of the finest filmmaking craftsmanship you will ever lay eyes on. On a purely formal level, Anderson is the most exciting filmmaker alive (and yes, I say that fully aware of the many legendary filmmakers still with us). Several moments in “The Master” left me in awe of Anderson’s sheer mastery of his medium.

Ultimately, though, we are left to wonder what all this sound and fury is supposed to signify. Anderson offered provocative comments about family in “Boogie Nights,” about fatherhood in “Magnolia” and about American ideology in “There Will Be Blood.”

But what is he saying in “The Master?” It’s possible he is saying nothing significant at all, which is why Oscar might pass over the film, despite some of the year’s best acting and directing.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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